Taipei, day 2.
For lunch we head out to a vegetarian restaurant to meet a friend. For all its cosmopolitan sprawl Taipei is a small town, and as soon as we step inside the coolly modern restaurant my mother runs into people she knows. J. is already eating her lunch, an intriguing tangle of noodles and vegetables and probably some form of tofu. The menu lists noodle dishes and rice dishes and hot-pots of various...vegetarian things, and I am baffled. There are dishes with truffle oil and dishes that promise "Italian-style" noodles and set menus that begin with health drinks and end with dessert (which appears to be the sweet soup made with white wood ears - that ruffly, translucent fungus mushroom that was my bête noire as a child. F. arrives, and we order. I think I have ordered some kind of fried rice, but I am not sure.
I am not a vegetarian and never will be - I am too fervently an omnivore for that. But I have been slowly reducing the amount and frequency that I have been consuming meat, particularly red meat, and I am constantly amazed at how easy it is to eat well without it. My fried rice arrives, steaming invitingly, and it is delicious. Made with brown rice - or perhaps it is some kind of wild rice - it is a study, as all great dishes are, in contrasting tastes and textures, with the chewy, nutty rice and crisp-sweet slices of red and yellow peppers and the dark strips of shiitake mushrooms, along with soft shreds of tofu skins and green lettuce. It is intensely savory and incredibly filling, and if I weren't so full I would want more. This is vegetarian cooking at its best, hearty and refined at the same time.
Dinner time, and I move around the long expanse of my mother's kitchen for the first time. It is unlike the airy kitchen of my childhood, with its pale beige-painted cupboards and dark marble backsplashes, or my own narrow galley kitchen in my apartment, with its white counters and gray cabinets and early 80's appliances. The living, dining, and kitchen areas are one single, open space with the kitchen running along one wall, a single counter that extends into a pantry at the far end. There is a single gas burner next to a glass flat-top, and it is with a sense of excitement I ignite the gas burner, hearing that click-click-click-fwoosh for the first time since moving into my own home last year. It is a strange feeling; the oil and salt and pepper and soy sauce are the same; the pans are different, the utensils are different, the food is different.
Too tired to even consider watching three pans at once, I make each dish, one at a time, not even bothering to wash the pan in between. Pale green cabbage leaves are sautéed until limp, swirled with soy sauce; I have a moment of doubt when I wonder if I added too much. I squeeze the water from the reconstituted dried matsutake mushrooms, more intense and yet less fragrant than the fresh ones, stir-fry them with slices of pink marbled pork, more richly marbled with fat than anything I have at home. Then comes eggs scrambled with tiny white fish, each smaller than a bean sprout; they seem to wiggle in my fingers as I drain the water from their soft bodies. Everything is different; the apartment which I had not seen until my arrival a few nights ago, everything a reminder that my parents have a different life now, on a distant shore. The table is not the same (a long, minimalist slab of wood, so long it had to be hauled up the outside of the building, all sixteen floors, because it could not fit into the elevator), the dishes are not the same (the plates are smaller), the food is not the same. (Except for the cabbage, because, well, how different can soy-sauce-cooked cabbage be?). Only we are the same.