Eaten: Cool enough
Leslie Hsu Oh
Illustrated by Sophia Khan
Roll. Pinch. Smash. Roll. All in one swift smooth motion, a chef rolled dough into cylinders, pinched off equally-sized chunks, smashed each with the palm of his hand, then used a thin rolling pin to shape round wrappers, thick in the middle, thin on the edge.
I could feel the chef staring at me through a glass window at Lóng Xīng Jì (隆興記) that allowed guests to study their secrets while waiting for a table at the only restaurant in San Gabriel Valley (if not the United States, Bà Ba imagined) that made the gigantic Tāng Bāo (湯包, steamed soup-filled bun).
Spoon. Pleat. Another chef spooned filling in the centre of each wrapper, then pleated the edges together with one hand, 20 to 40 pleats so fast his fingers blurred.
Every other Christmas, I spend most of our travel budget flying across the United States to visit Bà Ba in Southern California, even though he always protested: “You should save the money.”
“But don’t you want to see the kids? How much they’ve grown?” I would ask.
“Photos are good enough,” he would reply in that polite Chinese intonation designed to disguise the truth, while I emptied out the latest camping gear and hiking tech I couldn’t wait to test from the largest duffel bag we own, and stuffed it with car seats and other baby necessities I didn’t want to purchase over there. I convince myself that it’s an investment. My kids are establishing roots with their only living grandfather, the last surviving elder on my side of the family. We’ll satisfy cravings for Fàn Tuán (飯糰), sticky rice burrito stuffed with dried shredded pork, salty preserved vegetables, and crumbles of Yóu Tiáo (油条) — a deep fried Chinese breadstick), Cōng Yóu Bǐng (茐 油 饼, green onion pancake), and Tāng Bāo.
Among these, some served only on Saturdays at specialised Chinese restaurants, Tāng Bāo is the most elusive. Living in Delaware, we’ve driven two hours one way to Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia to eat Xiǎo Lóng Bāo (小 龙 包 ), which some consider the most popular Tāng Bāo, but Bà Ba insists is definitely not soupy enough to earn the affiliation.
I have tasted the Tāng Bāo only once. That was three Christmases ago, when Bà Ba met my third child (newborn then). At Lóng Xīng Jì, the Tāng Bāo measures as large as a grapefruit. When the first one arrived, I remember Bà Ba placed it in front of me with great ceremony, as if he was presenting a precious possession. Even though I was born in America, I had enough Chinese culture engrained in me to know that he was uncharacteristically breaking tradition. Age determines the order in which you are served, so I could feel his China-born wife fidgeting. Bà Ba had married her shortly after Mā Ma died nearly 20 years ago. Unable to watch him purge everything I clung to, I jumped on a train to Glacier National Park and have since, it seems, been drifting farther away from Bà Ba.
Steam rose in sleepy curls from the twisted knot at the top of the Tāng Bāo. Bà Ba handed me a baby blue boba straw. Our oldest (eight then) and our only son (five then) begged, “Can I try the dumpling first?” Unable to resist the urge, they pressed their fingers into the doughy skin.
Bà Ba chuckled. “Tāng Bāo is a soup bun. Dumpling is from the northern part of China. Buns are from the south.” He challenged us: if you ruptured the skin of the bun and the broth leaked out, then you failed ____. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and maybe he never said it all, but it was easy to fill in the blank with the latest tension coiled between Bà Ba and me.
That year, he was unhappy with me for having another child. He explained that the Chinese character for Hǎo (好), which means good, is made up of 女 (girl or shorthand for daughter) and 子 (shorthand for son). “You had the perfect thing: a daughter and son,” he said, “Now, your life will be very difficult. You can’t do the things you want to do. Your travel days are over. No one will ever watch three kids for you.” I hung up the phone before he had time to tack on to the litany his greatest disappointments: You gave up medical school. You did not marry a Chinese man.
My husband took our newborn from my arms, leaned back in his chair, and raised an eyebrow at me.
“Isn’t the soup too hot to drink?” I asked.
“Wait until you think it’s cool enough. Once you stick the straw in, you have to drink it right away.” Bà Ba wore the same burgundy vest, the same watch, the same coffee-coloured corduroy trousers Mā Ma and I picked out for him three decades ago. When I try to update his wardrobe, he usually refuses. Sentimental or Scrooge? Or, as I like to think, that no one can love him the way Mā Ma did. She would never have allowed him to dye his hair so black and cheap.
My newborn started to wail. Bà Ba looked at me as if to say, “See what I mean?”
He delivered a dreadful look. My fist clenched from the thought that we had just left flowers at the cemetery where I buried the parent who would’ve pressed my newborn to her lips and cradled her as if she were a miracle.
I no longer remember if I successfully inserted the straw, whether the soup gushed out into the basket or seared my tongue. The broth tasted of real crab meat and pork bone; Their meaty flavours muted by the fragrance of ginger, garlic, green onion, the “four Chinese essentials” (soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, and salt) Bà Ba made me memorise when he cooked for me in his kitchen. The taste of home, as in the colour-of-my-skin rather than the place where you heal enough to face the world.
Last Christmas, I begged Bà Ba to take us back to Lóng Xīng Jì. Again, we had come straight from the cemetery, but this time we were late. Closed between lunch and dinner, the dining room was empty, tables loaded with leftovers of authentic dishes from Wuxi, a lakeside town near Shanghai where Mā Ma was born.
Without the Tāng Bāo to fuss over, all we could focus on was what could not be discussed. I was pregnant with my fourth child and this time, instead of scolding me, Bà Ba let out one heavy sigh. A sigh that made me doubt my life choices, and confess to my husband that I would rather use the money we spend visiting Bà Ba canyoneering through Jordan’s Petra, one of the many adventures on my bucket list that I gave up in order to visit a man who never understood me.
Returning home, I was determined to discover how the buns are filled with soup. Bà Ba said he had no idea. Lóng Xīng Jì gave mysterious answers. So I interviewed my mother’s oldest sister and her husband, a tall slender cowboy born in Tiān Jīn (天津). In hushed whispers, my uncle told me that a long time ago, at a restaurant he frequented, he earned the trust of the chef by trading war stories. The chef confided in my uncle the secret: the soup is frozen or chilled with gelatine, then sliced into tiny cubes which are mixed into the filling. The steam melts the cubes, then voilà, soup in the bun.
When I introduce my fourth child to Bà Ba, I will press my nose to the glass window of that restaurant and search for those translucent cubes. I will listen to Bà Ba’s unfulfilled hopes for me, and tell myself they are laced with love. I will make this trip every other year, no matter the debt of six plane tickets, no matter how much Bà Ba hurts me, because one day, when he is gone and I am gone too, I hope that this kind of travel, for tradition not thrills, is worth it, and the Tāng Bāo will help my kids find their way home.
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