Chinese New Year.
My father is in town for a brief visit (he is here for Chinese New Year, and my mother is in Shanghai with her father for the holiday), and we are trying to cram in all his usual food desires in the short time he is here, beginning with teriyaki chicken wings the night he arrived and a steak dinner the next night. But tonight it is Chinese New Year's Eve, and we are off to A. and B.'s house, to celebrate the new year a day early. (B. is scheduled for surgery tomorrow, and the family wants to have this dinner before he goes into the hospital. But of course his procedure is delayed, because his surgeon has some emergency and has to reschedule. Such is life). It feels strange to drive down those twisting, winding roads to our friends' house with my father; usually I am alone, or with K. We have known them a long time. When my parents moved to Taiwan I became absorbed into this family; I have spent nearly all my holidays with them for some years now. While I was growing up, and my family was intact and not spread halfway around the world, I rarely saw these friends. Now their rituals have become mine. I don't mind the prime rib in addition to roast turkey on Thanksgiving, but their traditional Chinese New Year dishes are a long ways away from our usual hot-pot dinner, which I have not had since my parents moved away. I miss our own traditions.
Still, there are compensations, like the slices of roast pork belly, all layers of chewy meat and melting fat capped with a crunchy layer of skin, salty-sweet and incredibly addictive. There are all kinds of smoked meats too, duck and two kinds of sausage and more pork belly, darker and chewier and more intensely flavored. I prefer the roast pork belly, which I keep eating as if they were potato chips. There are bowls heaped with steamed broccoli and some intricate dish involving various items I can't identify and copious amounts of something known in English as "hair vegetable" (it really does look like strands of curly black hair, and I avoid it as assiduously as possible), and a giant braised pork shoulder that falls apart when you poke it with a pair of chopsticks. There is steamed rice, in a giant cooker that holds up to sixty cups of rice (or several small children), and soup made with conch, and for dessert there are round dumplings made of rice flour, stuffed with black sesame paste, floating in a broth made hot and spicy with lots of ginger and sweet with sticks of hard brown sugar.
We head home, stuffed full - in my case mostly with pork belly - and hoping for a good year ahead. I call my grandfather, in Shanghai with my mother (she is spending the new year with her father, as I am with mine, the symmetry of a far-flung family at holiday time), to wish him happy new year. It takes a little time to get through - half the Chinese population of the world is trying to reach the other half - but then his voice comes through, that familiar grumble of my childhood, the usual brief conversation that ends with him hanging up in the middle of my goodbye. This is how it always is, always will be, and I love him all the more for it.