Diasporic longing does do strange things to you.
For me, the source of a deep gastro-sentimental attachment is Fujianese food. Unlike the flashiness of Sichuan food or the lavishness of Cantonese dishes, Fujianese cuisine is more subdued. Chefs from the region prefer to play up the natural umami of seafood and extend the taste through broth. My father’s hometown is Minqing, a small county near the city of Fuzhou in Southern China. I wouldn’t have been drawn to the subtlety of Fujianese cooking if not for his insistence on scouring the streets for tasty spots in Fuzhou everytime we visited during my childhood, whether it was time-honored brands in the city center or seafood stalls in the middle of nowhere. When enjoying a bowl of freshly-made fish balls, the thick membrane of fish meat initially puts up a resistance. Then, hot grease oozes out when you get to the marinated meat filling. Afterwards, taking a spoonful of fresh broth cleanses the palette.
Since moving to the United States, I have not had many occasions to seek out Fujianese food. I was naturally excited for the opportunity to sample and share some obscure dishes that I would have the upperhand in introducing and explaining. The Special Special team had settled on the idea of an eating club, where each of us would explore a cuisine that holds special special meaning, and reveal an intimate part of ourselves in the process. Together with Wen-You Cai, who has Fujianese family ties, and Danie Wu, whose family is from Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, I found Fou Man Lou Seafood Restaurant, a Fujianese establishment in Sunset Park. It was rated three-star out of five on Fantuan (Mandarin for “rice balls”), a food delivery app that not only delivers East Asian food, but also takes payment in RMB through WeChat, the most popular messaging and social media app used by Chinese communities all over the world. Suffering from a slight geographic disorientation, we placed an order from this restaurant and waited in anticipation at our gallery in the East Village.
For almost two hours, my eyes were glued to Fantuan’s app screen, as a transnational rice ball breaks the walls of geography, currency, and diasporic disidentification, ever so slowly. For those of us accustomed to deliveries that average 30 minutes, and having purposefully not had breakfast to prepare for this feast, our hunger was palpable. Finally, the delivery person arrived, apologizing for the delay due to traffic. When he handed me the food, he asked, “Why didn’t you just order from Manhattan Chinatown?” Demonstrating zero allegiance to the restaurant he worked at, he suggested that it would have been far better to order from a Fujianese restaurant that was closer and had better food. In a single blow, I was rendered speechless. My desire for an authentic, hometown palette had severely clouded my judgement.
We laid out all the dishes on the table: fish balls, rouyan (wontons made with meat-infused wrappers), oyster omelette, peanut noodles, marinated sea snails, and to top it off, a giant tub of mashed sweet taro. Matching the delivery person’s warning, the food was far from my expectations: the flavors were a little tepid, and the textures a little too soft. So much cooking wine was used in the snails that we almost got drunk from it. The rouyan, too, had gone through such a series of transformations that the chewing experience was hardly recognizable. Marcel Proust, in his most famous book volume In Search Of Lost Time (“À la recherche du temps perdu”), recalls an episode from his childhood after tasting a madeleine dipped in tea. The melding of taste and texture sent a shudder through his body, recalling Sunday mornings he spent with his aunt. For me, nostalgia for times past is synonymous with diasporic longing, just like how my father, who moved from Fuzhou to Beijing in his youth, never got tired of searching for fish balls that tasted right. Even though these dishes did not induce a Proustian jolt, sharing a meal like this together is a search for that elusive feeling of authenticity.