I suppose it should come as no surprise that I adore Ang Lee’s 1994 film, Eat Drink Man Woman.
If you like Chinese cooking and food, or if you are an aspiring Chinese cook, the opening sequence alone is worth the price of the DVD. Lee throws down and uses food as a metaphor for love; it seduces, entices, teases and teaches the audience. It is an implicit and explicit means by which the characters in the film–an extraordinary Taiwanese chef, and his three daughters–communicate with each other. It is the glue that holds the family together, and is the means of torture and salvation.
I just watched it again tonight with Zak, and it was, once again, a revelation. The opening scene involves the chef, Chu Sifu, cooking an elaborate Sunday supper for his three adult daughters, all of whom still live at home. The first time we watched the film, probably ten years ago in Athens, I remember being entranced by the very intimate look into the mysterious seeming processes of cooking a traditional Chinese festive meal. Then, while I watched, I had very little clue what was happening before my eyes, though I could guess at what a few of the procedures pertained to, such as inflating the duck’s skin for a traditional Peking Duck.
Watching it tonight, not only could I identify ingredients and dishes as they were being cooked, I could describe techniques as they unfolded, and had actually tasted many of the flavors that were paraded on screen. Indeed, many of the techniques had been performed by my own hands, and I had instructed others in how to perform them–passing on the knowledge from hand to hand, as it were.
What had once been strange, is now familiar.
Flavors that once had been exotic and new are now as comforting as an old blanket.
Ang Lee has the gift of conveying a great deal of information and emotion with images, and as I watched his film tonight, I realized that it was all about love, and perhaps one of the reasons I understood and liked the film so much from the first time I saw it was because to me, food is love.
When we cook for each other, we love each other. Food is a visual, physical representation of my love. When I offer someone something to eat, I am giving them a piece of myself, my soul, my love, for them to take into themselves. When they eat and are satisfied, I am made happy.
My very first student is an old friend who grew up here in Athens. I decided to teach him and use him as a guinea pig to see if I was ready to teach, because when we met, he never ate anything but instant food from packages and boxes. Food was nothing to him but fuel to keep his body going, and his body was nothing much more than a vehicle to get his mind around. He was very much a man who lived in his own head, and little else that had to do with the body or with senses mattered to him. Over the years, he learned to get along with his body better, and he learned to experience food as something to be enjoyed, but still, his focus was very mental.
When he asked to learn to cook, I took him on, because, frankly, if I could teach a man whose main living space was his own mind to cook Chinese food and enjoy it, I could teach anyone.
So, I set myself a difficult task, and the two of us together, learned that he could learn, and I could teach. I taught him how to buy a wok, and how to pick out cleavers, and care for them, and then how to shop for ingredients. Then, I taught him how to cut–a very important lesson when it comes to stir frying, and Chinese cookery in general.
We worked together one evening a week, and he progressed quickly.
I was very proud of him, and I took quiet joy in his learning. Once he had practice with the cleaver, his hands could move with deft assurance, and his face would relax as he cut vegetables, and a rhythm developed in his gestures. He learned to move with the fluid grace that comes when body, mind and spirit work together.
So, we went back to Athens, my student, his wife and I, and I was telling our friends how good he had become at cooking with me. I offered for us to cook dinner for a few of the folks, so we could show them how well the lessons were coming.
It started as a simple affair of dinner for six. Nothing elaborate. But then six became eight became ten became twelve became sixteen or eighteen, I forget which. As the guest list swelled, I shrugged and thought nothing of it; having catered events for over one hundred while cooking essentially by myself before, I was not concerned with dinner for a mere handful of guests. We had two woks, three sets of bamboo steamers, four cleavers, the use of a large kitchen in a large house, and a well-stocked Asian grocery store nearby. What was there to fear?
We shopped, and while at the market, bought a fourth steamer set. The menu was to be hot and sour soup, steamed pork dumplings, vegetarian and traditional spring rolls and cold spicy Hunan noodles. When we went to the grocery store, I saw that there was no ground pork and was told that they did not grind it there because of some obscure (possibly nonexistent) health code violation. My friend and student was worried, but I was not–I simply bought pork loin and shoulder and told him I would mince it by hand with two cleavers, and it was a good opportunity for him to see that it can be done without a grinder or food processor.
We went to our friends’ home and started cooking. There were, of course, crises. His wife, meaning to help, slipped with the cleaver, and cut open her finger, and was removed from the kitchen to be ministered to by someone with medical training. I made a huge amount of noise mincing the pork by hand on a heavy cutting board, using two cleavers in a strong rhythm that made some guests come in and stare in fascination. My student made the hot and sour soup.
Then, I prepared the filling for the dumplings, and he cooked the fillings for the spring rolls.
We served the soup first. I went out into the living room to announce that the soup was ready, and the crowd lined up and my friend, with shaking hands, ladled the soup into bowls as they filed by. His eyes were wide, and I looked closely and could see that he was utterly terrified; overwhelmed with fear, he plastered a smile on his face and moved like an automaton as he filled the bowls. I went to him, put a hand on his shoulder, and whispered in his ear, “All is well, you are doing fine, don’t be afraid.”
When they were all served and they sat down on the floor, cupping bowls in one hand, and sipping from spoons from the other, I filled a bowl and put it into his hands, but he ignored it. Instead, I saw that he was staring at the huge group, huddled around their bowls of the soup he had just made and given to them.
Silence had fallen over the formerly loud and raucous group. One by one, they tasted, and smiles broke out over their faces. The smiles were followed by accolades and praise, then more noisy sipping and slurping.
I turned to my friend, my first student, and found him looking at me with a wide and profound smile. His eyes shone and he whispered, “Now, I understand why you do this.”
I raised one eyebrow and let him continue. “Why you cook for everyone all the time and why you hardly eat yourself. You don’t need to eat, do you? Their love, their gratitude, that is enough for you to eat.”
I smiled. He truly understood.
“Love is my food,” I answered. “And food is my love.”
He sipped his soup, then followed me back into the kitchen where we filled and pleated hundreds of tiny dumplings with ginger-fragrant pork in silence, satisfied. Behind us, vats of water heated, and we listened to the clink of spoon on bowl, and the quiet murmur of our friends eating in the other room.
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