I don’t know exactly when and how it started, but my parents and their old medical school classmates have been holding a monthly reunion in Shanghai. It’s something they all look forward to and talk about for most of the month. Some of them would come from other cities, or even other countries. They take turns hosting, and this month was my parents’ turn.
My mother was reluctant to host, fearful that people might notice her dementia more if she was the center of attention. What if she suddenly forgot someone’s name — someone she had known all her life? My father pledged his help and reassured her that everything would turn out fine. He wrote each guest’s name on a little sticker and asked my mother to stick them onto the cups they would be using.
I was thrilled to have a few days off from the Marco Polo production and flew to Shanghai for the party. My mother was relieved that her movie star daughter would not only take some of the attention away from her but also cook for her guests. The invitation was for 11:30am, but the guests began to trickle in as early as 10:30. It was a good thing that we began preparing and cooking the night before.
It touched me to see some of the faces that I used to know from my childhood — now worn but richer and somehow more characteristic of themselves. Perhaps that’s how people age — shedding layers of pretense or shield, becoming closer to their true and naked selves. Most of them had been doctors all their lives. Physicians in their days received a meager salary from the government just like workers in any other profession in China. Many of them could not afford taxis and came to the reunion by bus. It took some people more than an hour to reach my parents’ place, but they wouldn’t miss the gathering for anything.
These octogenarians amazed me with their robust appetite and booming voices. They seemed to burst into peals of laughter with every other sentence. For a while I was slightly concerned that someone might choke on their food laughing and swallowing all at once.
While they laughed and ate, I snapped pictures of them and burned each one a disc. They were very pleased that someone documented and captured their happy times together.
One of the dishes I made was fish maw in bone and ham broth with the fish maw I brought back from Malaysia.
Fish Maw Soup
Ingredients for the broth:
2 to 3 kilos of pork leg bones
1 ham bone
8 slices of ginger
1 cup of Shao Xing cooking wine
1 large pot of water.
Ingredients for the soup:
2 cups wood’s ears (soaked and drained)
2 cups fish maw (soaked, washed and wrung dry)
3 long young turnips (don’t buy the ones that are thick, which tend to be hollow)
1/4 kilo baby bok choi hearts
White pepper powder
Ham slices for garnish (optional)
Wash the bones and boiled a large pot of water with a few slices of ginger in it. When the water is boiling, add the pork bones to it. When it boils again, drain the water and rinse the bones one more time.
Boil the bones and ham bone in a new pot of water with the cooking wine and ginger for 4 hours or longer. Skim off the top any congealed blood every once in a while if there is any.
When the broth is fragrant, take out the bones and add the rest of the soup ingredients except for the bok choi hearts and let it simmer for another 30 minutes.
Turn up the stove to high and add bok choi hearts. Let cook for about 30 seconds and serve the soup hot with a lot of white pepper powder.
If you like gnawing on bones, leave some in the soup as I did. You can also add fish balls to the soup if you like fish balls.