For those of you wondering why Tuesdays have been offal-deficient of late, I've been away in China with my family. My aunt passed away in an accident in August, leaving our family without its most handy and adventurous cook.
She was my mother's best friend and these two women were as different in the kitchen as they were in life. My aunt's cooking was in principle like my mother's, only with twice the salt, lard, and chili peppers.
When I was in college I lived with my aunt for a summer in Shanghai. We shopped in the markets near her apartment every morning, buying just enough produce for each day. That summer was the start of my second education in Chinese cookery. My mother was my first teacher. A chemist by training, she cared whether a dish called for one teaspoon of soy sauce or two, and she could critique her own dishes with as objective a palate as I ever saw.
By contrast, my aunt's kitchen was a more forgiving place where garlic burned and the rice was sometimes underdone, yet everything always turned out fine in the end.
Once at the fishmonger's, we chanced upon a bin of crabs with the most incredible patterns on their shells. The shells looked as though they had been painted with very human-like eyes, all staring up at us from the bin.
"Let's get some of these crabs," my aunt said.
"But what sort of crabs are these? We should look them up first and plan the recipe," I said.
My aunt grinned and laughed. "We'll figure it out. Crabs are crabs!"
She chose three of the largest ones in the bin and stir-fried them for dinner that evening. With a bottle of rice wine in one hand and her spatula in the other, she stir-fried the crabs with chiles, garlic, and black beans, tipping larger and larger splashes of rice wine into the wok as she saw fit.
The strength of a Chinese stove makes an American burner look like a candle flame by comparison. I watched as the fire seemed to swallow the wok whole. Inside, the juice of the crabs and the wine boiled down until the fragrance was briny and salty. I watched, mouth agape, and reported every last detail of the dish to my mother over the phone the next evening.
After the funeral, it is customary in China to cook dishes for the deceased. The dishes are placed at the altar where sticks of incense burn continuously, day and night, for a week. The family keeps vigil.
It would have been fitting to cook my aunt's favorite dishes to place beside her picture, but no one could agree on what those were. We stared at her picture on the altar, wondering how it was that none of us really knew. Even in her picture, you could see that harried look about her that eldest children sometimes get.
At the age of 12, she took over the cooking from my grandmother. This was during a time of famine and political turmoil in China. Cooking at such an early age made my aunt confident if somewhat restless in the kitchen, and it also meant that she was always cooking in the service of others.
This is why I claimed that my aunt loved gizzards and livers, and why my mother thought that my aunt would have liked steamed fish with soy sauce and sesame oil. During our summer together in Shanghai, she stuffed me silly with all the liver, gizzards, and dumplings I could eat. My aunt was the first person to notice, besides my mother, that even by Chinese standards I had an above-average appreciation for offal.
"Don't you want to eat pork belly tonight? Or maybe some chicken?" she would ask when we visited the butcher's.
I would shake my head and point to the chicken feet. Never once did I think to ask her what she might have liked to eat. I wish I had. Still, I know that she savored the food we shared. That was her gift, her ability to take pleasure in whatever she had at the moment. Together, we gnawed and gnawed on chicken feet for the fun of it, just as my mother and I do whenever we are together.
On the last day of mourning, we laid out my aunt's final meal at the table next to her picture and the burning incense. The most honored dish, cooked by her daughter, my cousin, was stir-fried liver and onions. Maybe we would never know her favorite dishes, but looking in the refrigerator, we found evidence of the kinds of flavors she loved: half-used jars of chili oil, spicy black bean sauce, oyster sauce, and curry paste, and an assortment of dried shrimp, mussels, and scallops.
I know that my aunt would have stir-fried the pieces of liver with plenty of chili oil, oyster sauce, and rice wine, and leave the centers still rosy. I know that she would have sauteed the onions until they were soft and sweet and brown. She would have eaten the liver with plenty of white rice, her one weakness. She loved rice. She couldn't go a day without it. She would have taken the sauce, made rich and muddy with bits of broken-up liver, and spooned it with relish over her bowl of rice.