When I was filming in China, I was able to spend time in my parents’ kitchen now and then, baking them healthy desserts without the use of measuring utensils. Sometimes it turned out beautifully and other times it was a disaster, but my parents were always pleased with whatever I cooked for them and dutifully ate everything until the last bite. My mother has been getting increasingly forgetful. If I prepared the same dish that she had liked the week before, she would exclaim that she had never tasted anything this delicious ever in her life.
Whenever I had a free day from filming, I would sit with her and listen to her telling me stories from her past. On some days, she would tell the same story a number of times. As the present becomes hazier, her focus has turned more and more toward her childhood.
During the Japanese invasion of China, my grandparents left to study in England when my mother was four and my aunt was two. My mother lived with her maternal grandparents and her schizophrenic uncle while her sister lived with another branch of the family.
My mother’s uncle was an extremely talented artist who had a teaching position in an art school, but every winter he would take a few months off because that was the season when his schizophrenia became severe. During those months, my mother would have a playmate. According to my mother, her uncle loved her more than anyone else in the house. During his winter craze, he would either put her on the handle bar of the bike and ride around the streets in lightning speed, or he would hold her in his arms and tell her that he would throw her down from the balcony. He told her not to be afraid because she could fly. He told her that she would be rewarded with sweet roasted chestnuts if she let him throw her. “He would try to hang me over the railing, and I would giggle and hold onto him with all my strength,” my mother said without any sense of drama. If my mother’s childhood experiences happened today in America, she would need a life time of therapy to overcome the trauma. I wonder if her generation is more resilient because life was harder.
When time came for me to say good-bye to my parents, I was very sad, though I was also anxious to get home to my daughters and Peter in San Francisco. My parents and I never hug or say I love you. That’s how we have always been. But as I was getting into the car this time, my mother pulled me into her for a hug as if she felt this might be the last time she would see me.
I pulled a Chen, as Peter would say; I read the departure time wrong by an hour. The airline called me to say that they were closing the check-in desk, but I begged them to keep it open for another 15 minutes and told them I would not need to check in any luggage. I sprinted from the car to the check-in desk and the airline staff rushed me through the border control, security and all the way to the gate. However, after five hours of waiting on the tarmac, the flight got canceled. I called my mother and told her about the cancellation. “You poor girl,” she said in her soothing and sympathetic voice as she has done countless times in my life whenever I told her about anything that was frustrating or disappointing. Then she brightened up, “No worries. Just come home.” I wondered if she would remember this call and be really surprised when I went back to her apartment.
My mother was expecting me when I arrived, remembering clearly that I had called about the flight cancellation. Sheepishly, she said to me, “I’m so sorry. I forgot to say a prayer for you as I always did before you’d fly. I will pray for you tonight and everything will be all right for tomorrow.” She felt as if her negligence must have somehow caused the mechanical problems of the plane. My mother grew up in a missionary school taught by a British missionary and she believes firmly in the power of prayers.
I have been home in San Francisco for a while now, but I have been too jet lagged and behind on so many things to make a dish worth blogging about until today. This simple roasted halibut with wine and miso is easy and delicious. You can enjoy it with rice, or some sliced cucumber, or by itself. I used the crunchy Japanese rice seasoning as garnish, but it actually is a crucial ingredient that enriches the taste and the texture of the dish.
Roasted Halibut with Miso and Wine
2 pounds fresh halibut, cut into desired size
1 1/2 tablespoon red miso paste
1 1/2 tablespoon Shao Xing cooking wine or Japanese mirin
1 teaspoon cooking oil
Cooking spray to grease the baking pan
Nori Katsuo Furikake (Prepared sesame seed & seaweed)
Chopped spring onion
Marinate the fish in the miso, wine and oil mixture for 30 minutes to an hour.
Pre-heat oven to 425.
Line a baking dish with foil and spray oil before laying down the fish.
Roast for 13 to 15 minutes or until fish is browned on the outside and opaque in the inside.
Garnish with Nori Katsuo Furikake, green onion and chili flakes.