A Soy Sauce Dilemma

(2021-12-16 09:23:42) 下一個

"Three wild Alaska lobsters, one for each." Amy announced the dinner plan,

admiring the giant rosy crustaceans snugged in plastic and foam as she laid them

out on the counter.


"You can have mine." came Bill's underwhelming answer from the other end of the

kitchen island. He was lunching on some steamed purple sweet potatoes.


It has been a typical exchange between them and if one replaces "Alaska

lobsters" with "King salmon filets" or "whole California dungeness crabs," one

gets another dialogue the two had at some other time. Often, he couldn't help

following up with an ad-hoc lecture, "Crave not for the precious and the rare 

or, in Chinese, 不貴難得之貨," e.g., which only makes him more annoying.


In his late 40s, Bill started to delude himself. The future no longer held him 

spell-bound anymore and he suspected that he had already experienced some of the 

best life had to offer and only that he didn't realize at the time.


Take, for example, the soy sauce when he was in elementary school.

Everytime mom gave him 20 cents and the empty one-jin bottle, he would stroll

to the store two blocks down the street, present them to the shop keeper,

who would take the money, go to the corner, draw one ladle of the dark salty

liquid from an earthenware jar as tall as the boy, pour it through a wooden

funnel, and cork and give the bottle back to Bill.


Some years later and it might be when he was in college and unaware, the good

old one-stop soy sauce quietly died out. When he was reacquainted with the

essential condiments as he joined the workforce and started to cook his own 

meals, he faced two kinds: light and dark (生抽 and 老抽, respectively), one

for salads and the other for braise and stir-fry. A designated bottle was no

longer needed as the liquid came in its own container. Everyone seemed to play

along. They didn't have to pretend the old had not existed; they just never

brought it up anymore. In the beginning, these changes felt innovative, upscale,

and maybe even one step forward in the process of civilization.


Soon, however, something felt missing: he had to keep track of two things 

instead of one. It seemed trivial if occasionally annoying, e.g., in the middle

of cooking, he found out that the dish called for one soy sauce but he had only

the other on hand. He thought about mixing the two, just to keep things simple,

and even tried a couple of times to re-create his childhood flavor. It was a 

classic Don Quixote move, the scoffers won in the end and he aborted the



These days, products from the soy sauce bloc, the eastern Asian countries, flood

store shelves, sea-fresh, organic, umami, etc., etc., and would silence the

finickest chef. The varieties are mind-boggling and the quest for the best, or

the fittest, could fry brains. It is hard to imagine what a mixture of all of

them would taste like. When he decides on one, Bill sometimes feels missed out on

the others: I wonder if I have made the right choice.


Over the years, Bill has become an avid bottle-collector. He could not bring

himself to throw away many well-made containers. "I'll reuse them." he would

explain to Amy who, suprisingly, agrees with him on this. They end up with a big

collection but rarely have the chance to reuse any.


Slowly, he detected a deep-seated hypocrisy in himself. He wanted the abundance,

but once he came into it he started to crave scarcity, or simplicity, as he

insisted. His dilemma with soy sauce appeared to be but one symptom. In the

freezing winter of Beijing, he used to dream about sunny California. But after

living in the golden state for many years, he fell addicted to videos from the

snow-bound northeast China. He was not as upset as he used to be, however, upon

finding himself inconsistent. The opposite of true is false, as some physicist*

mused, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.


* Niels Bohr

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閱讀 ()評論 (6)
7grizzly 回複 悄悄話 回複 '暖冬cool夏' 的評論 : Thank you,暖冬, for recommending "Unwrappers' Delight." Only the first page seemed free from their Website although I was still very happy to pick up the term 'sciatic nerve' which, as I suspected, translates to 坐骨神經. I haven't read 'The Atlantic' or 'The Economists' often enough to say which is better. But congratulations on the switch!
暖冬cool夏 回複 悄悄話 Forgot the title: Unwrappers' Delight.
暖冬cool夏 回複 悄悄話 Recommending a great article in October 2021 issue of The Atlantic, talking about packaging, branding and the re-purposed use of sturdy bottles or jars, like what you want to collect here. I found The Atlantic a great magazine these days, discarding The Economist:))
7grizzly 回複 悄悄話 回複 '暖冬cool夏' 的評論 :
Thank you, 暖冬, for reading and sharing your stories. They are a lot more interesting
(or terrifying, depending on how you look at them), than Bill's! These kinds of
extremes are a little hard to stomach no matter how much we love variations.

Thank you for trying to empathize with the couple. They themselves can do
better with a bit more empathy for each other ;-)

Happy Holidays to you and yours!
暖冬cool夏 回複 悄悄話 (think of those dyed hair)
Wild salmon is better than lobsters nutrition wise. But we need variations:)) I actually understand both Bill and Amy:))
暖冬cool夏 回複 悄悄話 Slowly, he detected a deep-seated hypocrisy in himself.
-- This is not hypocrisy. It's in our nature to crave for something unattainable. And it is our longing for variations that put us in this kind of situation.
We had some discussions on soy sauce one supper night. He revisited his memory of how a kid from a poor family was sent to trade a saved egg for half a bottle of soy sauce. He even saw the maggots wriggling on the jar.... I shared what I recently learnt that people extract 氨基酸 from human's hair to add to "醬油", which made me kind of sick (think of those hair being dyed hair).
Before I went to Canton, I only knew 醬油 and never used 老抽. In essence, the beauty of cooking is in its simplicity. I avoid using soy sauce as much as I can these days. Have a great weekend, my friend, and happy holidays!