Cooking is simple. I should know; Mom taught me how to cook when I was around ten. Or twelve. I’m not really sure. Before she got sick.
Rub one whole chicken with a mixture of chopped ginger and sesame oil.
Before, the world revolved around the kitchen. The dirty kitchen, to be precise. Some chicken had been culled earlier in the day, and Mom was collecting the coagulating blood for later. Mom had seen them at the wet market and thought it would be good to demonstrate how an entire animal becomes dinner. I was transfixed by the cooking process; nothing went to waste.
“If you want to eat tonight, you’ll have to cook.”
I nodded my head in reply, not quite understanding what she was trying to say.
Boil the chicken whole for forty minutes, or until fully cooked. Transfer to an ice water bath for five minutes. Set aside.
Chopped ginger is what gives this dish character. Ice water seals the flavor by locking in fat. It’s a bit tedious, all this cooking and dunking, but, as with all things, love takes time and patience.
When Mom and I last went abroad, we spent time in Singapore. Just before our flight home, we found a food court where all that was sold was Hainanese Chicken. Mom told me Hainanese Chicken was Singapore’s national dish and that we had to have some before we left. We approached a kiosk and the stall boss took our orders.
As I took our chicken, Mom saw that my chicken leg was red near the bone. Her eyes widened in horror. Without batting an eyelash, she ordered two steaming bowls of chicken stock and dunked her portion into the broth. I looked at Mom funny as I dove into my chicken with gusto.
“Look, if these people are still okay, then this food must also be okay.”
“Something’s wrong with that chicken. You’ll get sick.”
Mom couldn’t stand for a week after we landed. She said it was from abdominal pains. I bet it had something to do with the chicken.
Toast rice with the sesame oil mixture and cook it in chicken stock.
Rice is half the story. To eat Hainanese Chicken with ordinary white rice misses the point entirely; the idea is to recreate the entire chicken in your mouth. Waste nothing.
Returning home, I set out learning how to make proper Hainanese Chicken. At my third attempt, I imagine I had it close to perfect, albeit without a full complement of Singaporean sauces. At least I thought so. I presented what I had made at the dinner table; her doctors had come over that night.
Mom glared at me from across the table.
“The chicken is pink,” she said, her eyes ablaze with fury. “How can you be serving me bad chicken? Idiot.”
“Sorry,” I said, looking away.
“Look at your clothes! They’re so dirty! You stink!” Mom made a big show of pinching her nose. “I’m so ashamed of you. You make me sick.” Mom’s contempt was palpable. By this time the doctors had taken notice.
All dinner long, my chicken sat untouched. I had never been as uncomfortable in a dinner as I had been that day.
Sauté broccoli in a pan. Blanche the broccoli and arrange on the side. Garnish with oyster sauce to take away any bitter aftertaste.
Bitter is a flavor we learn to appreciate when we’re older. In fact, it’s okay to taste bitter from time to time.
As an adult, I’ve come to look for it every now and then. In Mom’s final days, as her disease ate away at her intestines, we passed by a restaurant known for their food as we made our way home from the hospital.
“I miss your chicken,” she said between gasps.
“Those doctors didn’t know what they missed.”
“Okay,” I replied. I was avoiding a pothole I’d been hitting all week in trips to the hospital.
“Make it for me, please?”
I missed the pothole.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Mom died a week later, without eating any chicken.
Eat Love Pray contest entry. 😀