Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fish Head Soup

“You're early,” she says. “Why don't you come shopping with me?” She wants to make fish-head soup.

We could go to the supermarket by the subway station. It's three floors of more kinds of food than you can imagine. But they don't have good fish heads, she tells me.

So my sister-in-law and I head in another direction. The sun is shining, the air is fresh. It's a great day for a walk.

It's also easier for me to make conversation when we go out. Like a two-year-old, I ask questions. “Na shi shen me?” I point and ask. What's that?

We go to a market where dozens of stalls are set up under one roof.

“What else do you want to eat tonight?” she asks.

Only everything, I think. My eyes are drawn first to the vegetables. Any you'd find in an American supermarket is here—broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, corn. And then there are the various Chinese vegetables I've learned the names of over the years, but there are still many more I don't know.

“We had that last time,” she says, pointing at a long thick stalk with bushy green leaves at one end. She tells me the name again, but I still don't remember it.

At the fishmonger's stall, a fish head lies on a stone slab. It's still breathing.

She talks in Shanghainese with the woman behind the stall, who points at the fish head, but my sister-in-law shakes her head.

Not fresh enough? I wonder. But she tells me in Mandarin it's too small.

The fishmonger reaches into a tank with her bare hand, pulls out a ten-pounder and flops it on the slab. The fish thrashes about, but she grabs a hammer. A few whacks to the head, and the fish settles down.

Then she takes a cleaver and chops it in half with one stroke.

The next stop is a tofu stall, where my sister-in-law buys dried tofu to cook with tender Chinese celery, and gelatin sheets that will go in the soup.

Back home, I offer to help, but she insists her kitchen is too small for two people. So I stand in the doorway, watching and asking questions. She pan fries the fish head with ginger, and then she adds water, salt, green onions and peppercorns. While the broth simmers, she stir-fries yellow chives with eggs, a leafy green with shiitake, and tender celery with dried tofu.

“Three dishes and a soup,” she apologizes as we sit down. It's the bare minimum for a family meal. But there are only three people at table. Her father joins us, but her husband and daughter are both working late.

I tell her the soup is delicious.

“Ma ma hu hu,” she replies, but I insist it's anything but so-so.

The love of good food and the joy of cooking permeate the culture here—the pleasure of shopping for the freshest ingredients, the loving preparation of the food, the sharing of the meal with family. That's what life in China is all about.

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