“Here,” my mom shouted in Mandarin over the bubbling of the cooking pot. She lifted her hand and motioned me over.
“Hold on to the handle,” she grunted, nodding to the handle of the slowly revolving pot as she stirred with a pair of chopsticks.
I chuckled. “I’m guessing that the bottom of the pot isn’t flat?”
Mom lifted the pot up ever so slightly and glanced at the convex surface. A stray drop of boiling water dripped from the spatula onto the glass cooktop and sizzled dry.
I gingerly held the handle while Mom scurried over to the counter and brought back a bowl of fine white powder. I sniffed, and smiled. The evanescent fragrance of mung bean wafted out soothingly.
Mom now held the bowl, poised at the cooking pot edge. The boiling water purred below the bowl’s lip.
“Ready?” Mom inquired, half teasing, half serious.
“Yawp,” I rolled my eyes, but still instinctively blinked as I heard the first dusty sounds of powder sliding on powder, then the wet “plop” of collision between powder and hot water. The burning spray of water that I always half expected never came.
Humming one of my piano pieces, Mom went about stirring the cloudy mixture, pushing her hair out of her eyes as she worked. There was a certain comfort in watching the apron-clad figure prepare one of our family’s favorite dishes, accompanied by a Chopin waltz.
“Ouch,” she suddenly gasped. The chopsticks stopped their revolution around the pot’s inside and clattered to a halt on the pot’s rim. Her stirring hand flew up to her mouth, and she quickly sucked on the tiny burn that had been caused by the pop of a bubble of hot mung bean water.
“Lemme see,” I clamored, tugging childishly at Mom’s tightly clutched hand. She reluctantly pulled away her hand to reveal a small, teardrop-shaped burn that blushed a rosy pink. Mom carefully extricated her hand.
“It’s OK,” she reassured. “It’s not the first time.” I knew that she was in a rush—Dad was coming home from a business meeting in Paris in half an hour, and everything had to be perfect. Still, I thought I could see her wince as she grasped the chopsticks again.
Hoping to be helpful, I wandered over to the dish rack and plucked out a large, long-handled bamboo spoon.
“Mom, use…” I started.
She shook her head automatically.
“Stay away from the stove—it’s really hot now, so if the bubble pops, you’re going to get a burn twice as bad as this little blemish,” she nodded at her hand.
By now, the cloudy white water had thickened to a paste in the pot. There was the thick thlop! of boiling air bubbles as the sweet-smelling concoction simmered and burped like some sort of Yellowstone mud pot.
Mom had, by now, turned off the stove and was rinsing her hands in cold water at the sink. She exhaled slowly and grimaced. It was then that I noticed the odd speckling of pinkish burns along the back of her hands.
“Your hands really got burned,” I exclaimed stupidly. She gave me a sideways glare.
“Thanks for stating the fact,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “My hands feel much better already.”
Mom checked the clock. Twenty minutes, and Dad would be back home. She pressed the surface of the cooling mung bean paste with her hand. I half expected her fingers to sink into the agonizingly hot starch, but her knuckles merely brushed the translucent surface. The paste quivered slightly, like Jell-O, but held firm. Lifting the pot up slowly, Mom pried the block of paste out with a pair of chopsticks and let the pot-shaped block relax into a plastic bowl. As usual, I was amazed. The bottom of the pot looked as if nobody had used it in the first place, and the curved surface of the paste block was flawlessly smooth. Mom smiled at her handiwork.
“Beautiful,” she finally decided.
I contented myself with sitting at one of the bar stools by the counter, listening to the muffled tapping of Mom’s knife slicing easily through the soft gel and meeting the solidity of the cutting board. I half dozed, listening to the soft tap-tap of the knife, the rustle of the tree leaves outside, and the sound of a car motor.
My eyes shot open.
A car motor?
I raced through the living room to a front window, where the already raised blinds revealed the sight of a large, black Lincoln Town Car that squatted in the driveway.
“Mo-om!” I screamed. “Dad’s home!”
“Greet him for me. I’ve got to season this stuff,” she scowled at the bowl of mung bean starch noodles that she’d cut the block into.
Slipping on a pair of sandals, I pelted outside, to where the cab driver was helping Dad unload. Dad stopped and smiled.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle?” he laughed and gave me a hug. Once the bags had been put in the shoe room and the taxi driver paid, I turned to Dad.
“So, how’s Paris?”
“Beautiful place. It’s old, but the atmosphere’s fantastic,” he responded. “You and your mom would love it there.”
“How was the food?” I spat out the question that I’d been dying to ask for a week.
Dad brightened. “Wonderfully light. Of course, it doesn’t compare to your mother’s cooking. Speaking of which…” He grinned impishly and raised his eyebrows.
I stood by, watching, as Mom and Dad hugged and smiled, with Dad rushing back to his suitcase for the gifts he’d brought us. Besides a snow globe and key chain, he set another oblong package down by two bags of French chocolate. “Here, hon. I got something for you that I hope you’ll like. Open it!” It was a command. I opened the package’s carefully folded waxed-paper wrapping and smiled. Dad had brought me a real French baguette. My mind automatically snapped to what my French teacher had told me at school. French bread was special—no preservatives, with a thick crust that hid a soft, fluffy inside. A gourmand in the making, I’d obviously blabbed about baguette to my dad the day I’d learned about it. It was something that was nearly impossible to come by in America. Instinctively, I stuck my nose into the wrapping and sniffed deeply, then smiled. The sweet aroma of wheat was as good as that of mung bean.
“Aw, Dad, you shouldn’t have,” I exclaimed, thinking about the absurdity of flying a loaf of bread cross-Atlantic.
“Well then, you don’t even have to eat it,” Dad laughed. “Just look at it, if that’s what you want.”
“Not eat it? What a waste. Of course we’ll eat it,” came the hasty reply.
Dad shrugged. “I hope it’s worth it. I had to go through such a fiasco getting that loaf through customs.” He rolled his eyes. “Mysteriously wrapped oblong package, eh? In fact, they wanted me to eat a piece to see if it was tainted or not!”
As I watched Mom and Dad prepare the rest of dinner, an irrepressible feeling of happiness swept over me. I smiled at the sight of Mom and Dad preparing dinner together for the first time after a week. I smiled at Mom’s gentle chiding as she reprimanded Dad for cutting the cucumber too thin. I smiled as I heard the familiar sounds of appreciation as my mom finally approved of Dad’s cucumber cuts and went on to pester him with questions on how many euros he’d spent buying our gifts. Not a lot, Dad would reassure her.
I thought of the distances love for our family could go. Halfway across the world for a loaf of bread. A handful of burns and half an hour for the tired traveler’s favorite dish.
As we sat down to eat dinner that night, I laughed inwardly at the inquisitive surprise on my mom’s face as she took in my ear-to-ear grin. After all, she laughingly told me later, Dad had only been away for a week.