A Basic Recipe

How cooking in quarantine helped me get along better with my mom.

by Jenny Zheng

During previous summers, it felt like my mom was irked by my very presence at home. So at the beginning of quarantine, I was constantly arguing with my parents.

After huge fights, once our anger dissipated, one of them might plop a bowl of chestnuts on my desk and throw in a line about their nutritional value. They did this to quietly poke themselves back into my life via food, as if these gestures could substitute for verbal communication.

One morning, Mom promised to make one of my favorite dishes: sweet and sour pork ribs. I danced around and showered Mom with applause. Their recent go-to dishes of clear broths and jellyfish salads were particularly bland. My parents often made similar dishes for weeks on end, until a pretty vegetable or irresistible deal at the supermarket spurred them to change things up.

Come afternoon though, the plan fell through and I found it hard to unfurrow my brows. Mom decided she didn’t want our frying pan to spit oil all over her newly cleaned kitchen, which happens when we fry pork ribs because our pan sucks. The joy that I’d been storing and building up for lunchtime suddenly vanished.

A World of Flavor Behind My Screen

To make matters worse, my sister-in-law and her tasty cooking, full of spices and sauces, disappeared last June, when she and my brother moved out. Hooray for their newfound independence, but that meant an unfortunate future for my taste buds.

It was about time the couple moved out, though Mom and Dad wouldn’t have minded if my brother and I lived with them till the grandchildren popped out.

“If you stay here during college,” Mom sometimes said to me, “Mommy can cook for you every day, wash your dishes, and fold your clothes. What a paradise, hm?”

I found solace on YouTube—first watching videos on how to make marshmallow-filled chocolate chip cookies and hot pot filled with pork, eggs, celery, and cauliflower. I then stuck to more simple tutorials, so as to not torture myself dreaming up the culinary possibilities available to me if I had my own place and money.

When I grew tired of drooling at the world of flavor on my screen, I tagged along with Mom to the supermarket and succeeded in convincing her to buy some of the ingredients that I needed for Korean fried rice (a recipe I’d watched that seemed impossible to screw up): Ketchup, oyster sauce, Spam.

“This Is My Cooking Time!”

“I can feel your eyes on me,” I said. “Scary!”

Mom backed away but soon enough drifted near again, leaning around and peeking over my shoulders, as I again moved to block her. It was a few days after our shopping trip and I was dicing carrots into half-centimeter cubes.

“Hurry up,” was her grand statement before stalking off. Our huge kitchen became mine again.

To be honest, I didn’t know either why I’d taken half an hour to dice the white onions and carrots. Thankfully, the Spam cut fast and easily. Green onions went into the pan first, according to the video. Mom had cut some for me from our garden earlier in the morning.

As they started to saute, Mom returned and began interjecting.

“The meat should go in first. It takes the longest to cook,” she said.

“I’m frying the flavor out of the green onions for the meat to soak up later!” which I totally made up, but quickly came to believe.

The video said to add the meat after the onions start to smell nice. I sniffed my chopsticks. Caramelized green onions smelled just like raw onions, but stronger and with the scent floating everywhere.

Once the Spam browned, I added the vegetables. Growing impatient, mom stomped her feet. I blocked her view of the stove, snow-angeling with my arms until she gave up. Then I dumped in leftover rice from dinner the night before, some of which flicked out of the pan amidst my hurried stirring. Mom passed over our wooden spatula.

“This should work better,” she said.



“No. Need flavors.”

“It’s been an hour,” she sighed.

“Stop exaggerating.”

“I’m hungry!” she said, as she tried, but failed, to wrestle the spatula from me.

“You promised me, this is my cooking time. You do not interfere—don’t even touch anything!”

My Skills Have Been Recognized

I added a spoonful of ketchup, then another of oyster sauce. The video called for either oyster sauce or soy sauce, but I thought one measly spoonful of oyster sauce can’t possibly flavor an entire pan of rice, so I sprinkled in some soy sauce.

Mom, still watching, yelled, “Is this dish worth an hour of anticipation, this sorry state of my kitchen, and the cost of all those ingredients?”

“This is my first time cooking!” I yelled back, stomping a foot.

Despite my protests, Mom prematurely nabbed a spoonful from my pan, with a grimace. I watched in suspense. My kitchen privileges may be unfairly abolished based on the results of this one attempt. How can ketchup and white onions taste good with rice anyways?

“Oh?” Her eyes widened. She had just been screaming at me. “Pretty good.”

“Really? I thought it was going to be super bad.” I giggled, then roared in laughter. I had gotten confirmation from my stickler mom that my cooking was awesome. Maybe I’ll be able to cook a pork pot recipe next week, I thought. “But wait, let me add an egg.”

“Yes, fried rice should have eggs in it,” Mom confirmed.

I forbade Mom from eating more until this chef finished cooking. She obeyed.

I gathered the rice and eggs into a matching pair of bowls. Mom hyped me up. Her previous unrelenting frustrations had turned into a string of compliments. And I agreed. My fried rice was better than anything I’d ever tasted.

Missing Ingredients

Mom and I ate the Korean fried rice throughout the rest of the summer, until we both got tired of it. Along the way, we tinkered with the recipe. Mom and I agreed replacing Spam with pork was healthier. Mom still didn’t think it was necessary for our meat to brown (“Unhealthy!” she’d shout, objecting over the extra time it takes). I preferred cooking slowly, since taking my time was therapeutic. And as long as I started cooking earlier in the day when she didn’t need the kitchen, she’d let me.

Sometimes when ingredients were missing (usually the round onion), Mom still encouraged me to go for it. Korean fried rice was hard to screw up. Still, with such a basic recipe, you shouldn’t leave out anything.

Before my fried rice success, I felt that Mom had no confidence in my cooking skills; she treated me like I was a brat messing with her property. But now I see in her a capacity for fair judgment, and she has grown more willing to listen and take suggestions in and out of the kitchen.

It is a miracle neither of us are erupting at each other with all the time we are spending together during the pandemic. Cooking helped us not fight so much. It also feels excellent being able to control some of the things going into my stomach.

Discussion Questions

  1. At the beginning of her story, Jenny says her parents would “quietly poke themselves back into [her] life via food.” What do you think she means by this? Why do you think her parents use food as a form of communication?
  2. What is it about cooking together that helps Jenny and her mom’s relationship?
  3. Jenny explores the world of cooking during the pandemic. What’s one thing that you’ve explored or discovered over this past year?
  4. People have been living together in close quarters during the pandemic. What are some other ways, aside from cooking, that people in the same residence could bond with one another?

Cooking helped us not fight so much.
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