The evening descends outside, color turning to muted blues and shadows stretching longer and wider. The low call of a mourning dove is heard from beyond the screen covered windows. Inside, the sizzling of oil in the pan, steam filling up the narrow kitchen and fogging up the windows.
Peeling garlic, one of the first things I did to help in the kitchen; I remember how my little fingers worked to remove the papery skin. Once done, I’d quietly watch as my mother worked her magic in the kitchen.
The peeled garlic is crushed with the side of a knife and put into the hot oil to fry. Dried red peppers run under water are torn into bits and sprinkled in, the yellow seeds falling messily. The aroma of spices begin wafting.
In the sink, the tofu sits in a tub of clear water, cream skin smooth and cold to the touch. Water droplets slid cleanly off as it’s set onto the cutting board, its sides shivering in the air.
I could hear my mother’s warning in my head as I readied the cutting knife, curling my fingers the way she did to guide the cutting knife. She always fussed over my cutting position. It slices smoothly through, splitting the tofu into little cubes. Gathering them onto my hand, they drop gently into the pan. The oil sprays and hisses. My silly six-year-old self used to get scared of how loud it was. I put the lid on, muting it to background noise.
A pot of water is set to the boil, the stovetop clicking a few times before alighting. Small bubbles in the water floated up. I hum quietly the tune of Wan Wan Di Yue Liang which translates to the Crooked Moon.
I smile softly to myself. When I was six, my cousin and I would host a talent show in the evenings, emceeing while dressed up in our silk qipaos that were a little too long. My grandparents, my uncles, aunts, and my mother would be hurriedly ushered by us into the living room; some of them would just have to bring their unfinished dinner plates. We believed our performances were better than the New Years Gala. I would usually play the piano. The Crooked Moon was always a crowd favorite; a song about missing one’s hometown.
I take a sip of cold water to refresh, ice clinking against my teeth. I wipe my hands on the apron, the same one my grandma made, that my mother used. The tofu calls.
A cloud of steam floats up when the lid is lifted, a softer sizzle to accompany. A wooden spoon pushes the tofu cubes around, flipping them to reveal crisp golden yellow sides. The famous LaoGanMa sauce is poured in, red spicy oil and crushed pepper flakes and peanut bits, adding warm hot color to the dish. More stirring. A dash of five spice seasoning is sprinkled in, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorn adding another dimension to the tofu.
The water is boiling now. I grab a handful of laomein, straight white noodles that lean against the side of the pot before bending to the heat of the water. The strands are stirred once in the water, unsticking from each other and the bottom of the pot before being left to cook. They swirl gently, following the path the chopsticks make in the water. The lid is put back on top of the pot to let the noodles cook thoroughly. The tofu is almost ready.
A bottle of WanJaShan soy sauce is poured in, giving the saltiness and adding to the golden brown coloring of the tofu. Stirring to evenly distribute the sauce that forms, coating each tofu cube in a layer of well composed symphony of flavor. The tofu cubes jump excitedly around the bubbles and I excitedly taste one. Heat at first, literal and from the spices, followed by the iconic numbing flavor of Szechuan that makes my mouth water, the lingering aftertaste of umami. I’m satisfied.
Green onions that were soaked in cold water are now cleaned, stripped of any damaged bits. They are taken to the cutting board and chopped into little green confetti.
The tofu is ready. And so are the noodles.
The sound of bubbling water and sizzling oil recedes as the stovetop is turned off. A cloud of steam wafts from the pot when the lid is lifted. I have to be careful not to burn myself from the rising steam, a lesson well learned from past experiences. With a pair of chopsticks, the noodles are grasped and placed into bowls. The neatly rolled strands glow pearlescent under the warm yellow light.
The tofu is ladled into each bowl, the tofu cubes resting on top of the twisting white tendrils as red oil drips between and into the depths, dying the noodles yellow-orange. I lick my lips in anticipation for the explosion of spiciness. A drop of sesame seed oil is dripped onto the whole entourage, it’s heavily aromatic scent wafting upwards with the steam. The green onions bits are sprinkled like a colorful adornment on top of the hot tofu and add an accent of freshness to the dish.
My chopsticks stir the bowl, wrapping the noodles expertly around my chopsticks. I don’t remember who taught me who to use chopsticks, only that I always knew.
I sit at my table, listening to the sounds of the night from my open porch screen door. The first bite brings a surge of memories; my quiet observance of family in the kitchen that gravitated to little chores like cracking and mixing the eggs, flattening small pieces of dough to make dumplings, to my first time cooking a household dish of tomatoes and eggs. How far I’ve come. I open WeChat on my phone and video call my mother, eager to share my success at recreating.
That is mapou tofu and noodles. A flavor of my home.