The old saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But what of a woman’s heart? I have to wonder if that’s even more true for us, especially after the culinary feat my husband accomplished in the past few months.
In case you didn’t know, my husband is now the chef in our family. He’s the one who toils every evening in the kitchen to put together some of the most scrumptious meals I’ve ever tasted.
That’s quite a feat from a fellow who once shied away from the wok. Whenever people asked him if he could cook, he’d always laugh and reply, “I only know how to add in oil and salt.” He always used to claim I was the one more skilled in this arena, preferring to leave the spatula to me.
But in the past few years, my husband started shouldering more of the cooking responsibilities. Until at some point (I still can’t remember exactly when) he took over preparing all the meals in our home. It was a godsend in many respects, especially when I was in the hospital last year and couldn’t have managed the recovery without his support in the kitchen.
The last thing I expected, however, was for my husband to prepare that infamous eggplant dish, just for me.
Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.
I remember that muggy summer evening in Hangzhou, proudly setting that blue and white porcelain bowl on the dinner table after toiling over the wok. The whole apartment was redolent with the savory aroma of eggplant stir-fried with tomatoes, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a dash of vinegar, and a touch of sea salt. I inhaled with satisfaction as I thought of all the friends who had tasted the very same dish, heaping on the compliments as big as the second and third helpings they enjoyed at my place.
Surely, Jun was going to love this dish just as much. Or so I thought…until he started eating.
“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?
I let him have it, as I slammed my chopsticks on the table and asked him what the hell was wrong with him?
Admittedly, I was a little hot-headed at the time. But it had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.
When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.
I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.
Meanwhile, I figured that was the last time we would ever dine on my Italian Eggplant.
Except, it wasn’t.
Over the years, Jun surprised me by actually giving the dish a second chance – and loving it. It gradually became a favorite for us. Yes, a favorite! Who would have thought?
Then, after Jun assumed the role of chef in our home, he surprised me again.
One evening, our house was once again redolent with the aroma of dinner, courtesy of Jun. And it smelled very familiar. Was that eggplant and tomato in the air? And soy sauce? I followed my nose to the table, only to discover that Jun had cooked Italian Eggplant just for me, from scratch.
With one bite, I found myself in ecstasy once again. “Mmmm, this is so delicious!” I exclaimed, unable to contain myself over the delectable flavor. How had he so perfectly replicated the dish I once lovingly crafted for him all those years before?
Jun likes to say he transcended himself in finally learning to make this dish. I like to say he did it for love. But honestly, whenever it’s on the table, we don’t say much at all. We just eat and eat and eat, thankful that the food that we once argued over brought us together in delicious harmony.