I grew up in that kitchen, his kitchen, the smallest room in the house, darkened by smoke and grease. In that confined space, miscellaneous items piled high to the ceiling. A single bulb on the ceiling illuminates the world below. Mixtures of hot pepper, cilantro, and soy sauce soaked deep into its walls. It was my favorite room to visit as a child. I, not quite as tall as the marble counter, could only see the edge of the clutter of knives, bowls, and freshly chopped garlic and ginger. It was his clutter; this was Grandpa’s place.
To us outsiders, it was a room of a hundred secrets. A heavy curtain disconnected the kitchen from the dining room. On a breezy day, only the smallest sliver of the stove was visible to me. When he cooked, the magic of the room would leak outside: pungent fresh water eel, salted pork, pickled cabbage, and steamed ginger prawns… I, completely under his spell, would pace outside the curtain, lapping up drool as I went. I’ve longed to become the next carrier of family recipes, longed to learn the secret of his culinary abilities, dating back to generations ago.
To know the depth of his knowledge is to know the wisdom in his eyes, dexterity of his hands, and the meticulousness of each drop of oil and sprinkle of salt. Everyone cooks in the family; none cook quite like Grandpa. The New Years I turned 5, Grandpa started the sacred and long awaited ritual of secret passing. I was to make meatballs that night. Molding chopped meat into balls and dropping them into a deep wok of boiling oil was to be my induction. After giving me instructions, Grandpa left. Heavy snow was falling outside the window against the thickest darkness, condensing a layer of opaque pearls across the glossy surface of the window. Inside the kitchen, however, was uncomfortably warm. I sat, motionless, on the chair against the marble counter, staring hopelessly into the bowl of raw meat. Hot steam filled my shirt pockets, squeezing between my naked toes. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. This was a test of my allegiance, courage, and perseverance. I was five and about to fail.
I’ll never forget that night, the first night I was allowed to cook in that kitchen, to touch the instruments he used countless times in preparing family feast during festive occasions. That night, I was let in on the secret, the hundred secrets of our family. In a traditional Chinese home, the kitchen is located in the center of front of the house. By giving this position to the kitchen, the family hopes that food, above all else, has the ability to unite family members no matter how long the separation or how far the distance. That night, I was given the torch; I became the next recipient of the family hope. It was the same hope, of our ancestors, which brought the family together during times of celebration and disaster. It was a hope that transcended time, people, and kitchens. The secret was passed that day, along with it, the family traditions, history, and stories. It was not to die with Grandpa but live through me and past me onto the link in the family line. It was a great responsibility of course, carrying the family secret, and I was ready and eager to accept it.
I dream for myself. I dream often of that kitchen, generations of Qian’s blood, their love for food, their memories, desires, ambitions, worries, flowing through me. I really miss home...a tiny bit hungry, but a whole lot of longing.