Food Is the Language of Love in My Mother-in-Law’s Kitchen

Tiny potatoes from my mother-in-law’s garden still litter the floor in the corner of our kitchen, ready to serve up their starchy delights in several more meals. Slices of crispy fried shaobing, my mother-in-law’s specialty flatbread, and heaping bags of the local smoked tofu from her village still cram the shelves of our freezer. We’ve barely dug into the jar of my mother-in-law’s mouthwatering homemade pickled kale, which perks up just about every stir-fried and stewed dish you could imagine, and we still have two more we haven’t even opened yet. And in the third drawer down next to the sink, bundles of rice noodles from my mother-in-law’s pantry have fed us for weeks already.

Whenever I gaze upon this abundance of flavors and foods for our next lunch or dinner, it reminds me of my mother-in-law and her boundless love for us, most often translated through treasures from her kitchen.

Like most Chinese parents, she would never say “I love you”, a phrase constantly showered upon me during my childhood. But over the years, I’ve found it in flavors of her lovingly prepared dishes, as well as in the items from her kitchen, pantry and garden that she always urges us to take home, with a forcefulness no less potent than any verbal declaration of affection.

Food has become a delicious means to bind us closer together, across cultures and continents. One of my favorite things to talk to my mother-in-law about is her home recipes, which I’ve come to miss since moving to Beijing. Sometimes we’ll call her on the phone, where I’ll ask her how to prepare potato cakes, a tempting stir-fry that turns these root vegetables into buttery cake-like morsels tossed with hot peppers and garlic. Or inquire about how much of the pickled kale I should use to make her classic tofu with pickled vegetables, a mouthwatering take on bean curd that transports me right back to her kitchen in the village.

Whenever she lovingly repeats every step with care and concern, making sure I understand her techniques, and patiently answers my questions, I know what she’s really saying to me. And it warms my heart, even long after we’ve said goodbye.