‘When I eat with my friends, it is a moment of real pleasure, when I really enjoy my life’. Monica Belluci
I remember there was a moment when I looked around the table. I smiled to myself and felt content and happy in that way that only occurs in those small moments, when you realise just how good your life is despite the ups, downs and round and rounds.
We were sitting in Chef Xu, a Sichuan Chinese Restaurant in Metrowalk, Manila. The food there was amazing. It was very authentic. From the literal hole in the wall access up a steep staircase covered in red carpet, enclosed by high white walls, to the smoky room filled with diners. Guests shared platters, laughing and talking in Chinese as they sat back in their chairs, hands on full bellies, smoking cigarettes. We sat at a round table down the end where a giant mirror covered the wall, reflecting the scene back on itself. There was a massive rice cooker next to us and the menu was written in Chinese. It was the real deal.
A while ago I took FB on a walking food tour of Binondo, our China Town here in Manila and somewhere between the Lumpiang and the Pancit that changed my life, I met T-Bug. A Chinese expat, who lives in my estate with her husband and small son, and was new to the city. I drove her home that day and we exchanged numbers and Facebook befriended each other.
T-Bug and I exchanged ‘likes’ and I was particularly interested in her posts about finding authentic Sichuan places to eat over here. There really is nothing quite like authentic Chinese cuisine. We invited T-Bug and her family over for morning tea and I made a really bad batch of scones with jam and cream. They were suitably polite telling me the scones were great as they crunched through the doughy mess. We talked and exchanged information about our lives, comparing similarities and appreciating differences. The children played together despite the language barrier. It seems cars and trains are a universal love.
The following Friday night we went out for dinner to Chef Xu, one of the restaurants T-Bug and L-Bug had found. We invited other food loving friends along and laughter filled our table, along with excited talk about the food as we drank Chinese beer toasting ‘ganbei!’ which means ‘cheers’ in Chinese. That beer was perfect to tone down the heat and intensity of the chili Sichuan is known for.
For days after SB and I excitedly talked of that evening, of the delight found in connecting across cultures, across language, through a shared love of food.
A few weeks later T-Bug tells me her husband L-Bug has come up with a dumpling recipe and asked if we would like to learn how to make them. I gather our friends up once more and our home filled with friendship while the children played again.
L-Bug talked through his recipe for the pork and shrimp filling. Use minced pork but cut the shrimp into small chunks. Only stir clockwise until it becomes sticky. A few secrets here and there that I promised not to share. The dough is pure white and soft. Made only with flour and water. L-Bug shows us how to four the surface and to kneed in a circular motion. He forms a ball, pokes a hole through it and spins this around his finger to make a giant donut. Then he cuts it and has a perfectly even snake from which to cut discs. We watch impressed at the skill. Each disc is flattened with a palm and then rolled into a perfect flat circle, one by one. Fast movement with the hands, with the rolling pin have us wide eyed and enthralled. I ask for a turn and my hands are clunky, slow and my disc is not quite right but I feel the warmth of genuine encouragement and I am having the time of my life!
Using chopsticks we learn to take the right amount of mixture and seal up the dumpling into a little purse shape. We talk about the history, of how this is a big process shared with a family as they sit and talk, each person with a job to do. This is how we find ourselves. L-Bug the master at rolling out dumplings, the rest of us with chopsticks carefully filling and pressing, talking and laughing as we go. BB is intrigued and wants a turn so SB shows him the process and carefully BB seals up his dumplings. He is excited to taste them and keeps asking if they are ready yet. I watched our new friends and I laughed to myself when I noticed that being married brings with it the same interactions with one another, despite culture. Correcting each other, finishing off sentences and laughing at shared memories as stories are told.
Finally we are finished and the pot of water is on the stove simmering in wait. L-Bug cooks the dumplings as T-Bug and I make little dishes of dipping sauce. A special Chinese soy sauce, vinegar, fresh garlic, and chili. The table is set and the first platter is laid down and it is on. Chopsticks go into battle.
You know those moments that are so sublime you cannot speak. Sure you can make sounds, but words fail to form as there is no adequate expression in your language, nothing quite captures that sensation you are experiencing in that moment. That about sums up eating these dumplings. Sure we have eaten dumplings before but these were different. The balance of flavour was perfect but perhaps there was more to it. I have always believed that to cook well you must use the secret ingredient. You must love. You must feel happiness in the preparation, satisfaction that you are creating something to nourish those you care for. We made these dumplings together and we loved every moment of it. Perhaps that was captured in the flavour of our food.
Not only that, our Head Chef L-Bug is a master and when words finally came to us we were brainstorming how he can achieve his dream of opening a restaurant here in Manila, soon. We drafted marketing plans and analysed locations. We dreamt of bringing this dumpling house to Australia, to our home where we would celebrate this genius with friends, family and community. L-Bug would become famous and we would be his entourage and greatest fans…
Eventually our bellies were full and we were the ones sitting back, hands on tummies, groaning under the strain of total satisfaction, sipping wine and beer and congratulating each other on how fabulous we all were. When it was finally time for everyone to leave we embraced each other in farewell, until next time.
Making new friends is awesome. Making new friends from different worlds is the best though, and when they take you for a walk through their culture and you get to experience something new, well that is just a priceless experience.