Amorous Glances and Kitchen Romances
My great-grandma always had a love affair with Stewed Crab and Pork Meatballs. She longed for the dish when she was in her 70s and 80s, and even into her 90s.
Many years ago, my grandparents moved to Anhui Province for work. Being a native of Yangzhou and very attached to her hometown, Great- grandma did not really want to move away, yet she had no choice but to go with her son and daughter-in-law. She attended school when she was little, and so was literate.
Grandma had six children whom my great-grandma helped raise. Later, my grandpa died in a traffic accident and the two women lived together for decades.
Grandma was not exactly endowed with much of a gift for all things culinary, and only started learning to cook Anhui cuisine when she moved to the area. Great-grandma never cared much for her cooking, complaining that it was too greasy and salty.
For years, Stewed Crab and Pork Meatballs was a must at our family gatherings. We took turns playing host and making the dish to please Great- grandma, or to ease Grandma’s burden of having to slave over a hot stove making the dish. Yet our recipe could never satisfy her. More often than not, Great- grandma would only take a few bites and then gently put the bowl aside.
Her 90th birthday just so happened to coincide with Dragon Boat Festival. After dinner, she relaxed in her wicker chair while I sat beside her, playing with her wrinkled hands. Suddenly, a question popped into my head, “What kind of meatball is your favorite?” She squinted, and leaned comfortably on the back of the chair. Gazing at the blue sky, she replied leisurely in her thick Yangzhou accent.
“When I was fifteen, I was a tailor’s apprentice. A young man who was a few years older than me worked in a restaurant opposite to the shop I worked at asked me out several times, but I never gave him the time of day. But he was very persistent. The other girls in the shop advised him to bring me a bowl of Stewed Crab and Pork Meatballs if he really wanted to woo me. The young man said, ‘ I cannot bring it to her, but I can make it for her if she comes to our kitchen.
I was innocent then and fond of eating so much that I couldn’t resist going with him to the kitchen.
I remember the middle of autumn when he went to pick out the small crabs, each weighing around 100 grams. He took them
back to the kitchen, cooked them thoroughly and scooped the meat out of the female crabs. After that, he removed the unwanted parts, broke the crabs apart and plucked the meat out of the crab legs with his chopsticks.
To make the dish the right way, the pork should be marbled, with more fat and less lean meat. It should be chopped into the size of pomegranate seeds. He worked very carefully blending the crab and pork together and finally adding a sprinkling of aromatic seasonings.
He asked me to wait outside the kitchen, saying it was too hot in the kitchen. But I refused. I stood there watching him as he worked his magic. He then scooped out the stew from a huge pot with a ladle, pouring it into a small clay pot filled with vegetables. After putting the other ingredients inside the pot, it needed a few hours to simmer. So we just sat there talking up a storm in the corridor behind the kitchen as we waited. I wanted to give him a vest as a gift, but he declined. Later a man came to the kitchen and he asked me to return to the shop and come back when it was ready.
I was cutting a cloth absentmindedly when I heard someone calling me. The cloth was almost ruined. I left my scissors behind and rushed into the kitchen to taste his masterpiece.
The meatballs were so soft and delicate; they just melted in my mouth. Soon after, the war broke out. The young man became a soldier and I have never heard from him again.
I have never eaten any meatballs as good as those ones since.”
I invited a friend from Yangzhou who was a good chef to make Great- grandma some Stewed Crab and Pork Meatballs for her 93rd birthday. Though she had high praise for the chef, complimenting him on the flavor, she finished only a half of one meatball out of the four she was given.
Great- grandma passed away at the age of 96. Eventually she never got a chance to taste again the meatballs like the ones that young man made for her that day.
That autumn, the young man and the taste were stuck in her mind like an old movie on a long theatrical run, but the flavor and the feeling were never to return again.
(From TheNostalgiaCanteen , Petroleum Industry Press. Translation: Yu Lan)