“I want to eat Di San Xian,” said Xinying. She lived in my apartment.
“What?” Surprisingly, I’d never heard of it.
“Never mind. I think I’m just a little homesick.” She paused, “My mom makes great Di San Xian.”
Oh right. I forgot it was only her third day in the States.
My apologies. I actually know Di San Xian, as nouns though: potatoes, green bell peppers and eggplants – three earthy vegetables as the name implies. They grow predominantly in Northeastern China, Xinying’s homeland. But it is also a dish?
Google rescued me. I excused myself and dashed to the closest grocery store. Three ingredients, three dollars, and then an assured joyful face – is there any happiness simpler than that?
The kitchen is my castle. Xinying didn’t cook. I quickly rinsed my babies, and was ready to craft my gift for her.
“Gundao(1) cut the potatoes and eggplants, cube the bell peppers, and heat a small pot filled with oil.” I did what the recipe told me. That was easy.
At a young age, I learned from a seasoned cook – my father – that testing the temperature of oil only takes a drop of water at the tip of a chopstick: slightly stick the dampened top into the hot oil; if fine bubbles sizzle around the edge, the temperature is right for frying. Neither a peaceful nor an explosive reaction works. I’ve never used a thermometer since. I tested my heating oil – perfect – so I slid in the eggplant cubes.
The decisive moment for Di San Xian was approaching; time and temperature were turning into my enemies. A slightly off temperature would transform my eggplants into oil addicts and droop their sloppy bodies onto the plate shapelessly; a millisecond of lingering would wrinkle their skins like the forehead of Gordon Ramsey. The key here was to seal the moisture and nutrients of the eggplants quickly by firming and crisping their skin in high temperature oil. Luckily, I didn’t mess up. I saved them in time.
Then I scooped two spoonfuls of hot oil onto a non-stick skillet. Crunching the potato cubes was a breeze; I just let time and patience do their jobs, and took them out when they looked right.
Now was the final assembling.
The same non-stick skillet was warming up; I minced a clove of garlic. It wasn’t in the recipe but I liked this extra layer of flavor. I tossed in the minced garlic – its aroma instantly filled all my senses – and then the bell pepper cubes. They danced with my spatula for a few seconds and were joined by potato and eggplant cubes. After a few more flips, I covered the lid and let them steam.
I intended to get a glass of water in this second break, yet my hands started to prepare the cornstarch mixture. In a blue silicone cupcake mold, I combined two teaspoons of water with two teaspoons of cornstarch – a magic portion that made the Di San Xian shiny, gooey and earthy.
I lifted the lid, sprinkled sugar and drizzled in some soy sauce and rice wine. The sudden sizzle explosion from the skillet startled me; I dropped the lid back on and gave it a final round of flips. With the heat turned off, I poured in the cornstarch mixture. I stirred it with my spatula; it vanished in the thickening sauce.
“Come to the kitchen!”
Both my hands offered her a white porcelain plate with the steaming Di San Xian.
I saw the joyful face I was waiting for.