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Jing-Mei Woo inspires a ginger tofu dish

 Trigger warning: death  

My father hasn't eaten well since my mother died. So I am here, in the kitchen, to cook him dinner. I'm slicing tofu. I've decided to make him a spicy bean-curd dish. My mother used to tell me how hot things restore the spirit and health.

– Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, chapter 12 

At the tail end of a chapter primarily devoted to an elaborate meal involving eleven crabs, the simplicity of the dish that Jing-Mei chooses to share with her father and the reader is interesting. In this novel about mothers and daughters, and friction between generations and cultures, we don't see the daughters in the kitchen too often.

Jing-Mei's cooking is nurturing, and nostalgic, but she explains the act with humility. Throughout the book, I got the feeling that she wasn't particularly culinarily inclined – perhaps it was her lack of interest in (and knowledge about) the differences between black sesame seed soup and red bean soup; or the way she admired Auntie An-mei's deft wonton-making; or her queasiness and escape during the preparation of the crab dinner.

But I'm making this mostly because I know my father loves this dish and I know how to cook it. I like the smell of it: ginger, scallions, and a red chili sauce that tickles my nose the minute I open the jar.

It is this matter-of-fact simplicity that endeared me to this scene; there are no pretences or grand attempts, and only four ingredients are mentioned. It is also during this scene, at the end of the third section of the book (side note: how wonderful is the symmetry of the chapters?!), that Jing-Mei finds herself closer to her mother through shared irritation caused by a trickling sink, hostile neighbours, and a hissing tomcat.

Food plays a thoughtful, if not predominant, role in this novel on many levels. In the first chapter, we find a competition between soups, an equal division of wonton, a feast, and dyansyin foods for fortune and luck  even if in a watered-down version – which formed the heart of the Joy Luck Club founded by Jing-Mei's mother Suyuan in China. Food causes confusion (and friendship) in a fortune cookie factory; food causes pain, scalding hot in the middle of a heated argument; food threatens, when leftover rice or a split watermelon determine the nature of a future husband. There is beloved street food, a tense restaurant meal, a traditional Chinese feast-that-wasn't, eating disorders, and a distaste for ice cream. Meals involving multiple characters become tableaux revealing inequalities of culture and status.

For Jing-Mei, who finds herself replacing her mother at the mah jong table, food is also about stories and memories. She learns how her mother made the best of war-torn Kweilin by attempting to turn the poverty of ingredients into rich meals, even if symbolically. Even her mother's stories of those times involved alternate endings centred on the food she could (not) afford.

Sometimes she said she used that worthless thousand-yuan note to buy a half-cup of rice. She turned that rice into a pot of porridge. She traded that gruel for two feet from a pig. Those two feet became six eggs, those eggs six chickens. The story always grew and grew.

Food also reveals Jing-Mei's character, according to her mother, for who else would choose for themselves the least appetising, potentially unlucky crab?

'Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I already know this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different.' She said it in a way as if this were proof – proof of something good. She always said things that didn't make any sense, that sounded both good and bad at the same time.

And finally, food becomes the central metaphor for the clash between Jing-Mei's origins and her upbringing, as she expresses her disappointment at having to share hamburgers and apple pies instead of her "first real" Chinese feast. 

There are many things I could have chosen to cook from this book, but the tofu scene stood out to me the most in its softness and compassion – though mentions of food are abundant and it implies nurturing, there aren't many instances of it being described as such in The Joy Luck Club. The catch was that I didn't know what exactly a "spicy bean curd dish" was, despite the list of ingredients that Jing-Mei provides as a clue. A Google search yielded many variations, but as only four ingredients are actually mentioned, I figured she was keeping it simple.

I can't pretend to know anything about Chinese cuisine; what I've eaten in India is our own spin on it, a hybrid sometimes called "Indo-Chinese". Rather than trying to be authentic to a dish that I probably wouldn't be able to procure many ingredients for, I decided, instead, to be authentic to the words in the book, which don't mention the name of a dish. This recipe came out of improvisation and reading many others; in the end, my husband and I teamed up and used the ingredients mentioned in the chapter (tofu, ginger, scallions, red chili sauce), plus soy sauce (a little on the heavier side, since I can't handle too much spice), capsicum and toasted sesame seeds. 

I've never cooked or eaten tofu before, so this was an interesting experience and turned out quite well. I won't include the recipe because I can already hear Uncle Roger's (rightful) indignation; but the first steps involved frying the (firm) tofu and preparing the sauce. The ginger was sliced and caramelised; the spring onions tossed in followed by capsicum, and the sauce added last.

In the last lockdown, there was a sense of impending crisis, but mostly frustration at being confined, and slowing down and trying new and different things to kill time. Everyone seemed to be cooking; Instagram exploded with plates of food. 

This year, things are different. The crisis is very real now, too real. There is fear and sorrow and helplessness, and Instagram is exploding with cries for help. Yet, I suppose, we do need to eat.

The warmth of this dish, as Suyuan believed, definitely restored my spirits for a while. 

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