Eat Drink Man Woman

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.

11 Comments

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  1. Barbara,
    I enjoyed that movie, though memories are a little hazy now. Is that the movie where the father had gradually lost his sense of taste? If so, I was very intrigued by one scene where Renee Liu was rolling a piece of dough in one hand and smearing it onto a hotplate to make a thin crepe-like wrap. Incidentally, I’m hunting down a copy of Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diaries to read her culinary account as well as the recipes that goes with each of the stories. Have you read it? Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — April 7, 2005 #

  2. The first time I cooked anything in my wok on my own was the first time I cooked Chinese for other people, and when it was done I could only grin like a crazy person while my grandfather and best friend gulped down dinner. I was so happy that I could mke food people enjoyed.
    Love, Morganna

    Comment by Anonymous — April 7, 2005 #

  3. That is my all time favorite film – I love Chu Sifu’s opening scene. I agree with you, cooking is about love, and sharing that love. :)

    Your Chinese cooking mastery continues to amaze me every day.

    Comment by stef — April 7, 2005 #

  4. I’ve been interested in the movie for a while, and I really have been meaning to buy it. Of course, I’ve been meaning to do a lot of things, and I always get sidetracked. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this movie, but your review really tops it off. I really must see the movie now.

    When I look back (not very long ago at all) and think about how I fumbled about with wok and shovel, I can laugh at myself now. It’s probably the greatest feeling in the world, along with hearing: “This is good!”

    Comment by Allen Wong — April 7, 2005 #

  5. Yes, Shirley, that is the film. I haven’t read Monsoon Diaries yet, though I think I probably should. I assume you have read Like Water for Chocolate, haven’t you? If not, you should–that is another story where love and food are central to the theme.

    Hello, Morganna! I am so proud of you cooking for others so soon upon learning to cook. That is how I learned to cook, too–I cooked dinner for my Gram, your Great Gram, and Pappa, once a week. It kept me from messing up Mom’s kitchen.

    Thank you, Stef–your words make me blush. I have not mastered Chinese cookery–I never will. It is too vast a subject to master; I will always, always be learning. But whatever I learn, I will share with others, gladly and with joy.

    Allen, I really think you will like the movie. If you watch it on DVD, watch the extras, that includes interviews with Ang Lee and his scriptwriter, James Shamus. There are some really interesting stories they tell about making the film.

    Learning the movement of the wok shovel and the wok takes work and time–but once you have that motion down, your hands will not forget it. It becomes second nature. Using the cleaver is the same.

    We all start out clumsy, and through repetition and practice, we gain grace and a fluid economy of motion which is both efficient and beautiful.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 8, 2005 #

  6. Thanks for the recommendation Barbara, I’ll look it up at the library tomorrow. Serving Crazy with Curry and Mango Season by Amulya Malladi are also two books with food and love interwined. I’m currently into this Indian mood and have been reading lots of novels by Indian writers. Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — April 8, 2005 #

  7. As always, I really enjoy reading your posts. It’s a shame that I don’t live closer because I would love to learn to cook Chinese food :-)

    I’ll try to find Eat Drink Man Woman. We really like Asian movies, especially the Japanese ones.

    Have a great weekend!

    Comment by Dagmar — April 8, 2005 #

  8. I think you will enjoy “Like Water for Chocolate,” Shirley–I will have to look into the novels you suggested, too.

    Dagmar, I should love to have you as a student. I suspect we would have much fun together in the kitchen, and of course, we could coo over each other’s cats! But, alas, the water is wide between us, so we shall have to make do with the written word. And photographs, of course.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 9, 2005 #

  9. Bravo! Completely right, and a lovely post.

    Comment by Christina — April 14, 2005 #

  10. Are you the Barbara Fisher who wrote The Cauldron and Quill in the recent SageWoman issue? If so, I wanted to say how much I liked it. I wrote the essay that appeared right before yours… and also live in the same town you do! Great essay, and this is a great blog site (I’ve never seen one I liked as much — I want to try the lavender/ginger ice cream).

    Comment by Anonymous — April 18, 2005 #

  11. What can I say, Barbara, except that Like Water for Chocolate is an excellent book. Loved it! My heart goes out to the doctor though, because I had wanted Tita to marry him. Thanks! Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — April 26, 2005 #

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