Su-Jit Lin | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,431 words)
No matter the culture, no matter the upbringing, certain foods will always bring back certain memories. Whether those recollections are good or bad, the strength of the association is such that time stands still. For that one big moment, as you inhale the aroma, settle your teeth down, and let the flavors fill your mouth, you are again who you once were.
For me, that one dish was Hong Kong-style roast duck soup from Chinatown in New York City. To this day its heat and fragrant spices remain strong enough to permeate my sinuses and make their way into my subconsciousness.
Imagine this: chopped duck, dark and gamey; marrow unobtrusively seeping out of brittle, splintered bone. Rich meat covered in crackling skins, shining with fat rendered out, and glistening with that which remains. A complex broth gleaming golden, tasting faintly of toasted shallots and green onions. From this, steam rising to coat your nasal passages with delectable, moist warmth as the scent travels down to your mouth. Al dente egg noodles, floating like dense bundles of seaweed in a virtual seascape, with plump ground pork-and-shrimp wontons wrapped in translucent skins, the excess dough fluttering in the soup like the tails of fat jellyfish.
Atop it all, tender baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, or crisp mung bean sprouts add a splash of color and a refreshing, vegetative foundation to the heavy flavors. Despite how much my tastes evolve or my standards rise, this will forever be the dish that transforms me again and again, back into a buck-toothed child eagerly grinning at a bowl bigger than her head.
Coming from an underprivileged family in the restaurant industry, I learned early on in life that although cash may change hands, food is the ultimate currency. Greens hold more value than greenbacks, and bringing home the bacon wasn’t a figure of speech — it’s what my parents literally did. Although we were disadvantaged, because of my parents’ profession, food was always plentiful. In our house, money wasn’t used to coerce us to do the right thing, but tasty treats were always fair game.