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The Hierarchy of Soup by Amber Wong


In her essay “The Hierarchy of Soup,” Amber Wong contributes to the flourishing subgenre of memoir called “foodoir,” memoir focusing on richly sensory descriptions of food, often replete with recipes. Interested cooks will find recipes for Shark Fin Soup/Yue Chee Tong, Bird’s Nest Soup/Yen Woh Tong, Chef Chu’s Sour and Hot Soup/Suen Lot Tong, and Wong’s mother’s Won Ton Soup here. However the essay is more than a guide for chefs and gourmands. “The Hierarchy of Soup” is a family memoir. “We are that family who plans for dinner while eating lunch,” Wong says in her author’s note: “We mark time by meal memory.” Wong marks the passing of time, charting changing values in several generations of her family along with stages in her own development, from childhood to the present. Wong’s essay is also an elegy for her mother, from whom she inherited recipes and a flawless diamond ring that came to signify something different than she expected.

“Could I ever grow into the promise of this ring?” she asks. “The Hierarchy of Soup” reminds us of the root meaning of “essay” in “assay” or “attempt.” The essay tracks the writer’s consciousness as she meditates on Chinese soups and the complexities of family and culture and inheritance, attempting to answer questions rather than presenting conclusions. Essaying allows for ambiguities, as Wong suggests, and thereby “provides space for me to explore and discover, to test the boundaries of facts and feelings, to accept that I’m just one of many who seeks, through writing, to make sense of the world.”  —CRAFT


A portion of this essay was published as “Won Ton—The Art of Swallowing a Cloud” in Entropy (2018).


 

Fan Jou Suri

Served at the end of a meal, fan jou suri isn’t a dessert. Or, technically, a soup. But for my brother and me, youngsters living in Boston in the early 1960s, parents pinching every penny, fan jou suri was a special treat.

Literally, fan jou suri means “rice water,” and that’s really all it is. Like Stone Soup, it’s almost a fiction, a story of making the best of what you have. But unlike Stone Soup, fan jou suri requires nothing else, no guile or deceit, just the honest leavings in the rice pot from the meal you’ve just eaten. As I reflect back to our lean years in Boston, I realize we could have had fan jou almost every night, but we didn’t; we were limited to once every two weeks. Like diamonds, fan jou gained value in scarcity.

Before rice cookers, we made rice the old-fashioned way. Every Chinese family owned a heavy saucepan with a lid. Ours was a standard three-quart Club Aluminum saucepan, yellow with small turquoise flecks, a black plastic handle. My grandmother Ma-Ma passed down the recipe for perfect rice: two cups of long grain white rice, rinsed until the water ran clear; touch the top surface of the rice with your middle finger and add water to the midpoint between the second and third knuckles. Boil with the lid off until the water slipped below the rice surface. Turn to low and put the lid on until the rice is done. Never stir the rice during cooking.

After dinner, if Mom agreed, I’d scrape out the remains of the fluffy rice for the next day’s meal and put the water kettle on to boil. The crust of rice stuck to the bottom of the pot was the magical ingredient. To make fan jou, browning was essential. Turn up the heat to medium for a few minutes. When the hint of lightly toasted rice emerges (careful not to scorch!), add boiling water, maybe an inch or so, enough to reach the upper level of the crust. Quickly scrape the crisped rice from the pot. Don’t let it soak. Serve immediately with some of the water. The best fan jou is crisp and imparts a deep smoky flavor to the water. The water, or fan jou suri, is savored last.

Perhaps fan jou was special to my brother and me because, as the flourish at the end of the meal, it doubled as the dessert we couldn’t afford. Perhaps for Mom, making fan jou served as a gauge to know if we’d all had enough to eat. The pot was certainly easier to clean. All I know is that when Dad finished medical school in Boston and we moved back to California where the rest of our family lived, Mom bought a rice cooker which, because a crust doesn’t form, ended our fan jou days. Like the pork bones we used to buy for nineteen cents a pound—boiled and dipped in soy sauce and gnawed clean of meat and gristle—our original comfort foods fell into distant memory. Our tastes changed. Sunday dinner now meant prime rib and rocky road ice cream. There was nothing to savor about being poor.

 

Shark Fin

The first course is an immediate tell. How honored is this guest? How expensive is this dinner? This becomes most clear when they serve the soup.

If they bring shark fin soup, it’s an occasion, a wedding banquet, a celebratory feast. Especially if they use the good shark fin—the long strand kind, translucent as a raindrop on a windowpane. Back in 1965, a banquet bowl of soup for ten could easily cost a hundred dollars, slightly less if they used B-grade shark fin, the broken, shorter strands. Any meal that boasts this delicacy is sure to be top notch, an epicure’s delight.

Every year we celebrated my grandmother Ma-Ma’s birthday in her native San Francisco Chinatown with a hundred or more of her closest friends. Dad and his brothers hosted magnificent ten-course banquet dinners complete with jellyfish appetizers, shark fin soup, crab in lobster sauce, abalone with shitake mushrooms, and other protein-heavy dishes. Long-life noodles, stir-fried with scallions and shitake mushrooms with a touch of oyster sauce, came at the end. The cousins—all ten of us—filled one table; our parents sat at another. The kids’ table was easy to spot. Two bottles of Belfast Sparkling Cider replaced the traditional earthenware vessel of maotai, a potent Chinese liquor. Nameless Chinese elders, festive in silk and jade, chattered in Cantonese all around us, and we, fourth-generation Chinese American denizens of the Bay Area suburbs, understood little if any of it.

At my first banquet dinner after we returned to California, a woman my grandmother’s age caught my arm as I wove between chairs, heading to the cousins’ table to get a seat next to Wendy. Sharp fingernails bit into my skin. “Who you belong?” she barked. Startled, I glanced up—and quickly brought my eyes back down to her level. Even though I was only nine, she wasn’t much taller than me. Her whole aura—mink stole and silk form-fitting cheong-sam, pencil-thin eyebrows and powdered cheeks—screamed Chanel No. 5.

I had to be polite. I knew that pointing was bad manners, but I had no other choice. Gingerly I pointed to the round banquet table where my parents were standing, smiling and joking with other guests. Her eyes followed and she broke into a toothy smile.

“Ahhh! Ah-nee! You Ah-nee girl?” You’re Arnie’s daughter?

I nodded. She quickly released me. Bobbing her head, she softly patted my shoulder. “Good! Good! Happy birthday your grandma!”


Part of my inheritance was a lust for shark fin soup. Because Ma-Ma preferred it, it must be the best. I never once thought about the ethics of shark finning, the barbaric practice of lopping off the fins and tossing the maimed sharks, immobile and suffocating, back into the water. I never considered the concentrations of methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin found at levels well above the World Health Organization guidelines. I never thought about extinction. Back then, I reveled only in the texture and symbology, unaware that hours of preparation were needed to soften the cartilage and rigid protein fibers to the right consistency.

Not crisp like a bean sprout or chewy like a tentacle, shark fin provides a subtle yielding under tooth, the nuanced texture of caviar. Along with hints of chicken, bamboo, and shitake absorbed from the velvety broth, shark fin carries the message: we are rich.

 

Bird’s Nest

Second best, but still exquisite, is bird’s nest soup. Birds’ nests are less expensive than shark fin, and according to Mom, the soup is less difficult to make, so although it’s slightly less impressive, it’s a capable substitute if shark fin is not available, and a solid choice when the honored guest prefers it. The nests used in the soup are formed from the hardened saliva of cave swiftlets. Soaked in water overnight, they deconstruct into a tangle of beads. Bird’s nest, like shark fin, is almost flavorless, prized for its texture. Also, as with shark fin, there are two grades: bird’s nest that is clear, firm, and nubbly on the tongue; and bird’s nest, faintly gelatinous, that contains tiny black specks. Those black specks are feathers. In the hierarchy of soup, the fewer feathers the better.


From the moment we returned to California and embarked on our newly privileged lives, we had an imperative: show we have class; show that we’ve made it. For my American-born parents, already steeped in American social constructs and mores, chafing at being miscast as ignorant foreigners, this was a step beyond. We would show ourselves as erudite, perfect Americans. That’s when I was trained to think of soups like diamonds: quality mattered.

“Look at my ring,” Mom said, holding out her hand. Her red-painted fingernails shone under the light. Her makeup and hair were 1960s perfect, styled like Elizabeth Taylor’s. With my small eyes and braided black hair, even then I knew I would never compare. “It’s a 3-carat blue-white diamond. Not as big as your Auntie’s,” she sniffed, “but it’s better.”

Eagerly I rocked her fingertips back and forth to watch the diamond sparkle. I frowned. Compared to Auntie’s, the stone was so dull. Didn’t brilliance mean better quality? Quickly I ducked my head to hide my disappointment. Mom saw, and I readied myself for a reprimand, but to my surprise she said, “This diamond is an emerald-cut, so it’s not so flashy. But it’s got to be really clean inside to be cut this way.” She drew her hand back and examined the stone. “Flawless!” she exclaimed proudly. She turned to me. “When you’re older you’ll learn to appreciate it.”

Outstanding. Excellent. To these known A+ words, I added another: flawless. I leaned closer to learn what perfect looked like.


The idea of eating bird saliva never fazed me. Besides, I loved the flavor. I never considered how difficult it must be to collect nests after the young had fledged and left, never considered the danger of climbing high into caves to gently pry them from cave walls. I never thought about who had to skim out the feathers. I never thought about the ethics of bird’s nest vs. shark fin, only that both were rare. Now that I know that bird’s nest is sustainable, with each nest taking only thirty-five days for a male swiftlet to construct, I like it even more.

Back then I knew that bird’s nest soup, combined with clear leafy fungus for texture, was my favorite soup. I also knew I should keep this to myself. By admitting my preference for second best, I’d be revealing a weakness, a lack of sophistication, a fault in not demanding the best. It would reflect on my internal character, settling for less than what I could be. I’d be a disappointment. I’d never deserve another bowl of shark fin again.

 

Hot and Sour

The aroma of hot and sour soup always tingles my nostrils. It’s unclear why. I stir the bowl and see familiar everyday ingredients—matchstick slices of tofu, pork, bamboo shoots. Maybe egg wisps, like smoke clouds, caught in a murky thickened broth. It isn’t fancy. But the taste is spicy, foreign, tinged with mystery. Mom grunted her disapproval when I said that I liked it. That dropped it to number four.


My college boyfriend opened the door for me as we stepped into Chef Chu’s Mandarin Kitchen, a Palo Alto favorite even in 1974. I playfully brushed one of his loose blonde hairs off his shoulder. The sharp smell of chili and oil, sizzled but not burnt, wafted out. That smell comes out of their pores, my mom would later tell me, pinching her nose for emphasis. It was my first glimpse of Chinese tribalism, a warning.

In the four years since its grand opening in 1970, Chef Chu’s had built a solid reputation as “cheap and good,” with a line of customers always waiting to be seated. But our college student budgets were tight, and even an ice cream cone was a splurge. So when my boyfriend’s older brother, a recent graduate with a steady job, invited us to join his girlfriend and him for dinner at a new-to-us Chinese restaurant, we immediately said yes.

When I opened the menu, the “Mandarin” in the restaurant name suddenly loomed important. I scanned the menu and found only a few standbys—broccoli beef, prawns in lobster sauce—that I recognized. When I saw hot and sour soup, I thought it was a typo. Didn’t they mean sweet and sour?

In 1974, most Chinese Americans—those of us born in the United States—had ancestral roots in Guangzhou, or Canton, the southern province. Cantonese men who set off in the 1850s to seek their fortunes on “Gold Mountain” had stayed to build America’s railroad. Their cuisine and spoken dialect came with them. Prior to the huge influx of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese in the 1980s, most Chinese restaurants across the country—from Chinatowns in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, to rural outposts like Yuma, Arizona—served Cantonese food. Cantonese flavors were synonymous with “Chinese food.”

In that era, even in the Bay Area, there were very few Chinese Americans. As usual, I was the lone Chinese of any ilk at the table, accustomed to people deferring to me as we ordered “family style.” After a cursory look, they’d shut their menus and set them aside. “You order,” they’d say, nodding at me, “just order the good stuff.” I was always happy to oblige. After making sure I knew the parameters—“Vegetarian, kosher, sensitive to MSG?”—I’d select a dish per person plus soup for the table. I felt like a privileged insider, entrusted and capable.

At Chef Chu’s, all three of them now turned to me.

“What should we order?”

“What about the hot and sour soup?”

“How spicy are each of these stars?”

I shook my head at their expectant faces. In this restaurant I felt unmasked, my authenticity stripped away. Flushed with confusion, I felt more foreign than ever.

 

Won Ton

I hover over my bowl of won ton soup and close my eyes as fragrant steam caresses my face. Sitting at the bar of a Seattle Chinese restaurant, I studiously ignore the strangers sitting mere elbows away. I’m here to indulge myself. In the hierarchy of soup, won ton holds a special spot. It’s a comfort food. Even though the ingredients aren’t expensive, making won ton takes time. At number three, its value lies in the intimacy of the folding, the caress pressed into each piece. When you need won ton and get won ton, there’s nothing better.

I open my eyes. Fine fat globules float languidly on the surface of the clear broth. Shitake mushroom slices and baby bok choy stalks cradle either side of the bowl. On the bottom lies the prize: wrinkled skins of white holding the promise, and hard labor, of love. Mom, who died a year ago today, always said there should be at least eight or they’re robbing you. I pick up my chopsticks and gently push them around. There are ten. Bliss.

There’s an art to swallowing a cloud. With my chopsticks I lift a won ton from the bowl. The skin drapes like a silken cloth. I place it on my spoon, lift it to my mouth, take the first bite. The meat is moist and light, the prawns tender and pink. They must have used cornstarch. I see flecks of green scallions but no orange carrots. I smile and think of Mom.


In the California home they bought after Dad retired, the kitchen, the hub of all activity, was Mom’s unquestioned domain. Even though in Seattle I’d moved through several adult stages of my life—marriage, children, divorce, and a going-on-twenty-year engineering and management career—when I came back home to visit, I couldn’t help falling into the role of the daughter again.

“Where’re you going?” Mom called sharply from the kitchen. “Aren’t you going to help me?”

I stopped, one foot on the stairs. My eyes were bleary, my temper suddenly short. I’d flown in that evening from Seattle after a full day of work and was headed to bed after yawning my way through the 11:00 late night news, keeping Mom company. My kids were already tucked into the trundle bed in the spare room upstairs. I shut my eyes as I shook my head.

“I’m tired, Mom. Can’t we do this in the morning?”

“No,” she said quickly. I noticed that her lips were pinched just like mine. “We have to do this tonight. I’m doing this for you and your kids, you know. I have other things to do tomorrow.”

Of course you do. My head dropped as a dizzy fatigue engulfed me. If I could just lie down I’d be asleep in seconds. Being a single mom gave me no energy to waste, so I had to pick my fights carefully. I breathed deeply. After the equivalent of three huge sighs, I edged back into the kitchen.

“There’s the shrimp,” Mom said, no apology in her voice as she nodded at a plastic bag of raw prawns on the counter. Mom always called them shrimp, a sharp emphasis on the p. “Buy small ones; they get chopped up anyway.” She pulled the last batch of ground pork out of the Cuisinart with her bare hands and patted it into a giant steel bowl. She’d started grinding five pounds of pork butt as the 11:00 news started. “See here, this pork is the right texture.” She poked it with her fingers as I walked past her to the sink. “I don’t like the ground pork they sell at the store. Too fine. This way, I make it just the way I want.”

Yes, everything is the way you want. I glanced over to note the texture. Globs of pork clotted her diamond ring. Me, I’d use that half hour for sleeping and just buy the damn ground pork at the store.

I peeled the prawns while she clattered the cleaver on the wooden cutting board, chopping up the other ingredients and adding them to the bowl. Although she’d recently found that raw prawns irritated her hands, she insisted on using them anyway. “They make the won ton sweet,” she claimed. “But only use shrimp if you eat it right away! If you have to freeze it, leave shrimp out.” As she added the chopped prawns, I dug my hands into the meat mixture, slowly squeezing the cool ingredients between my fingers. The meat smelled of soy and ginger. Along with shitake mushrooms, cilantro, and water chestnuts, Mom added another secret ingredient—carrots—“to give it color.” I doubted that people would notice flecks of grated carrot embedded in the won ton while eating soup, but she was adamant.

“What’s taking you so long? The water’s ready to boil.” Mom stood at the kitchen sink, apron strings tied loosely behind her back, her pink polyester pants neat and trim. I sat on a stool at the counter, the huge bowl of meat mixture in front of me. She clattered the stainless steel mixing bowls into the dishwasher. At half past midnight, she was waiting for me to wrap up the won ton so she could boil them up for tomorrow’s soup.

My thumbnail edge was gently teasing at the almost invisible crease, trying to peel apart the layers of won ton skins. Two fully defrosted packs sat as blocks on the kitchen counter. I pulled on a layer.

“Damn it, I ripped another one.”

“Lemme see.” She wiped her hands on her apron, came over to the counter. She sucked her tongue on the inside of her teeth. “Tsk, you’re not doing it right.” She pushed my hands away. Mom tried to slip her bright red fingernail between the layers, just as I had, with the same result. She looked over at the packaging.

“Oh, this is why, this is the wrong won ton pay,” she said, drawing out the “pay” in a low tone, her Cantonese intonation precise. “This brand of won ton skin is good for fried won ton because it’s thinner, it fries faster.” She picked up another package, a different brand, from the counter and handed it to me. “Here, this should be better. It’s a little thicker and won’t fall apart in the soup.”

I looked at the packages—both were covered in Chinese characters. If either said “good for soup”—which I sincerely doubted—I’d never be able to tell. Mom just knew, just as surely as an Italian mother would know to use rotini with a heavy meat sauce and capellini with a light marinara.

I lifted a square won ton skin from the new pile, pressed a half teaspoonful of meat mixture in the top corner. “More meat,” Mom insisted, looking over my shoulder. I plopped in another glob with my chopstick, folded the corner down twice, then placed a spot of meat on the left corner of the skin, twisted the right corner over to meet it, pressed the skin tight. It stuck firm. The trick was to use a spot of meat instead of water to glue the won ton into shape. I fanned out the rest of the skin and placed it on a cookie sheet. One after the other, I lined up the perfect little won ton boats, ready to boil. Won ton means “swallowing a cloud,” which is what the little boats look like in the soup bowl.

“Remember when Por-Por showed you how to make jow gok?” Mom stood in front of the giant stock pot, boiling won ton. She lifted the first batch from the boiling water with a flat mesh net. “Here, try one of these.” She pointed her utensil at the steaming won ton before adding, “Do you ever make jow gok at home?”

I thought back to my frenetic cooking lesson, my four-foot-nine-inch maternal grandmother bustling about the kitchen, muttering in Cantonese only to herself. From the sporadic bursts of phrases we’d exchanged over the years, I’d assumed she spoke virtually no English. Only when she passed her citizenship exam—after sixty years in the United States—did I realize how wrong I was.

Her precisely curled gray hair was held captive in a hair net. She wore a plain cotton dress and an ecru hand-knitted cardigan she made herself, covered by an apron that ran from neck to knees. In one hand she held an empty coffee mug. She dipped the coffee mug into the flour canister, dumped varying amounts of flour onto the cutting board, then added a handful of rice flour before making a well and pouring in some water. I grabbed the coffee mug when she was done and tried to calibrate her measurements with standard measuring cups and spoons, but ended up just guessing. How big was that pile of rice flour in her palm? I asked Mom to help translate, but Por-Por wasted no time. She slowed just enough to show me the small potato she’d boiled up. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose with the fleshy base of her thumb, pointed firmly at the potato. “One potato. Ho sic, one potato.” I nodded, understanding her Chinese: Tastes good. The potato was a crucial ingredient. She turned to the chopping board and flattened the potato with the side of a cleaver, then immediately squeezed it into the flour mixture. There was no way to measure the size of that potato before it was forever lost in the doughy amalgam. After we filled each dough dumpling with a savory mixture of ground pork and dried shrimps—and she prettied the fluting on my dumplings when I wasn’t looking—she dropped them in sizzling oil and deep fried them. They were delicious.

I sighed at the memory of my grandmother’s kitchen magic, now lost to me and future generations. “No, I just don’t have the time,” I said. Who had time, with big responsibilities like work and children, to create these handmade delicacies? My grandmother may have done it in her day, but I wasn’t willing to spend a day alone in the kitchen at the expense of spending time with my sons, who likely had a Little League baseball game or two over the weekend.

As I wrapped up the last won ton skin, there was still a pile of meat mixture in the bowl. “Still a lot left, just like hot dogs,” I mumbled. I never understood why stores didn’t sell hot dogs and hot dog buns in the same quantities. With eight hot dogs to a pack, and six buns to a pack, unless you planned for twenty-four you’d always end up with something extra. I gave Mom a giddy smile and stretched my arms above my head, heard the little pops as muscles snapped back into place. The oven clock pegged 2:15 in the morning.

“Just put it in a carton. I’ll finish up here.” Mom pulled another steaming batch of won ton out of the water, placed them gently in the colander. Inexplicably, her voice had turned to one of soft concern. “I’ll pack it up. You go get some rest. You must be tired. See you in the morning.”

 

Jook

Jook: The ultimate simple soup. I feel oddly comforted when I read a stranger’s jook recipe and burst out laughing over the instructions about a key ingredient: bones. “Bones, such as a roasted chicken carcass; ½ a turkey carcass; neck, head, and odd pieces from leftover roast duck or chicken; or combination of all.” I know exactly what the recipe’s talking about. Like my brother who thinks nothing of boning turkeys, ducks, and chickens for turducken, I often have bones sitting around in my refrigerator or freezer. “Of course!” My cousin Wendy hoots when I tell her about the recipe. “Doesn’t everyone?”

When I was a girl, Mom and I would drive into San Francisco Chinatown every two weeks to visit Ma-Ma. Before heading home to the East Bay suburbs, we’d stop at one of the corner shops, the ones with roast duck and see yow chicken and slabs of cha siu hanging in the window. We’d point out a roast duck, fat dripping from its skin. The man with the broad cleaver would unhook the duck’s neck from the rack, flop the body down onto a round butcher block, and with three quick chops, cut off the neck and head and swoop those pieces into the box. Then, with an easy dexterity that I always admired, he’d slice the body cavity in half, let all the duck juices flow out, spin the duck on the butcher block, and chop each half into even sized pieces. By simply letting the honed blade drop firmly onto the carcass, the resultant pieces would be free of bone splinters. He’d pack our duck in a box and pour in some juice, wipe his hands on a towel, put our cash in the till. Sometimes Mom and I couldn’t even wait to get home. We’d pluck out a few pieces and, oily juices dribbling down our chins, savor them in the car on the drive home.

When I moved to Seattle from California four decades ago, it took me less than a week to find my duck shop. Even today, the Kau Kau in Seattle Chinatown oozes the tantalizing aroma of caramelized grease and slight char of pork. Glistening ducks hang in the window, just like in San Francisco. The man with the heavy cleaver, wispy beard, and unerring chopping skill greets me with a friendly wave and, as he has for forty years, suffers my bastardized Cantonese order of my favorite roast duck and barbecue pork. “A whole siu op,” I say confidently, “and a pound of cha siu.” We both smile. He packs the legs, butt, and neck on the bottom of the Chinese take-out box before laying the beautifully browned breast pieces on top. Now, as then, I eat the best pieces first. After a few days in the refrigerator, only the skin-over-bone back pieces, dried-out wings, withered neck stumps, and, if I dig deep enough, the head, are left. I should be disappointed, but I, like all my cousins, view this as an opportunity for a new pot of jook.


Outside the threshold of a concrete-walled restaurant in Hong Kong sits a metal pot full of jook, a flame beneath to keep it hot. It’s 1977. The street vendor tending the pot is a skinny old man with rheumy eyes and trembling hands. He perches on a metal chair, one knee drawn up to his chin. His worn clothes are baggy but clean. He points with his ladle at the pot and asks, in unintelligible Chinese—at least to me, if we want to buy.

For the equivalent of fifty cents, the man will dip you a bowl of jook for breakfast. Serving bowls stacked around the metal pot are wet, freshly washed, but there’s no telling how clean they really are. You’re counting on the boiling jook to sterilize the bowl, and if you quickly dip your chopsticks and Chinese spoons into the bowl, those as well. Small bowls of condiments—cilantro, scallions, and flakes of dried fish—rest on the bench. These are for flavoring your jook.

Mom and I shake our heads at the man as we enter the noisy restaurant. Large round paper-covered tables line the walls, a narrow aisle lies between. The waiter asks us, “How many?” and points at an open spot where we’ll be sharing our table with four other people. He holds up his hand, Wait. He scurries in front of us and with a broad sweep of his arm pushes all the previous diners’ gnawed pork and chicken bones to the floor. We step around the scatter of detritus and gingerly take our seats on hard round stools. It has not yet occurred to me that the waiter’s show of tossing the bones to the floor has a purpose beyond simply clearing the table. Wendy, who has lived in China and Taiwan, later tells me that this display is to inspire confidence that at this restaurant, they do not gather castoff bones from previous diners to flavor their soups.


In 2012, the clean, modern industrial confines of this Seattle upscale restaurant are a visual treat. The wood-grained tables provide a warm background for white porcelain serving plates. Bright orange carrot curls, dark green scallion shavings, and sunny yellow egg yolks make the bowls pop with color. A broad counter runs parallel to the cooks’ line of prep tables and gas stoves. You can sit at the counter and sip sake under gleaming stainless steel hanging lamps and watch meals come together. You can swivel around and admire the cleanliness of the entire place. The cooks and servers are young, hip, and smiling.

It’s nothing like 1977 Hong Kong.

A week earlier, my ethno-foodie friend effused, “You’ve got to try Revel! They specialize in Asian street food.” She added, “Their pork belly buns are fantastic!”

My eyes widened. Pork belly—soft, savory, and extremely fatty—had surged onto local Seattle menus. Charred lightly under a flame, it had a slightly sweet, exquisite crunch. But I couldn’t quite place it in my Chinese repertoire. Pork—stir-fried, roasted, or steamed with salty shrimp sauce—were the comfort foods of my childhood.

But “Revel” certainly sounded like a happy place, so I made a reservation to celebrate Wendy’s visit to Seattle.

We enter the bustling restaurant and are seated at a small table between the line of booths and the main traffic passage that leads deep into the second dining area. The restaurant, billed as a Korean, Asian, vegetarian friendly restaurant with vegan and gluten-free options, offers something for everyone. But as soon as I open the menu, I snicker and zero in on one item. “Hey, look at this!” I say, reaching over to point at my cousin’s menu. “They serve jook!”

Wendy adjusts her glasses. “Oh, but they don’t call it jook! They call it congee. Hmm, that’s not a Chinese word.” She’s a Chinese language scholar so I believe her. Brightly she adds, “Maybe they’re trying to make it sound upscale!” We both laugh at the joke. Jook is basically rice and water, broth if you have it. She looks back down at the menu and frowns. “Whoa, it’d better be pretty fancy! They’re charging fifteen dollars!”

“Well, I’ve got to try it,” I say, snapping my menu shut, “a friend told me the congee’s one of their specialties. So there’s got to be some secret ingredient. Otherwise, I just can’t imagine a bunch of people shelling out fifteen dollars for a bowl of jook.”

Wendy glances about, then leans in so only I can hear. “Maybe these people just don’t know any better.”


It’s the day after Thanksgiving, 2020. The air in my Seattle kitchen is moist with steam as the turkey carcass, bones stripped of the largest hunks of meat, boils on the stove. I slip in greasy pieces of fat-backed roast turkey skin and within moments a sweet aroma fills the room. It’s not yesterday’s earthiness of a dry-rubbed turkey roasting in the oven. It’s not pure like chicken broth, not dark and rich like duck broth. Culled from scent-memories deep in my past, I conjure up the image of Mom, now fourteen years gone, standing at her kitchen stove in an orange-flowered apron and slim turquoise pants—hair still teased in a 1960s bouffant—dipping in a metal spoon, blowing lightly across the surface. She looks up, scowls at my jeans and boxy black sweater, and snips, “Well at least you’ve put your hair in a ponytail to keep it out of the food.” Immersed in a familiar scene, I smile. Jook is coming.

This year, the first year of the pandemic, is no exception. The only difference is the size of the pot. As I tore through the supermarket on my once-every-three-weeks grocery spree, I couldn’t resist the miniature nine-pound turkey I found in the poultry section. So although my spouse and I missed out on hosting Thanksgiving dinner with our usual array of twenty close friends and family—which for me had become a thirty-year tradition—some lifelong family traditions must be honored. Like nor mai fan, Ma-Ma’s famous sticky rice. And this, Mom’s day-after-Thanksgiving jook.

Two hours later I sieve out the bones, return the broth to the pot. I wipe my hands on my apron. Digging deep into my twenty-pound bin of Calrose rice, I let the cool grains slip through my fingers, flow past my sapphire wedding ring. I marvel that in another three hours these hard grains will soften into gruel, congee, the simplest comfort food of past and present, a pleasure I can relish for the rest of my life.

I can’t say the same for shark fin. Or, to a lesser degree, bird’s nest. In the hierarchy of soup, I was fortunate not to have saved the best for last. Since 2013, all West Coast states—Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and California—have banned the sale of shark fins. Birds’ nests, while still available, are rare. Priced between 2,500 and 10,000 dollars per kilogram, a single bowl of soup can cost from thirty to one hundred dollars. Rarely is it on a menu. But if offered shark fin or bird’s nest, in the US or abroad, I will shove aside any ethical concerns and savor the soup without hesitation.

After Mom died, I slipped off my two-carat Ceylon blue sapphire and slipped on her flawless diamond ring. On my left ring finger, it fit perfectly; with my long fingers, the effect was stunning. I tilted my hand and felt a glow of rapture as the facets caught the light. The diamond was as gorgeous as I’d remembered, pure in color, bold in size. From the moment fifty years earlier when Mom told me it was the best quality, I’d coveted this ring, stealthily admiring its quiet elegance. This should be my birthright. Then I blanched. Do I deserve it?

I teared up, awash in shame. With my unpainted fingernails and long mane of gray-streaked black hair, I felt like an imposter. This ring, sentimental as it was, had a dark side. In its beauty lay a glaring reminder of the flawless best, the perfection I was expected to strive for and achieve. But I was flawed. I wasn’t as glamorous as Mom would have wanted. Despite an accomplished thirty-year career, I didn’t earn millions, so I never met Mom’s measure of success. My raising two strong sons never registered with her. Could I ever grow into the promise of this ring?

The ring deserved a fresh start. I gave it to my brother, for his daughter.

With that concession, a cascade of disappointments slipped away. Today I’m no longer ruled by hierarchy. I measure my contentment differently now—a sky full of stars, not a singular nova. Here’s what I know of soup: My childhood nostalgia for the toasted essence of fan jou suri will never wane. Shark fin and bird’s nest, with their nuanced textures, indulge me in the cultural richness of my privileged past. Hot and sour puckers my lips with pleasurable wonder. A steaming bowl of won ton, dabbed with sesame oil, sates me with joy that can sweeten even the glummest day in Seattle. Jook, in its simplicity, is divine. Adorned with scallions and pork belly, it is bounteous.

I glance into the pot, measure once with my eyes. I dig deep into my rice bin. On this day after Thanksgiving, one handful of rice is enough.

 


Shark Fin Soup — Yue Chee Tong

(from Chinese Cooking: Our Legacy, Chinese American Women’s Club of Santa Clara County)

 

½ lb. shark fin
½ chicken
¼ c lean ham, diced
16 c water (approx.)
¼ tsp. Accent — optional
2 egg whites
½ lb. lean pork
4 dried scallops
salt to taste

 

 

Soak shark fin in cold water for 1 day. Clean by removing all bits of white. Wash thoroughly. Parboil and rinse in cold water. Repeat 3 times. Drain.

Boil chicken, pork, and dried scallops in water over a low flame for 1 hour. Take out chicken and pork. Discard dried scallops. Add shark fin and boil for 1 hour. Shred chicken meat and pork and add with the ham to the shark fin. Beat egg whites and stir into soup. Add salt. You can add a small amount of cornstarch and minced green onion. Serve very hot.


Bird’s Nest Soup — Yen Woh Tong

(from Chinese Cooking: Our Legacy, Chinese American Women’s Club of Santa Clara County)

 

½ lb. bird nest, dry
½ chicken
1 lb. lean pork, whole
4 dried scallops
½ c ham, chopped fine
½ stalk celery, chopped fine — optional
2 stalk green onion, minced
16 c water, approx.
2 egg whites, beaten
4 water chestnuts, chopped fine
salt to taste
½ tsp. Accent — optional

 

 

Soak the bird nest overnight. Parboil with a pinch of baking soda and rinse in cold water. Repeat 3 or 4 times. Clean away feathers. Add the chicken, pork, and dried scallops to the water and boil for 1 hour.

Take chicken and pork out. Discard scallops. Simmer bird nest in this stock for another hour. Shred chicken and pork and return to soup. Add ham, water chestnuts, and celery. Stir in egg whites. Salt to taste. Garnish with minced green onions and serve hot.


Chef Chu’s Sour and Hot Soup — Suen Lot Tong

(adapted from Chinese Cooking: Our Legacy, Chinese American Women’s Club of Santa Clara County)

 

1 qt. chicken broth
½ c bean cake, shredded
½ c ham or pork, shredded
1 tbsp. tiger lily, soaked
½ c bamboo shoots, shredded

 

 

Mix together these ingredients for thickening:

½ c cornstarch
1 c cold water
1 tbsp. soy sauce
salt to taste

 

Set aside in a small bowl:

2 eggs, beaten

 

 

Heat chicken broth, bean cake, ham, tiger lily, and bamboo shoots until broth boils. Add salt, soy sauce, and cornstarch mixture. When the soup has thickened, turn off the heat or remove the pot from the heat. With one hand, add egg slowly in a thin stream. Use the other hand to fold and mix the egg lightly with the soup.

 

Place in the large soup bowl:

1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. white pepper
½ c red rice vinegar
1 tbsp. green onions, chopped

 

 

Pour the soup into the large soup bowl. Garnish with green onions and serve hot. Serves 10.


Mom Wong’s Won Ton Soup

 

2 lb. ground pork
½ lb. prawns, chopped
12 dried black mushrooms
4 green onions, chopped
¼ can of water chestnuts, chopped
cilantro, chopped, to taste
¼ carrot, minced, for color
1 lb. square won ton wrappers
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. oyster sauce
2 tbsp. corn starch
2 tsp. sesame oil
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper

 

 

Wash and soak mushrooms in hot water until soft, about ½ hour. Drain, then chop.

In a large bowl, add all ingredients (except won ton skins!). Squeeze together to mix.

Wrap won tons.

Boil won tons in small batches of 10, making sure all are fully immersed. Boil gently for 10 minutes. Cool in colander.

Add to chicken broth soup.


Congee Rice Soup — Jook

(abridged from Chinese Cooking: Our Legacy, Chinese American Women’s Club of Santa Clara County)

 

4 ½ qt. cold water, more if you prefer a thinner soup
1 ¾ c short or medium grain rice, washed
Salt and pepper to taste
Bones, such as a roasted chicken carcass; half a turkey carcass; neck, head, and odd pieces from leftover roast duck or chicken; or combination of all. Lamb or other strongly flavored meat is not recommended.

 

 

Put cold water and bones in a pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for two hours, or until the bones have yielded up all their flavor. Remove bones. Add rice. Bring back to a boil, then simmer until the rice breaks apart and broth thickens, about three hours.

These are condiments that you can serve with jook: cilantro, chopped green onions, roasted peanuts, preserved egg (pay don), sliced cha siu, finely chopped chung choy.

 


AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer in Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge about risks posed by hazardous waste sites, although usually not all in the same essay. Recent work has been published in Pangyrus, Creative Nonfiction, Stanford Magazine, The Plentitudes, and The Sunlight Press, among others. New work will appear in Fourteen Hills, under the gum tree, and the anthology The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: Gen X Women on the Brink. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University. She is currently working on a memoir.

 

Featured image by Michal Balog courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

Food, for my extended family, is a cultural mainstay. We are that family who plans for dinner while eating lunch. We mark time by meal memory, as in, “The last time I saw you was when you cooked sticky rice meatballs!” We revel in taste and texture, eager to share new gustatory delights.

When we eat soup at banquet dinners, we hold our Chinese spoons with an index finger down the crease. I’m not sure why, other than I’m sure our grandmother made us. Ma-Ma—born and raised in the San Francisco Chinatown of the early 1900s—was quick to rap our tiny hands with her chopsticks when she caught us breaching any kind of table etiquette.

For this essay, I excised the short descriptions of soups that I’d written as bookmarks for my memoir-in-progress and used them as the backbone of a short essay that highlights formative stages of my life. Each soup represents a theme on opposing sides of the spectrum: scarcity vs. wealth, unfamiliarity vs. comfort. I chose soups to open each chapter of my memoir because soup, the first course in a traditional Chinese banquet, tantalizes the palate and portends the meal to come.

This essay begins in childhood, with basic themes: resources are limited; respect your elders. Over time, rigid Chinese family values give way to nuanced American family values, just as the strength of stone is weathered by water. The narratives lengthen in the last two parts when these themes converge into an imperfect whole.

In a way, my evolution as a writer mirrors the unfolding in my essay. I’ve been influenced by Philip Lopate, who told me, “Remember—essays should track the writer’s consciousness; they don’t need to have a point.” Left unsaid, but critical to the genre, was that the interrogation was the point, and it needed to be robust enough to elevate the prose above simple journaling. At first, the idea of posing unanswered questions clashed with my engineering training. Leaving things unexplained, up to the reader’s interpretation, felt lazy and unfinished, almost glib. What was the right answer? It took time—and the realization that in many situations, there are no right answers—to free myself from forcing an argument through to its “logical” conclusion.

Fortunately, that change in outlook made a huge difference in my writing style and in the breadth of topics I choose to write about. I can breathe a sigh of relief; I don’t need to be a subject expert. That ambiguity provides space for me to explore and discover, to test the boundaries of facts and feelings, to accept that I’m just one of many who seeks, through writing, to make sense of the world.

 


AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer in Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge about risks posed by hazardous waste sites, although usually not all in the same essay. Recent work has been published in Pangyrus, Creative Nonfiction, Stanford Magazine, The Plentitudes, and The Sunlight Press, among others. New work will appear in Fourteen Hills, under the gum tree, and the anthology The Pandemic Midlife Crisis: Gen X Women on the Brink. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University. She is currently working on a memoir.