Studio Work / Her
Earlier this year, I made this painting for my friend Carla as a birthday gift. It is inspired by the Chinese character 她, which means ‘her’. It is in memory of her daughter Heidi and her dear friend Susie. Here, I share a story of two women from my own life: One is alive; the other is not. Both of them gave me life.
It is Friday evening.
I am nervous as mum begins to cook dinner for us.
Whatever will she think when she opens our kitchen cupboards and spots our new cast iron cookware?
I find her in the kitchen, with the five-quart deep skillet on the stove top. There is no surprise or disapproval on her face. Instead, she looks poised and ready for action.
‘What do you think of it?’ I ask, hesitantly.
‘It's good ah. Your Pó Pó used to cook with something like this.’
‘What? Really?’ I am suitably impressed and somewhat euphoric.
If truth be known, when I ordered the skillets, I had rather romanticised the notion of using cast iron. I had even imagined a connection between the traditional cookware with my own past. And here was mum, telling me that my own grandmother cooked with cast iron.
‘Yes, yes. Your Pó Pó had a cast iron wok. Very big. Very heavy. Good health benefits ah. Last long time. Very good to cook with.’
I am incredulous. Not only is mum repeating to me everything that I read online, but it is clear to me that she wholeheartedly approves of my decision. I feel jubilant. And vindicated.
Mum goes on to tell me about Pó Pó's superhuman abilities.
‘Your Pó Pó was amazing. She would cook for thirty people all by herself when it was Chinese New Year. Eight courses. Three tables. Two stove tops. One wok.’
I am not at all surprised to hear this about Pó Pó. I have always known her to be a remarkable woman. She was a mother of ten children, after all, and she lost two of them when they were little. I may not have known Pó Pó very well, but this I know for certain: she was a woman of strength and grace. In a way, I can't imagine her cooking with anything but cast iron.
As I watch mum wield the iron skillet with deftness and ease, it is clear to me that Pó Pó has passed her culinary abilities onto her daughter, my mother.
The cast iron does not faze mum in the least. She instinctively knows how much oil to add and what heat to use. She wraps a cloth around the handle before I even have time to get the oven mitts out. She knows when to put the lid on and when to take it off. Without skipping a beat, she cooks the choi sum to perfection: it is juicy, tender, and full of flavour.
Before the evening is up, mum asks me the most important question of all: ‘Ho Yee ah, how much did the pans cost?’
She guesses that they cost a few hundred dollars. I tell her that the skillets were about forty to fifty dollars each. It is her turn to be impressed.
‘Oh, that is very good ah.’
And with that, I know that I have done her proud.
You can read the other posts in this series here.