Struggle With Broth

Last weekend, I had to struggle with the question–what broth to use–all because the local Trader Joe’s runs out of the low sodium organic chicken broth. This Trader Joe’s on Route One in the township of North Brunswick is too small, probably only three thousand square feet, which as a store is not much at all. Every time I go there, I find at least two or three of my favorite items missing. The non-firm tofu has been absent from the shelf twice in the last two months; soy powder not to be found anymore; pea powder nonexistent. Refrigerated soy milk disappeared permanently for a while while the non-perishable variety only show up half of the time. Once I started to like a specialty tomato sauce in a little jar, only to find it off the shelf two weeks later. I guess they are just teaser items, not meant to be liked or favored and desired for a permanent presence.

I had to switch to vegetable broth, but the taste is just not there. The wanton soup made from the vegetable broth tastes funny, though still tolerable. However one cannot live with tolerable food. One aspire to tasty food, preferably with minimum preparation time. That’s the dilemma about food. We want it tasty but without too much labor to obtain the taste; healthy but without losing those tastes that fat, cholesterol, salt can bring. We love starch but not the calories that come with it; we love sugar but not the negative aspect of it. Every meal is an act of achieving the impossible.

Now I am wondering if I can make my own vegetable broth. Just get the fresh vegetable, dice them, blend them, strain them. Isn’t that a better broth than the store bought one? Yet my days of cooking enthusiasm is gone. One has to be inspired to be able to plunge into such a labor intensive activity. Just to have a tasty meal? That’s not enough of an inspiration, not for me, not right now.

When You Don’t Have An Appetite

I don’t have an appetite today and I don’t know why. Is it because of the melatonin pills I’ve taken these past two weeks for my insomnia? It could be. It is said online that melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our body and taking a little won’t have any side effect on the body. Probably I just have some rare reaction to it–loss of appetite. I dislike any medicine or chemicals, like a typical Asian. I know many women who refuse even to take pain killer tablets for their menstruation pain. I am not going to such an extreme though.

So what can one eat when one doesn’t have an appetite. I can eat the grass jelly I bought from the store. I can’t remember which Asian grocery store I got it from. Am I losing my mind? I used to be able to remember which store I got which, but not anymore. The grass jelly will be the best if mixed with canned lychee, but I’m out of canned lychee.

I can make a tofu jelly with the agar powder I have, but that’s too complicated. I can’t believe how lazy I’ve become nowadays as far as cooking is concerned. My grandmother was practically living in the kitchen most of her life. Several years ago I went to a party at a friend’s friend house. She’s living with her husband and two sons at Bucks County, right at the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When we arrived, she just pulled out a tray of baked chicken legs and wings out of the oven. By the way, she’s one of very few among Asian immigrants I know to utilize the oven. Most of us just use it as an extra storage space. Her sons and two or three other kids came over. She insisted that each put food on a paper plate. Minutes later, the tray was almost empty. And the kids ran away. Suddenly the hostess said to us out of blue, “I cook all the time, but still not enough. Look the tray is empty again.” We stared at her and my friend W said, “What do you expect? Your two boys. They can finish everything in sight.” Somehow I sensed that the hostess and W were talking about different things. The hostess was talking about herself. There’s ennui in her tone. Obviously she doesn’t really enjoy cooking but found herself spending so much time on it. W was talking about the healthiness and the activeness of the boys. W’s tone really means she’s trying to praise the boys and hiding her praise behind a faint complaint. However W’s compliment missed the point. Sometimes we lose real chance of communication, just like this one.

I poured a big glass of soy milk and toasted a slice of cinnamon raisin bread. Now I can’t help dreaming of all those delicious things my grandmother cooked–bamboo shoots braised with pork belly, dried fish simmered in a pot of soup with mutton and potatoes. I am going to write a story of an immigrant who’s dying for a childhood dish her mother had cooked, but couldn’t reproduce it.

Easy Wonton Soup

Whenever I make a bowl of wonton soup, I will think of R. When I first came to America as a graduate student, R was my roommate from Eastern Europe. In America, we all live in our own communities and it’s unusual for an Asian girl like me to team up with a girl like R. However the special circumstance dictated that we were both newcomers, each looking for a place to stay at the beginning of the semester, and we happened to meet at an apartment complex.

That’s certainly friendship at first sight. Probably because we both like literature, we found a lot to talk about. Isn’t that strange? I mean I felt our friendship so odd since among our friends, her friends would not look at me and my friends would not talk with her. They all felt odd that we live “together”. At night, we would talk and talk. Somehow I felt like I was back home with friends I grew up with.

Somehow she’s a big fan of Shakespeare, but I am not. As a non-native speaker, Shakespeare’s lines are too un-English-like to me, though I enjoy online lectures on Shakespeare–those lectures are English-like, fortunately. And she talked about Othello repeatedly, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Her boyfriend at the time didn’t want to come to America. Instead he opted to go to a big city in EU to do his research. Probably R had a hidden rage in her to … I don’t want to speculate further. It’s too terrible to imagine such a thing.

Now come back to wonton soup. This was within the first several weeks we met. I was cooking a wanton soup and she suddenly said to me, “I am surprised you can find anything to buy in the supermarket. Your food is completely different.” She was eating yogurt she made herself, but I don’t eat milk product. She didn’t understand how people like me exist. I said I drink soy milk, but she didn’t think soy is a milk in the first place. The only Asian food she had ever tasted and liked was General Tso’s chicken. She thought that one day I could cook the dish for her. I couldn’t help laughing. I said that’s American food and I don’t know how to cook that.

She thought Genghis Khan was a savage and I had to defend my ancestor, probably a little over zealously; I thought Sultans of Ottoman Empire were even worse savages, but she defended them enthusiastically.

The wanton soup I am cooking now is really simple since my interest in cooking has been declining since the days I knew R. Just add chicken stock, add seaweed and spinach and sprouts. Bring everything to a boil. Add Trader Joe’s Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons–already defrosted in the microwave. Low heat, barely boiling for ten minutes. That’s it.

Time passes, season changes. Things come and go; jobs here and there. Vicissitudes of life, high and low; friends from afar, live in my heart forever.


Regular strawberry or organic strawberry? They taste the same. If there’s any difference, it must be due to the power of imagination. Regular soy milk or organic soy milk? I don’t understand. Can genetically modified soy be considered organic? Are all the soy crops genetically modified? And all the corns? Should I make parsley dumpling, dill dumpling, or just plain chicken dumpling this weekend? That popular book with a lot of praises piled on is not interesting and I can’t continue to read it. How to bribe one’s mind to let it do what you want it to do? Will dumpling do the trick? Too time consuming to make.

Finally get hold of five face masks made of cotton and I can breathe easier. I once tried to DIY a mask and cut up a cotton shirt just for this purpose, but my sartorial skill is nonexistent and the result looked so hideous that I had to abandon it. My hands are so awkward that anything requires any kind of hand skills are beyond my grasp. Stitching, sewing, knitting, paper-cutting are out of the question. Even making model ships is difficult. My hands just go sleepy and the very simple task of applying glue to a little piece of wood and stick it to the top of the deck would take me a long time to complete. I had to quit that popular club at school. Now I can’t even remember the name of the club. My grandmother is so skilled with her hands. She did everything by hands, and she even made shoes. Every winter, she knitted for me and my cousins. It’s either a shawl, a hand warmer, or a sweater. The fact that she raised 9 children on very meager salary is quite unthinkable. If she becomes a heroine of a story, I would be the first to object. I am against those stories that portray women to be so moral, so blameless, so smart, so diligent, so suffering but so pure, and all those good qualities–unfortunately I can find such examples in many books. My grandmother is actually such a woman and I am glad she is not in any story and I will never write a story about her. The reason is simple–such stories are depressing and serving as social sticks to “beat” average women like me. And there are already enough of such depressing stories around that I don’t want to add any to the pile.

Watching an animal video on you tube. The hapless giraffe got itself entangled in a wire fence. I wonder why there have to be fences in South Africa in the area surrounding the Kruger. Probably the private game reserve owner doesn’t want animals to roam too freely to damage business profits. Anyway, the giraffe was finally rescued by a group of twenty men and its deep wounds on the neck were attended to. It is easy to think it is giraffe’s fault since it should avoid wire fences in the first place. It makes me think of those social fences, while not easily visible to our senses, can and will and have hurt us. And we are left to lick our own wounds. However I can’t come up with an example right now. There must be one somewhere.

Nothing And Everything

Have you ever had that feeling of dread that when you open your refrigerator, which is filled up nicely, but can’t find anything to eat? Soy milk–I just drank it for the breakfast. Tomato soup–I had it yesterday. Vietnamese pizza with rice wrap underneath–I tried it twice already within 48 hours. Bean curd–too bland. My conclusion is that I am not hungry enough.

Have you ever had the feeling of incredulity that when you stand at your closet door looking in and can’t find anything to wear, even though the closet is arranged in such a way that every corner is most economically occupied by your clothes? This T-shirt–too dark. That skirt–worn too often. The flowery blouse–too showy. That pair of pants–too boring and un-showy. Those animals on Discovery channel have such an easy life as far as outfits and accessories and hairdos are concerned. A lioness doesn’t care what she wears when she goes out there to hunt, with several photographers and truck loads of tourists in tow. A lioness can roll in mud, flip in air, eat with no table manners to speak of, and still be camera ready.

Have you ever had the feeling of alarm that when you stare at your book shelf, scroll the list of kindle books, and review your audible library, you can’t find anything you particularly want to read? It must be the book “The Barbarians Are Coming”, which depresses me. Sterling Lung, why are you so subdued? Your parents, your three women, your ladies in the club are all imposing on you in various ways. The thing is I can’t stay in non-fictions for too long since the writing style is not as I want it to be, and the fictions with language I enjoy are usually, if not completely depressing, unflattering about life in general in their plots and observations.

Have you ever had the feeling of surprise that after you write something beautiful and funny and interesting according to your mind’s design, you find it awful when you read it the next day? It’s like a movie director has a beautiful dream, but when she shoot the scene according to her dream, it’s a disaster. The effect is just not there. The thing is so flat and ordinary and mundane…but hopeful. That’s the problem. If it is completely hopeless, you can just drop it and throw it away, but if it is still promising, you don’t have the heart to throw it away. I can’t throw anything away. I feel like a hoarder.