Sunday, September 21, 2008

A fish tale

Not only was I going off to graduate school in Colorado, but my young cousin ML was headed for Boston to start her undergraduate education. We had prepared our applications around the same time, bonding while writing out essay after essay and filling out form after form, and each of us had received our admission notices around the same time too. Since we were both leaving soon, the day I got back from the Catskills, my aunt and uncle and my two cousins came over to my parents' house for a celebratory/send-off family meal.
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My mom set out two items for us to start with while the rest of the food was being finished at the stove. On the left is a jiu cai bing, thin dough wrapped around a filling of chives, eggs, and bean-noodle threads and then pan-fried—my mom deposited each one onto our plates hot from the pan. The platter on the right is an assortment of cold appetizers, including slices of sweet Chinese sausage, marinated dried tofu, braised beef, and a vinegary cucumber and pepper salad strewn with black sesame seeds.
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Then the dishes started rolling into the dining room. Clockwise from top left: chives with squid; vegetarian noodles (prepared by my aunt); meat-stuffed tofu braised with assorted mushrooms; and tail-on shrimp sauteed with garlic and cilantro. My aunt also brought over roasted acorn squash and beets, as well as some thinly sliced raw Chioggia beets marinated in cranberry vinegar, which I couldn't get enough of.
Earlier in the day, my dad had taken me to the Chinese supermarket in order to purchase a live carp. I had cringed when I watched the fish being scaled, but that night, it appeared on the table steamed and insanely delicious covered with a sauce of spicy bean paste cooked with plenty of cilantro, scallions, basil, and garlic. This preparation is called dou-ban yu ("dou-ban" referring to the sauce, and "yu" meaning "fish"), and there was sentiment to this dish, too: my dad explained that years ago he had loved eating dou-ban yu at a certain restaurant in Flushing, but the place had one day closed down, shuttering its dou-ban yu with it. My dad had searched for a long time and never found a good version in any restaurant since…so he decided to take matters into his own hands, and re-create it himself. At dinner that night, my happy dad declared the dou-ban yu a success, with the flavor of the sauce spot-on to the original. The carp's white flesh was sweet and firm, and the dish was extremely xia fan and ended up being the star of the show.
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For dessert, there was a towering chocolate cake and a sweet green-bean and barley soup. The cake, from a Chinese bakery, boasted layers of light chocolate sponge instead of buttery, rich cake, and somehow the two desserts went well together.

Afterward my cousins and my brother and I watched the Olympics while our parents sat around the table chatting over tea, typical behaviors for all. With my warm, loving family gathered around the house, it felt like the perfect way to celebrate.

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