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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

For the Love of Food

I remember moving in with my host family during my first week in Kunming, nervous and tired from lugging all of my bags into my new room, and being told by my Nai Nai (Host Grandma), “If you live here, I’m going to teach you how to cook.” After that first day, I quickly learned that when Nai Nai talks about cooking, her face lights up. She’s the type of person to cook eleven dishes for five people, not because she or anyone else is particularly hungry, but just for the love of cooking.

She spends her days at the market, buying only the freshest and most delectable ingredients for her cuisine, and then by the stove, singing old Chinese songs and conjuring up delicious recipes for everyone in the household to enjoy. Nai Nai preaches that to make good food, you need to buy the right ingredients. The good stuff may be expensive, she says, but it is completely worth it.

Nai Nai treats the food she buys like royalty. She walks home from the market everyday, up the massive hill adjacent to our apartment building, carrying in each hand two overflowing bags full of naturally colorful vegetables, meats, and noodles. She lays the bags gently on the kitchen table. With a meticulous and professional hand, she carefully peels the vegetables, removing each ugly strand so that only the beautiful, delicious pieces remain.

I walk into the kitchen on a quiet, rainy afternoon, still panting from the daily bike ride home from my NGO. Nai Nai stands in front of the table, admiring the rainbow of vegetables carefully cut and placed in individual bowls, ready to be fried in the wok. She smiles at me and says, “Watch this.”

Nai Nai picks up the bowl of perfectly sliced carrots and pours it over the crackling oil in the wok. As soon as the first slice touches the metal surface, the oil explodes into loud, intimidating roars. Nai Nai fearlessly picks up her spatula and braces the spray of boiling oil, stirring and flipping the carrots with a gentle and masterful touch. With a huge smile on her face, she explains to me every ingredient she adds. “You have to add just the right amount of salt,” she tells me, “If you add too much or too little, it won’t taste good.” She makes the act of cooking look so easy that when she hands me the spatula and motions for me to give it a try, I don’t hesitate.

Within seconds of me taking over, half of the vegetables previously in the pan are sprawled across the counter, my hand burns from the heat of the fire and popping oil, and I can feel my right arm muscles cramping. Nai Nai chuckles and reassumes her position. The jumping vegetables in the pan and spraying oil are no match for Nai Nai’s skills. Again, the carrots stir, flip, and cook in the pan until they glisten. She scoops up all the carrots in one motion and lays them into their bowl, making sure to pay close attention to their presentation.

Nai Nai approaches every dish she prepares with more enthusiasm than my nine year old host brother has for running to the store to buy candy. After finishing each dish, she assembles her masterpiece on the kitchen table and marvels at her work. “Look at all the colors,” She says to me, her eyes widening in adoration, “The orange from the carrots, the green from the cabbage, the red from the pork, the brown from the mushrooms, the yellow from the corn; they are all so bright and look so beautiful together.”

With our mouths watering, we all sit down at the table, ready to dig in. Before I even have a chance to fully settle in my chair, Nai Nai takes my bowl and begins filling it with her favorite dishes of the night, “Oh, this one is delicious, you have to eat a lot of this. And this one too! Eat all of this one, you’re going to love it!” With each bite I take, I taste the love and excitement Nai Nai pours into all of her food.

The best kind of teacher is one who is passionate about what she is teaching. I could not have asked for a more enthusiastic, patient, caring, and loving person to introduce me to Chinese cuisine!