I fell in love with the first taste of that awakening flavor. The clouds of egg drops melted on my tongue and were followed by the dark earthiness of wood ear mushrooms. I thought I was drinking liquid amber, bright with acidity and warm with the red kiss of chilies. My father then told me it was called hot and sour soup. As my family left the restaurant, the last whisper lingered on my lips, and I knew I wanted more.
I also knew I would be disappointed. We almost never went out to eat, and I had no hope of recreating the dish on my own. With my slippery hands and flitting mind, my mother barely trusted me to touch knives or the stove. Moreover, my family’s attempts to cook something new always ended in regret. I remember the linguine swimming in red foam (a dish we called spaghetti) and the separated curry floating on a island of oil. Because my mother’s rule was that nothing could go to waste, I also remember those foods feeling thick in my throat as I swallowed without chewing. There was a reason why we settled for an empirical formula of rice and stir-fried vegetables, and I willed myself to turn thoughts of the soup away.
One day, however, I let my nose and ears guide me down the stairs to our plain white kitchen, and I paused in the doorway with rounded eyes. There was my mother, cubing tofu and whisking eggs by hand. A black curl drooped by her glossy cheek, and her voice mingled with steam as it rose in the songs of her distant childhood. When she ladled a bowl to the brim for me, I formed the only words I could think of: Xie xie. Thank you.
My mother began making the soup with astonishing frequency, and not believing in written recipes or measuring out her ingredients, her creations varied every time. Sometimes, sesame oil would come through and form golden bubbles. Other times, the gentle sweetness of carrots was what sang. She teased that she would never have to cook that soup again if I drank it too often and tired of it, but how could I? It was sure heat when winter was wet and heavy with snow. It was clarity in the torpor of summer. Most of all, it was a mother’s love, flowing fast and constantly through my veins.
There were times, though, when I struggled to find the magic. The broth would be too thin, or the excess salt and white pepper would coat my tongue. One time, as I sat on my bedroom floor with my head between my knees, my mother knocked on my closed door holding a hot bowl of soup. However, her hand must have slipped while she was pouring the vinegar, as the soup pinched my throat and made me wince. As I coughed, she offered to get me a glass of water, but I merely shook my head. She then pursed her lips and turned away.
That night, she sat down alone with a bowl of the soup before I wordlessly joined her. Her red-rimmed gaze met mine, and I wondered: Why do we pursue love when it doesn’t taste sweet? Neither of us could find the words to answer, so we let them fall away instead. We simply filled the silence with the clattering of spoons and sips of a four-letter word I was only beginning to understand.