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Essays

Our PopCorners

What is your favorite snack in your college dorm? In ours, it’s definitely Sea Salt PopCorners. 

It exists in so many different forms in the common room. After grocery shopping, you will see a bunch of them leaning against each other on the top of the refrigerator. Sometimes, when four of us sit around the table and our computers form a perfect square, the green plastic wrapping will sit straight at the center of it. Hands reach for it occasionally for help against midnight hunger, and the green little thing eventually becomes too weak, failing to stay straight on the table.

And the cruel people would make it sit up again, putting their hands in for more and more.

It is so addictive—the tastelessness at the beginning gradually turns to the aroma of corn, diffusing in the mouth. It is crunchy but not delicate, tasty but not greasy, salty but not pungent. It never feels abrupt, like a beautiful box of macarons sitting gently, which somehow keeps people from touching it. With its plainness like water, it flows in our life naturally. Facing those bumpy and dry little triangles, we never hesitate. We love it so much that it feels valuable, but there is never a sense of loss when a pack is finished.

We even have a photo album to collect pictures of every empty bag. We proudly show it to everyone who comes over, and open a new package for our guests. We pass that around until a new record has been broken—the total empty package number reaches 19 instead of 18. It makes relationships so approachable. We take one PopCorner from this bag and pass it around, creating a simple ritual that breeds the urge to connect. 

Maybe it started with only one of us, or it could be some of us, but in the end we all love it. I do not even remember how this started—maybe it was one of those nights when we cuddled on the chairs around the kitchen table, one person asking for some snacks, and it was excitingly introduced. 

But I could never forget the Saturday night when a group of friends sat around the small end table in the living room, the string light gently omitting orange light on the wall, Taylor Swift’s country music videos projecting on the walls under the dim light. We were playing card games—some leaned back on the sofa, some comfortably sat cross-legged, some leaned forward, concentrating, and some laughed and clapped their hands. 

One round came to an end, and we opened a package of PopCorners and passed it around. One of us took one piece of the chip out and said, 

“You know what, appreciate its name. It tastes like popcorn and it has corners. PopCorners! So cute.”

He stared at it, “It has 4 corners.”

“Nah…It has 3 corners—this is a broken one.”

But it does not actually matter how many corners it has, honestly, with all the warmth flowing in the air at 2:00 am. 

Because when you bite one corner, two new ones would emerge. 

The more the better.

Cover Photo Courtesy of: https://snackswithkat.com/pop-corners-chips-review/

Categories
Essays

The Egg

She loves ramen.

The noodles are slim and smooth, but chewy at the core. Shreds of bamboo shoot and the char siu pork belly add richness and depth to the texture of the dish. A thin layer of oil residue glitters on the top, embracing the noodles like a transparent wax cover. The clear brown soup underneath saturates the whole bowl, hot and straight-to-heart refreshing. The scallion adds on a bit of greenness and liveliness, scattering all over the noodle soup.

But none of them compares to the egg in it, she asserts. The golden sun.

“All the other ingredients are just the leaves and the egg is the true flower.” Cut in half and unfolded so the whole picture of the egg can be exposed. The distantly amber color of the egg white looks as soft as tender tofu and you can even see the trace left by the knife, reflecting slightly uneven light on the surface in organized lines. The rounded side is as glossy as a pudding.

And here comes the important part—the egg yolk. It has a graduated color—the outer edge is fully boiled and light yellow. The golden inner is the congealed magma, glinting as it freezes power and light into a concrete existence. Softly poking the yolk with the tip of the chopsticks raises one’s passion to preserve its tenderness—pure and warm, perfectly delicate and beautiful like a newborn one touches with a sincere and cautious heart.

With its innocent and tender face, the little piece of gold starts seducing the eater to swallow it all together immediately the moment it is served. How could one manage to resist its bright and passionate eye waves and turn to the still and watery bearings, the plain-colored noodle soup instead? 

She always eats the boring part, the noodles first, though. The scallion caper on the plain-colored background falls into the broth as her chopsticks start mixing everything up. Half a spoon of soup with a few noodles dipped in and a strip of bamboo shoot above make up the first gulp. And a bite of char siu. Then a sip of the soup. She plans out everything in the bowl to make sure that the amount of all the ingredients left is proportionate, so that she is not left with just noodles or just chai siu—each and every spoonful is well organized into a combination of ingredients. 

And the egg lies intact until the end. With the last spoon of soup and the last piece of chai siu, she devoutly sends it into her mouth. She chews this bite gently, slowly, staring at the corner of the table. 

The way she does math with food is fascinating to me in a way that it creates a certain balance in a meal; a harmony that makes the meal a complete story with a start and an ending—even an educational story, the way she does it. The girl with “delayed gratification,” they say. 

But I still remember the day when we went to a ramen place together after a final exam, and ordered the same ramen. After we were served, I picked some noodles up with chopsticks and lowered my head to start eating. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pick up the egg, and take a huge bite of it before touching anything else.

And then she smiled at me, with those peach-pink bulging cheeks. Her eyes were like crescent moons.

Cover photo curtesy of Yest to Yolks

Categories
Essays

What Hotpot has to Offer

I guess there might not be a specific rule for starting a hotpot. It seems that my family members each possess their own standpoints.

Mom always puts seafood in to boil first — the flavor of them makes the soup brothy. Vegetables come next to absorb these flavors, so the spinach, Chinese cabbage, and potato slices are penetrated with the umami taste of shrimp and clam. Grandma prefers “vegetables first, meat second”. That way, the vegetables will not take on the meat purine that dissolves into the soup along the way.

And I just put in whatever I like first.

However, when sitting together around the pot, we do not elicit a fight between these different standpoints. It has always been too hectic for that. The pot growls, someone says “add some more bamboo shoot slices in there”, we suck in air to escape the spice, my cousins laugh by the window, and there’s never-ending gossip about what’s happening in the neighborhood. The pot at the center brings us together. I always feel like I am trapped in this atmosphere—it wraps me up like a parka in summer. 

But I am the willing victim. I hope to see the full bowls of crab sticks, mushrooms, and beef gradually empty, fake a crying face, and turn to shrimp instead. I hope to have someone to sit with in the mist-like water vapor, waiting for the raw ingredients in the pot to be fully cooked.

Photo courtesy of i am a food blog

I grew up loving hotpot not just because it fills me with almost overwhelming warmth, but also because it adds a sense of freedom to eating, the basic activity of human survival. Even the most exquisite dish could probably never satisfy everyone. On a small plate, there is always the possibility that the ingredients inside are loved, but also hated by someone. The diner is caged in what is instead of what could be. It feels like there is no way back once the dish is served, no more possibility, no more discovery.

But hotpot is different. All that is fixed is the pot at the center of the table: the soup base, sauce, and dish ordered all depend on what the diners want. The massive variety of permutations these elements can form is exciting and intriguing—no one could have hotpot the exact same way twice. In the face of this sea, the diner is the master of the wheel, passing through the islands of all these elements; they, like the red push-pins on the map, connected through the strings, form hundreds of ways. 

On a Saturday night, my parents and I got in the car and went out to have hotpot. Dad always orders duck intestines, which come dangling on a bamboo stick, with flowers decorating the side. I always felt sorry for hating it despite its white and clean appearance. Mom loves Glebionis coronaria, the indulged green of this interesting vegetable bloomed in the plate it was served with. I saw the water glimmering above. And I could never give up my love for shrimp. In the spicy soup that we all love, everything disappears under the red. 

The water started to bubble again—I took out some vegetables.

They melted in my mouth, the freshness cleared the greasy feeling. And I took a shrimp out. It was sweet, along with the salty touch of the sea. 

They all taste different, although they are boiled in the same pot of soup. And we all like different things, although we’re bound by the same pot. As I looked at my dad eating his crunchy favorite ingredient, I felt really grateful.

Hotpot gave us the chance to choose, and the order to be together.

Cover photo courtesy of food network

Categories
Essays

One Piece of Misandao

In primary school, I usually had lunch at my grandparents’ home during the noon break.  Knowing that I grew up with a sweet tooth, grandpa always prepared me Misandao, a traditional fried cake glazed with malt sugar, with white sesame seeds dotting the top. 

Grandpa is also a sweet tooth. After lunch, he would take out the five-year-old cookie jar, lean in to catch a glimpse of what he knew to be inside, and squeeze his calloused hand in to grab out the box of Misandao. And I just sit quietly beside him, blinking my eyes at the blurred golden shape through the plastics. He placed the box of eight Misandao on the table and took out one piece, pushing the rest toward me. 

Misandao is sweet, but its barley aroma mediates the feeling of greasiness and indulgence. He used to bite half of it and seemed to be observing and examining the other half, chewing slowly. I always asked him to have more, and he always replied by asking me to have more. Admiring my grandpa a lot as a little kid, I followed him, having only one piece at a time.

I used to look at the white sesame on the surface glazed with sugar, glistening under the sunlight like delicate china—gentle, mild, and soothing. It came into my mouth like a sailing boat driven by a young sailor, melting into my ocean with peace and embracement. The sweet softness extended as I chewed, like the water sleeves of classical Chinese dancers flying in the air. The movement played in slow motion—the silk flows in the air like the stream of honey that flows in me, and I dive into it. I’d take a sip of green tea—as the water vapor rose, the slightest remnant of greasiness was blown away, the bitterness of tea with the extreme mellowness of barley and sesame reaching a harmony that soothed every single nerve of me. 

I could not help smiling and swaying my feet under the table. And I imagined what grandpa was thinking about, peeking over at him while he stared at the Misandao. He seemed so satisfied and peaceful with the one little piece on his hand—not even bothering to grab another one.

After all these years, I still remember the times when me and grandpa sat at the same table, each holding one small piece of Misandao and chewing silently. The rest of the golden Misandao lying on the table, the laughter of children playing at the field coming through the window, and the somewhat annoying buzzing sound of the air conditioning machine. Nothing seemed to matter or exist anymore. The joy of focusing on one piece of Misandao filled me with happiness and pacified all the dissatisfactions. 

I go to my grandparents’ house for lunch less and less often since middle school, but I still had Misandao at home. A whole box to myself. And then I went abroad for college, unable to squeeze even a single box of Misandao into my suitcase.

But every time I eat alone at the dining hall in college, I go back to the little table. So my blueberry muffin is my Misandao. I carefully take off the plastic bag, peel back a small corner of the paper cup, and take a bite. I feel the crispy lid that collides with my teeth, and the refreshing blueberry that lights the cloying sweetness. 

I go back all the time. When I go to class wearing the jacket with the aroma of the detergent in the morning and see the sunlight going through the leaves, when I sit on the bus listening to my favorite music that beats along with the speed of passing the flowers planted by the street, and when I walk alone on the way to the supermarket at night, seeing people playing guitar on the street, I’d secretly smile under my mask, add a few jumps to my footsteps, close my eyes, and shake my head slightly. 

Just like back then when I swayed my feet under the table, for the one piece of Misandao. 

With my grandpa.

Cover photo courtesy of INF News