My Mama

“Don’t use your hands, like that the food become ba si.” 

I’m probably spelling that wrong, but I never asked her what it actually meant or how it was spelled, I just took her word for it: that if I touched food with my hands it’d go bad a lot quicker. I must have been barely a teenager when she first said it to me, and even now when I get lazy and start picking at leftovers with my bare fingers, I hear her voice loud and clear. It was one of many things I remember and learned from my grandmother. 

Mama, as we called her, raised me with the help of my grandfather who passed away when I was 17. My parents were both very young and both worked so most of my childhood memories and a lot of what I learned was from them. 

Mama cooked, that was her role. She took care of the home and made us breakfast, lunch and dinner. Egg day on Mondays, no meat on Fridays. She loved KFC and Burger King, those were always treats for us and for her. 

Every night, she’d make a whole meal for the six of us and it would always be a full-on family meal of some sort of meat, seafood, veggies and soup. On Sundays, my aunt's family came over and it was always a feast. It was impressive, and she did it mostly on her own almost every night for years and years. 

She would also remember if one of us liked a certain dish. She took a lot of joy in just watching us eat and would notice if one of us ate more of one thing, and took pride in knowing that and making that dish for us again and again just to see us enjoy it. 

Although, when she knew that we didn’t like a particular dish of hers, she’d be sure to point out the next time she made it, that one of us “Didn’t know how to eat it.” She wasn’t mad or offended, it was just a fact and something she kept track of. 

But oh, when you did know how to eat something and you loved it she would, without fail, tell you with a smile, “Here, I know this is your favorite." And I had a lot of favorites - her tofu soup, made with the softest grade of tofu with minced pork, green onions in a clean, clear broth. Her sambal prawns, her pepper pork, peanut soup, baby kai lan with oysters sauce, French beans with oyster sauce… and she would REMEMBER. That was her thing, and that was how she showed us she loved us. 

Thanks to her I know how to clean a pig’s stomach. Thanks to her I developed an appreciation for cooking and baking and the joy and comfort I find in being in the kitchen. Most of all, thanks to her I always had something good to eat; my family always ate well and we were completely spoiled. It was all because of her.

She was meticulous with prep. I still remember how she would take the time to pull the tails off a giant basket of mung bean sprouts while watching cooking shows (Wok With Yan was her favorite). There were times she’d let me help her with the sprouts which, at the time, I hated to do but I’ve now come to appreciate it because getting rid of the tails really makes the dish so much more pleasant to look at and eat. She was also a really good, consistent cook and she had a database of recipes in her head that she just knew by heart that I wish I wrote down, and that I wish I paid more attention to when she was cooking. 

Most of all, I wish I told her how much I appreciated her and how much of an influence she was on me, whether she intended for that to happen or not. 

I love you, Mama. You took really good care of me, of all of us. I just hope you knew that before you left us. At least you're not hurting anymore.

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Tabitha