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16/12/2015

The Taxonomy of Soy Sauce

Radhika Oberoi

Pig kidneys in a cider and mustard sauce

Xiuying Zou ripped open the cellophane cover on a pack of British Pig Kidneys with her meat-and-poultry knife and transferred its contents onto a chopping board. Her knife sliced the kidneys into halves and diced the meat, gleaming with lard and droplets of moisture, into pieces that measured three centimetres each. With the precision of a surgeon, she guided her knife through the tender flesh, trimming each portion of excess fat until the pieces lay in neat rows on the chopping board, awaiting the inevitability of being sautéed in a frying pan over a gentle heat.

‘Testicles,’ she announced suddenly, addressing herself to Marina Martinez, her Brazilian flatmate, who was stirring a saucepan full of fusilli spirals. ‘If these were British pig testicles, I would chop-chop-chop and eat raw,’ she continued, cutting the last piece of meat with the vehemence of a butcher pulverizing a tough and unyielding animal.

Xiuying’s irrelevant reference to a pig’s privates while cooking kidneys in a mustard and cider sauce confirmed what Marina suspected – the affair had ended and it had ended badly. She chose not to say anything for the moment, and fixed her eyes on the fusilli, bloating up to acquire the wholesome features of a quick-and-tasty lunch, as promised on the cardboard box that contained the pasta. She stirred the saucepan on the hob with a steadfast devotion to the food boiling inside it, as Xiuying raved on, flailing her arms through a cloud of wholegrain mustard, crushed garlic and black pepper that thickened around her as she spoke.

‘My mā warned me – “Stay away from foreigners,” she said to me on Skype. She knew Kevin was a porky; she knew he would break my heart.’ Xiuying snapped a stalk of celery to demonstrate – a small incision of casual flirting had cut the chambers of her cardiac muscle into perfect, irredeemable halves.

‘I knew something was wrong when he wouldn’t make eye contact with me,’ said Xiuying, pouring two tablespoons of sunflower oil into a frying pan.

Kevin’s eyes were like century eggs, she had once said to her flatmates as they sat and ate around a dining table that resembled a food atlas, with roasts, gravies, bakes and stir-fried flora and fauna that mocked geographical boundaries and cultural authenticity. His eyes were the colour of duck egg yolks that had been preserved in a muddy mixture of clay, ash and quicklime for several months. A mossy green, flecked with grey – liquid irises like fermented yolks. Those irises had silently lied to her, stealthily cheated on her, and permanently shifted their unreliable gaze upon other romantic attractions.

Xiuying emptied a bowl of chopped onions into the pan that was sizzling with oil. The onions crackled and spat some oil on her face. She moved a few inches away from the hob but continued to fry the foul-smelling, temperamental mix, till the circular pieces were scorched a warm caramel. She added the meat to the onions and dropped a swirl of butter into the pan, muttering as she sautéed.

‘He dumps me – the suckling pig – and I stand here cooking his favourite dish,’ she said to Marina, whose pasta was ready, and who was planning a furtive exit from the flat’s common kitchen. ‘He dumps me, and I make his food; I will eat these British Pig Kidneys all alone, but with him in my head, talking, always talking about his football, his new jersey, the cheerleaders … oh that wild boar!’

The meat cooked while she ranted and was nearly burnt before she salvaged it with her cider and mustard sauce. She allowed it to simmer for a few minutes before taking it off the hob and banging the frying pan onto the dining table.

‘It is ready Marina,’ she said, pointing at the frying pan with theatrical flair. ‘Now tell, how can I eat it alone? How can I eat it without thinking of him?’

‘Riu-yiing,’ said Marina, mangling her flatmate’s name with her Hispanic accent. ‘Just splash soy sauce on the kidneys. Then it becomes a new dish – your dish – that won’t remind you of him,’ she advised before leaving the kitchen with her pasta.

‘Soy sauce,’ mumbled Xiuying, staring at the space in the kitchen that Marina had filled, with newfound reverence, ‘It will ruin the dish but cure the pain here.’ She put her right hand across her chest and stared at the food.

 

Fusilli with Basil, Tomatoes and Avocado Sauce

Marina Martinez was unusually reticent while Xiuying raged about her failed affair with Kevin. She was fretting over her avocado sauce. Ever since she had arrived in England from Bahia, and had moved into a student residence on the vast, emerald campus of her university, she had been distressed by her own inability to replicate the taste and texture of Brazilian food. She had laboured over a vatapá, but the thick paste of bread, shrimp and coconut milk she had cooked lacked the velvety smoothness or the cheeky pungency that she was accustomed to. Even a simple beans-and-rice had caused tears of shame and homesickness to fall into the saucepan in which the beans lay – hard and unrelenting, they had boiled and bubbled right through lunch and dinner before acquiring an edible softness.

Marina blamed the kitchen’s electric hobs for her culinary misfortunes. They released a tepid and tentative heat, while she needed the steady, azure flames of a gas connection for her chickpeas, black-eyed peas, butter beans and other tough legumes. She also blamed herself for arriving at the university without a pressure cooker – the kind that whistled to announce that a legume or a portion of meat had grown tender and worthy of being marinated or put into a curry.

She decided to thwart her longings for the flavours of a Bahia street, and cook only the kind of food that required little heat or inventiveness. Pastas of all varieties yielded readily to the slow warmth of the hob, and she convinced herself that her daily experiments with fusilli or vermicelli or ribbon-cut lasagne were a part of a process of internationalisation that had begun – as promised by the university’s orientation handout – the moment she had landed here with her canary yellow suitcase.

Marina’s internationalisation, despite being slow and painful like the hob she was slouched over, led her to scour the internet for recipes. It was important for a variety of reasons, to prepare the fusilli with its subtle sauce of fresh avocados – halved, pitted and mashed – with the effortlessness of a new cosmopolite. The dish would be a fragrant confirmation of her cross-border cookery skills. It would also give the impression of silent efficiency and composure to Xiuying, who, in spite of her outburst, was cooking with an instinctive ability to turn raw food into gastronomic delights.

Marina cut a cup full of cherry tomatoes into soft halves as the fusilli and Xiuying boiled on steadily. She sprinkled some olive oil on the tomatoes and added basil leaves to the pulpy mix. She nodded vigorously when Xiuying said something about Kevin being a pig, and wondered if trying to placate her spurned flatmate while making the best avocado sauce in Norwich would delay her for her biodiversity audit. Later in the day, she would study the molecular structure of plankton under a microscope – a task she found easier to perform than beating avocado pulp to a smooth consistency. She whisked some of the pasta water into the mashed avocado, and added the juice of a plump lemon to the sauce. She tasted it by poking her index finger into the bowl and placing a twirl of sauce on the tip of her tongue – a movement both swift and defiant, for it distracted Xiuying enough to stop her tirade for a few seconds and frown disapprovingly at the blasphemy of a microbe-riddled finger touching food meant for human consumption.

The sauce was ‘bursting with flavour’ just as the recipe had reassuringly stated. Marina stirred the pasta and the mixture of cherry tomatoes into it. Her lunch was ready, but Xiuying, she could tell, was in the mood for conversation. Did she just ask her a question? Was it rhetorical? Marina decided on a quick and corny reply, which she blurted out with what she hoped was the élan and wisdom of a Hispanic agony aunt. She opened the kitchen door to leave, and nearly bumped into Kethaki Gupta who occupied Flat 2D. She exchanged a quick smile with the gregarious Indian girl and walked out with her pasta, relieved that Xiuying would have someone else to talk to as she ate a meal that reminded her of a love affair in its heyday.

Did plankton have feelings, Marina wondered, as she ate her pasta in her room and heard Xiuying sob in the kitchen, probably into her meticulously prepared pig kidneys.

 

Scrambled Eggs on (Unburnt) Toast

‘Oh Xiuying, what’s the big deal. A break-up is not something you sit and cry about; it’s something you sing about or dance about.’ Kethaki Gupta disseminated wisdom as she cracked open the reddish-brown shells of two medium-sized eggs, the produce of well-bred Suffolk hens. The yolks fell into a deep ceramic bowl and Kethaki whipped them with her balloon-bottomed whisk. She stopped her rhythmic thak-thak-thak every now and then, to say something profound to Xiuying, who was sniffling softly as she forked the food on her plate.

‘Bollywood has a million song-and-dance sequences dedicated to break ups,’ Kethaki continued, adding a pinch of salt and half a teaspoon of freshly-ground pepper to her whisked eggs. ‘So if you are really feeling that terrible, why not put your arms around a silver oak on campus and sing to it,’ she advised, placing a frying pan on the hob and dropping a splotch of butter into it.

Kethaki’s homilies were like the food she cooked – absurdly simple and nourishing to the spirit. On most days, she tore open a plastic carton of Sainsbury’s Tarka Dal – Earthy and Aromatic ­– and heated it in the microwave. She then ate the dal with a garlic and coriander naan or with some rice that had boiled and bubbled in her rice cooker – a stout and overworked vessel that had travelled all the way from India with her. But on days that she decided to cook, her ‘cooking-shooking days’, she would simply add a fistful of mung dal to the rice and sprinkle some salt and turmeric into the cooker. She would allow the concoction, a khichri, to jiggle away in the cooker, till it had softened enough to eat.

‘Khichri is great if you want a belly that doesn’t jingle-jangle when you walk,’ she would say to her flatmates, shovelling mouthfuls of the yellowy mess into her mouth, as they laboured over their meals.

Kethaki’s culinary talents extended to eggs – fried, scrambled and the Indian variants, masala omelette and tomato bhurji. And now, as she poured the beaten eggs into the pan with its glaze of melted butter, she noticed that Xiuying was smiling. Finally. The eggs curdled and she shovelled with a wooden ladle to prevent the foamy mix from sticking to the frying pan.

‘Be a bit like Meena Kumari, Xiuying. Sing your heart out to a bottle of Merlot,’ she said, as she removed the frying pan from the hob and transferred the soft, moist scrambled eggs onto a plate.

‘Who is Meena Kum … oh look, there’s smoke coming out of the toaster!’ Xiuying said suddenly, nearly screaming the second half of her sentence. The thought of food being rendered inedible due to human stupidity was unbearable to her.

Kethaki had forgotten about the slices of sunflower-seed bread she had put into the toaster. They were burnt to a crisp, but she was unfazed.

‘Never mind. I’ll just fry some rice and put the eggs in it. I’ll have scrambled-eggs-fried-rice for lunch today,’ she said calmly.

‘Add some soy sauce,’ Xiuying replied.

Soy sauce. A few drops could make both lunch and life tolerable, at least for the moment.

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