Fu Julie has this wonderful streak in her – an innate kindness that is at once heartwarming and life affirming. Having known that Birdy won’t be in Chengdu for her birthday, she invited us, and the whole class along to celebrate Dofu Pi-Eater’s birthday the next weekend we were in town.
I couldn’t bear the thought of her slaving away in the kitchen trying to cook dinner for at least 10 people, so in a fit of absolute lunancy, I offered to cook something too. I thought I can make some South Indian bajjis. Surely, that is the simplest thing to prepare, I thought. Deep-fried veggies. What can be simpler? Except that some things that appear simple aren’t. There is just no chick-pea flour available in China. Or Chengdu, at least. I even asked Nie Ya Lan at the usual restaurant we go to – and even she was perplexed. The only flour they seem to readily understand is rice flour. And of course, wheat and corn flour. Gram flour? What’s that? Even if I say it in Chinese! So, after a little bit of frantic rummaging on the Internet shelves, we figured that the only “easy” recipe would be one that needs only corn flour, that doesn’t take much time, and is still edible. Hara Bhara Kebabs fit the bill. We didn’t.
25 minutes was what the recipe said. We arrived in Fu Julie’s house at around 4:15 giving us 45 minutes before the others came. Wrong. Fu Julie was frantically running around trying to deep fry tofu. Her husband, Royce was busying himself with ginger peanut butter. And boiling potatoes took an awful lot of time. Everything was fine till we added the peas. By this time, the clock was ticking to 6PM. The Speaking and Listening Teacher, Miss Tang, had already made her appearance. Ju Jin-su, Chen-kyi-dong, Dawei and Yoke were practising Korean, Chinese and English and succeeding in none of it. “This is high pressure,” wailed Birdy as we sweated over the boiling peas. Has anyone ever tried to mash peas? With your hands? Boiling hot peas? Fu Julie didn’t have a blender…even as she was waiting for the tofu to be done. And after all the hard work of mashing the peas, I stood back in horror and watched as the kebab mix turned slowly watery. “It’s ok,” said a perfectly calm Birdy. “We just have to pat it,” she gestured, while nobly trying to demonstrate the said task. “Now what do we do?” she asked an agonized minute of patting over lumpy dough. Pour the entire corn flour. Add in some rice flour. No, doesn’t work. I promise you it was one of the most petrifying moments of my life. “Let me try,” I said, gesturing to Birdy that she deep fry anything that remotely settles into some shape. I am not sure how, but somehow those lumps yielded themselves into some shape. Enough at least to push them over to the skillet. Thankfully, we weren’t deep frying them. Just shallow-fry. Almost 30 kebabs later, we were done. “Very spicy,” said Miss Tang. “Hao Chi,” said the Koreans in Chinese. Good food. I heaved a sigh of relief, sampling a few myself, and well, not bad. Could have done better, but what can you do with limited ingredients?
Dinner later, we sit down to play a game of who knows Birdy best. And surprisingly, Chen-ki-dong wins. “I was just guessing,” he says laughing. I was not playing – I would have won that game in a trice. By this time, Yoke was fairly fidgety and the Koreans leave, stating that it’s past their bedtime. It was just touching 9PM. We sit down and play a game of farkle. But it’s a bit of a dud. Dawei is enthusiastic but Yoke is annoyed. He is the sort of 21-something who cannot sit down in a place for long. Ask him to play a game of badminton, he will play for hours. Ask him to play chess, he will kill himself. It creates a dull stifled atmosphere at the table, and tonight of all nights, the game refuses to spark up. Eventually, it is around midnight when Dawei and we leave, Yoke having already left long before, citing some absurd reason. Dawei is surprisingly pleasant company today, and I enjoy the midnight walk as I do always. Little would I know that the coming week would be one of the worst ever I have had in China…