“I thought jie jie was a vegetarian,” I whisper to my father. My cousin insists on treating her parents, my father, and me to a Japanese hot pot dinner to celebrate our return to Nantou. She takes charge with the waitress, ordering platters of seafood, razor-thin cuts of lamb, sirloin, and pork. Earlier that day, much had been made of her vegetarian bargain with the Buddha.
“She only vowed to give up meat for one meal a day,” my father stresses. “When my first brother had his quadruple bypass, no one knew if he was going to make it. Your cousin prayed every day for ten days and promised that she would give up meat, if he lived.” The oath made was flexible enough for interpretation. She refrains from consuming eggs, fish, and meat at breakfast, and ingests whatever she wants the rest of the day.
I haven’t tasted shabu shabu since leaving Boston years ago and begin to take stock of my situation. My memories of eating hot pot as a child involve Chinese New Year and an electric wok filled with unending amounts of food heaped into our dinner bowls by my father. “Don’t touch the wok. It’s hot. Shao shin! Be careful!” he’d bark. “Let dad do it. Put down those chopsticks. Don’t make a mess.”
When shabu shabu became a mainstream culinary trend in the 90s, I was excited to revisit the comfort food of my youth and happy to have the freedom to forego meat, choose a kim chi soup base, have a wider palate of choices, all while practicing my sad chopstick skills.
Though the five of us each sit in front of individual cooking stations, the servers have been directed to place the broth-filled stock pots in the empty holes in front of my aunt, uncle, and me. As the uncooked food arrives on platters, I watch my cousin shuttle between her mother and father’s cook pots, filling each vessel to the rim with vegetables, frozen fish balls, shellfish, and lean cuts of meat. When the soup boils, she ladles out the food for her eighty-year-old parents. Before delivering the prawns to their plates, she strips off the bright red carapace of hard shell and legs, leaving the heads intact. My father praises my cousin, “You are more attentive than ten daughters!” She hides her smile, but her giggle reveals her pleasure at being noticed. I wonder for a moment if the care and attention of ten daughters is worth more to my father than say the devotion of just one son. Heads bowed, my aunt and uncle slurp away at their soup, the comment lost upon them. My cousin sits down next to her mother and finally takes her first bite.
I turn up the burner until the stock reaches a rolling boil. I know what’s expected. The stock pot is divided into two sections. I load up the right side, which is closest to my father. The stiff uncooked leafy greens slip out of my grasp. I drop a small corncob into the pot, splashing soup onto a flimsy paper placemat. I put down my tapered sticks and pick up the long, awkward community chopsticks to add in cuts of meat that turn from bright red to a dull grayish brown upon contact with the boiling liquid. I long for a pair of tongs.
I turn to my father wondering if he prefers to pass me his bowl or serve himself. He’s deep in conversation with his brother, so I decide to fill the empty bowl at my setting, offering it to him first and exchanging it for his own empty bowl. As I dish out the first serving, he accepts it, muttering, “That didn’t cook long enough.” I ham-handedly handle the empty serving bowl, using the small tab that protrudes from the rim. Stung by my father’s comment, I’m distracted when my soup ladle misses its target and I mindlessly pour boiling broth over my left thumb and forefinger.
My cousin sees me fish ice cubes out of my water glass and whispers to the waitstaff to bring me a plastic baggie with ice. I nurse my blistering hand under the table and labor over the cook pot one-handed. My father puts away his first bowl of food, sits back and declares with a sardonic smile, “I’m sorry to make you do all the work,” before disappearing back into his conversation with his brother.
My cooking area is a hot mess with plates of raw food piling up around me. I drop frozen fish balls into the boiling pot, add a large chunk of purple taro, a seafood paste that’s scraped out of a bamboo tube. After a few minutes, the items float to the surface. I fill my father’s bowl with more food. My father spits out a steaming bite. “Whatever that was, it’s icy cold.” He unceremoniously returns the fish ball to the right side of the hot pot and rapidly loads up the cooker with vegetables, mushrooms, meats, until there’s no room for anything. The pot stops boiling. When he looks away, I shift half of the items into the left side of the pot to create more space. After seven minutes, I ladle out the fish balls. “I just put those in there!” he snaps. “Put it back!”
My aunt comments that I resemble her daughter. I look up from the cook pot to look at my cousin more closely for the first time. A fifty-four-year-old matriarch with two adult children – her features are broad. Her face, flat like a pancake. She wears her shoulder-length black hair unstyled. We both have freckles. I am still looking for signs of resemblance, when my father chimes in, “I see a likeness! They could be twins!”
Yesterday, my father agreed with his fourth brother’s wife that I looked most like my auburn-haired mother. When another uncle commented that I resemble my dad more, my father agreed wholeheartedly. For a moment, I think about the ongoing cultural joke in the States that “All Asians look alike” – but this is the first time I’ve experienced the bias coming from any Asian orientation. My cousin giggles and ends the conversation. “Your daughter has a longer face and whiter meat.”
I reach to fill my father’s empty bowl again. As his designated server, it’s my duty to keep his bowl filled, his cup brimming. But I know that my father is quietly suffering from all the food that his relatives have imposed on his digestive system throughout our stay. While he’s hungry to remember the flavors of his childhood, his stomach can only accommodate so much. Every bowl that I dole out is another bowl that my father must eat under the close scrutiny of relatives.
The complex layers of his disapproval can’t compete with the cold red sting of my left hand. As the ice liquefies, the rubber band loosens around the mouth of the plastic bag. Water dumps out onto the thin paper napkin spread over my skirt and soaks my lap.