With Mother’s Day approaching, Ryan Chin remembers cooking with his mother as he prepares a meal for his own family in her wok.
I reach for a worn handle. The tapered wood, one inch in diameter at its thickest point, slips between my fingers like a key in its lock. A warm feeling shoots into my hand, different from the flames heating the well-seasoned wok before me. I wonder how many times Mom had gripped the handle of this wok? How many hours had she stood over it waiting for the oil to get that wavy look before tossing in meats and vegetables expertly sliced and diced by her hands.
I turn to cut some ginger, and with a sweep of my knife’s blade, I scoop slivers of the flavorful root into the wok. The ginger hits the oil and sizzles immediately but not so much that it burns. I inhale the familiar smell and sigh—and I’m no longer a grown and married man with two beautiful boys.
I’m eight years old and taking my turn on the front of a shopping cart. Mom weaves in and out of the grocery aisle, ignoring the wobbling front wheel and shooting down my requests for sugar-laden cereals. The mountain of food in the cart dwarfs my mother’s five-foot frame. She squints at a handwritten list with the same scrutiny as an accountant reviewing a financial statement. A dozen or so coupons attempt an escape out of her purse but fail, as she stuffs them back in and closes the zipper. Getting the most bang for the buck is essential with three kids and Dad’s single income, but Mom is a master in this game of raising a healthy family, and no master skimps on food.
We pass the deli and take a number. Customers shift back and forth, impatiently checking their numbers and the “Now Serving” monitor. We will not wait; Mom has a plan. We’re number 88; plenty of time to hit the produce department and come back.
We stop at the cherries. Mounds of the deep red fruit are piled high. Some are still cold, and condensation covers the freshest ones. Pits are scattered along the front edge of the display. I add to the slipping hazard by taste testing and launching a couple pits of my own. Mom instructs me not to eat too many because they are not washed. For every one she sees me eat, I eat two behind her back. Other customers stuff handfuls into their bags, but not Mom. Each cherry is handpicked by her careful eye; the tender attention adds sweetness.
Back at home, she washes the cherries and sets them out for our eager fingers. Strawberries are next, but first she cores each one with a paring knife. Every single strawberry is cradled momentarily while the knife, seemingly working on its own, twists in a small circle. Soon, a dented and faded aluminum colander in the middle of the counter is filled. I wander over with cherry-stained lips and rest a hand on the edge of the Formica. She pushes the colander closer, turning it to a particular position. I stand on tiptoe and reach and reach. If the colander weren’t full, I wouldn’t be able to grasp anything. Mom grins like she has a secret. My handclutches something so large it can’t be a strawberry, but it is.
“Wow!” I proclaim.
“That’s a big one,” she replies as her knife flashes back and forth on the cutting board.With the fruit and vegetables all washed and cut, she switches to prepping a large piece of beef.
“Cut against the grain of the meat,” she instructs. “Makes it more tender.”
I watch the marbled meat fall victim to even strokes of the knife. Mom’s fingers are safely tucked under her knuckles, and in no time a pile of kid-size pieces sits neatly on the round cutting board. One day I will be allowed to use a knife, and one day I will cut with the same grace. For now, I just eat big strawberries and watch.
The meat goes into a bowl with a handful of green onions, a splash of rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a liberal dousing of soy sauce. Last, she sprinkles some cornstarch over the beef.
“What’s that for?” I ask.
“It gives the meat a silky texture. Here, why don’t you help Mom stir it all up,” she replies, handing me the bowl.
I watch the white powder disappear and congeal onto the meat as I stir and take in the aroma of Chinese cuisine.
“That’s enough,” she says, taking the bowl and placing it on the counter next to the stove. Different colored bowls stand at attention next to the wok. The wok sitting atop the stove with its shiny wooden handle safely out of my reach is ready—ready for the union with my mother’s hand and the ingredients of our future meal.
An hour later, the scraping of a metal spatula curls through the house letting everyone know its dinnertime. Steam rises over Mom’s shoulders and hovers briefly before being sucked into the exhaust. Her long black hair sways lightly as she stirs in a mixture of cornstarch and broth to thicken the gravy. Finally, she turns and pours the stir-fry into a serving dish. Dinner is served.
Almost thirty years have passed since the initiation of that wok. Now, I have it in my kitchen and grip it with the same love that Mom did. I swirl with the corner of my metal spatula, watching the thickened gravy bubble and cling to every bit of the stir-fry, like good gravy should.
I call my family to dinner just as the phone rings.
“Hi, Mom.” I hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder and empty the wok and air fryer.
The inevitable question is coming.
“Have you been eating well?” she asks.
I smile and motion for everyone to sit down.
photo courtesy of author
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