I opened my fridge before making dinner tonight and found at least four types of tofu staring back at me. This is how you know that my mother is back in town. There were bags and bags of tofu, blocks of soft white tofu, triangular puffs of fried tofu, fat pillows of dried tofu that is firmer and chewier and saltier than soft tofu, and thinner squares of dried tofu that were even firmer and chewier and saltier than the aformentioned pillow-shaped tofu squares. The question was, what was I going to do with all of them?
There are some pork ribs in the freezer; defrosted, they go into a pot with the fried tofu puffs, left to simmer in a little water and soy sauce, the puffs will soak up the flavor of the pork and its sauce. The ginger is weeks past its prime, and I used the last of the garlic a few days before, so I will have to make do with only a few withered scallions. I have no Chinese cooking wine on hand, but there is a bottle of scotch lurking in the back of a cupboard; I splash some in when my mother's back is turned. It feels strange to have her here; this is the first time we have cooked together in this kitchen, the first time she has stayed in my new home. She pads around the narrow space in her slippers, swathed in my favorite cashmere cardigan, slicing the dried squares of tofu, bringing rice to a boil on the stove.
The slices of dried tofu piled on the cutting board remind me of those Lincoln logs I used to play with when I was little, or of making log cabins with tongue-depressors for school projects. I filch a few pieces, savor the chewiness, the flavor of it. It is so addictive I could eat it cold, straight from the bag. Usually it is drizzled with thinly sliced scallions and sesame oil and soy sauce, but often we stir-fry it with shreds of pork, or batons of celery. Tonight the dried tofu will be cooked with soy beans and pickled Chinese broccoli, finely chopped; a brief toss in a hot pan brings all the flavors together.
Because it is not dinner unless there is three kinds of tofu on the table, a small pot of soup burbles away on the smallest burner. The soft white tofu is almost like a custard, gently flavored with scallions and sesame oil, the tastes of my childhood. My parents are in town, staying with me in the new apartment that has been my domain for several months now. The remains of our old house are being packed up; most of the belongings of the twenty years we spent there have already been moved. Here, the plates and bowls and chopsticks are new, but the food is the same, and we are all together again.