It’s five o’clock and I make my way down to the kitchen. I take out the vegetables that will accompany my rice. I cut my garlic into small cubes before moving onto the rest of the ingredients. The onion in slices, the leek cut diagonally and the peppers into strips. I slowly sweat down the onions, add the garlic before throwing in the leeks and peppers.
“That smells really good,” says my housemate as he opens the fridge door and takes out a ready meal, “I swear you’re the only one who cooks nice things, Karen.” He’s wearing a grey hoodie, the hood up, and a pair of long shorts. Apparently the cold doesn’t get to him, which is odd because why would you wear a hoodie if you weren’t cold? I’m dressed in so many layers, I look like a human marshmallow.
“Thanks,” I say.
He stabs the plastic cover of his ready meal several times with a pair of scissors and I jump twice at the first two stabs. The microwave-hum choruses with the sizzling of my stir-fry, his lasagne starting its time. He grabs a small handful of salad before carefully counting five tomatoes and placing the remaining packet of salad and tomatoes in the fridge. A rustling sound destroys the kitchen symphonies as he starts to devour a packet of crisps. He shakes the packet towards me. No thanks I say, poking my stir-fry. He shrugs, sucking his flavoured fingertips and going in for more.
He pushes his hood off his head and runs his seasoned hand through his wet hair. He’s come back from the gym, he’s starving, he tells me. I tell him I am too.
I throw in cubes of tofu and black bean sauce into my vegetables and toss. A home comfort I typically enjoy making without the pollution of the tomato sauce floating in the air.
The microwave dings and my housemate pops the door open. I try not to analyse his eating habits but I can’t help it when it’s right in front of me. So much effort cooking, he says, who can be asked?
I can imagine my mum telling him how little vegetables he has on his plate. She used to tell me when I was younger that vegetables never fill up your stomach. I think it was a way to make me eat the last piece of broccoli that remained at dinner.
“You have one and I will have one,” my mum would say.
I would agree and go to the rice cooker to scoop more jasmine rice into my bowl. I’d grab the piece of broccoli with my ivory chopsticks, my Chinese name engraved at the top. A slice of garlic would attach itself to my broccoli floret and I’d shake off onto the white disposable table cover that gets laid out every evening. Taking a bite, I’d put it down and place the bowl to my lip, pushing the rice into my mouth with my chopsticks.
“Make sure you eat the last mouthful of rice,” my mum would say.
Any rice that would remain meant a spot on my husband’s face. That’s what she told me and my big sister. Sometimes I’d leave half a bowl of rice, defeated by the need to eat the dishes in the centre. Home-roasted duck with plum sauce, pork pulled out of the pot of soup with goji berries and black-eyed beans and a plate of steamed Chinese cabbage. What we didn’t eat would be put into bowls and covered with cling film.
“We have so much to eat for the rest of the week!” my mum would beam, “only need to cook more vegetables.”
Every dinner was a family feast with leftovers to last at least two days, sometimes three.
For my housemate, back at home, it was a new meal every day. What he doesn’t eat is fed to the bin because eating it again the next day is unappealing. He’d learnt that at home. Everyone in his family had individual plates that they had to eat off of. Thursday was take-out evening, usually Chinese. Spring rolls, satay chicken and egg fried rice. It was the only meal where everyone sat together to eat. As they shovelled the food in their mouths, the plate balancing on their laps, the television would talk for them. That was not what I called a family meal.
My mum used to tell me about how it was back in Hong Kong. Her mother’s dining room table only big enough to fit half the family. So they would have to feed everyone in batches. As one half ate, the other half sat in front of the television and watched an Asian drama full of slapstick action. Ones where someone would dramatically hanging from the ledge of a tall building shouting whilst their saviour would trip over wide-eyed as they run over. My grandpa would laugh out loud in his reclined chair, whilst everyone else sat on the sofa, a mahogany bench with a cushioned seat.
My mum would be positioned by the sink. As the first dinner came to an end, she would be at the sink cleaning the white porcelain bowls and chopsticks. Her mother would be cooking another round of vegetables for the next lot of people in the wok.
A family feeding the family, an evening filled with nonverbal words of satisfaction. Pointing to a plate, this one is good, eat, eat, very good.
I sometimes wish we had more family members in the UK. But we’re just a table of four. My dad, my mum, my sister and me. My mum is the chef in our house, so it leaves me and my sister to set up the dinner table, dish out the rice and place a small dish of soy sauce in between the meat and the soup contents. Then we’d sit and wait. My sister would bounce in her seat, she hardly cooks Chinese food at her home. My dad would have his chopsticks poised, ready to pick at my mum’s homemade char-sui pork.
“Eat, eat,” my mum would say as she’d scurry to the table, holding the final centre dish in her hands and placing it down when she sits.
As we eat we’d make loud non-verbal sounds of enjoyment to ensure our mum would know we’d eat well tonight.
“Mmmmm, so good!”
In between those sounds, my dad would discuss his day at work and we’d all chime in. School was a drag, I need to study tonight, the supermarket was busy. Every small detail important like how the mangos are only seventy-nine pence instead of one pound. Our discussion switching between English and Cantonese.
Last week, my housemate had just come back from buying more ready meals and was stacking them up on his shelf. He found a carrot tucked away at the back of his shelf.
“I’m not going to eat it,” he said, waving the carrot around, “Do you want it?”
I did. It was perfectly fine in my eyes but would he find that disgusting? Am I disgusting to want to eat it? It had shrunk in size and was soft and squishy.
I shook my head and he tossed it into the bin.
“Well, if you really want it you can reach in and get it,” my mum told me on the phone, “just wash it off.”
And so I did. He started throwing away his spotty bananas, after he told us he only ate green ones. Six bananas only just starting to form black dots, no bruising in sight. When the kitchen was empty, I counted to twenty to make sure no one would come out of their rooms. Then I reached in and grabbed the goods.
His pickiness with food is in my favour. It’s like those bargain hours at the supermarket except is free and I didn’t need to leave the house.
My family typically made their way to the supermarket every Sunday, buying all the discount goods that lined the shelves. Sometimes we go wild and go during a weekday, it really depended on our cravings. People have their vouchers for discounts, we have our love for the yellow sticker discount barcodes.
It was like a weekly family trip, circling the aisles, waiting for the workers to discount the New York onion bagels, for my dad to take to work. Sometimes we’d manage to beat people to the out-of-date spinach and bags of disregarded bashed up bananas for sixty pence. My mum would hover by the chilled fish counter, ready to buy the rainbow trout as soon the price drops. We’d steam it and top it with fried ginger, spring onion strips and soy sauce.
As I turn the heat off of my pan, I scoop my tofu dish into one of my pasta bowls. I go to the fridge and scoop some left over rice into my bowl and microwave it, heating it until the cling film creates a dome over the bowl from the heat.
I can hear my housemate slurping his food down before I reach the table. His tomatoes have probably rolled an inch round his plate but they all still remain there. All five of them, there for the aesthetics, along with the leafy greens that bring brightness to the plate.
I am envious that he can eat ready meals and seem visibly okay. His shopping bags normally also contain three packets of large chocolate bars and two big bags of crisps, contrasting with the amount of greens found in my bags.
I have tried eating his way. My dad has bought a discounted ready meal before, it was too much sauce not enough pasta. We ended up dipping pieces of bread in the sauce to not waste it.
My housemate told me that the Thai curry and the meatball spaghetti were the best ones. The chicken roast and raviolis are not good, he had tasted them and was disappointed. I gleefully took his advice since I was a newbie in this area. He’s made his way through enough so he’s got to know what’s worth his money. The rich tomato sauce with basil filled the kitchen and it coaxed out my housemate. He had the meatball spaghetti that evening too.
My first bite was exciting and flavoursome. Then the slimy and sloppy texture, the dull browny-red colours and the overexposure to salt bored me. I felt my body absorbing more oil than nutrition. I felt like a lump of mash potato after the week of ready meals had come to an end. So I celebrated by spending more than two hours in the kitchen making a homemade falafel burger with sweet potato French fries and a side salad. I happily ate all of it. I am a slave for food.
He doesn’t change his posture as I take my seat opposite him. In one hand he holds his phone, scrolling through it with his thumb, and in the other is his fork. He’s not here for conversation. Doesn’t care for green tea that is one pound rather than two pound fifty.
He’s hunched over, his legs spread around a small coffee table that the landlord thought was a good alternative for a dining table.
Apart from the stubble that covers the lower half of his oblong-shaped face, there isn’t a blemish in sight. So I guess I don’t need to worry about him making an impacted on my life.