The kitchen fills with the scent of frying scallions, one of my favorite aromas in the world. My friend Zhang Qun, who is doing the frying, knows this because when I first met her at her tiny restaurant in Beijing, it was her glorious noodle soup drizzled with scallion oil that I loved the most. I raved about the green onions' fragrance, which wreathed every noodle. Now we're in Qun's hometown, Suzhou, the ancient Yangtze River city whose name means “heaven on earth.” Qun is here to show off for her grandmother and two of her aunts, who are hosting a mini family reunion lunch. Qun, who originally moved to Beijing to pursue a career in art, has kept one major detail of her life a secret from her family: None of them know yet that she has started a restaurant and is an exceptional cook. “In fact,” Qun told me earlier, “they think I can't cook at all.”
Qun intends to prove her mettle with the scallion-infused noodle soup and her excellent version of_ fu pi juan_, tofu-skin-and-minced-pork rolls wrapped in bamboo leaves and simmered in chicken broth—both variations on Suzhou specialties—but also with a dish of her own invention: a whole roasted bream basted in extra-rich Japanese mayonnaise.
While Qun works in the kitchen, her aunts and grandmother are in the other room, finishing a first round of their own preparations. Cooked with brisk, no-nonsense efficiency, their dishes are spare but wonderful: shrimp steamed with ginger, a mild soup of winter melon and cloud ear mushrooms, fish steamed in wine with a touch of sugar, and a delicious stir-fry of soybeans and sigua, Chinese loofah. Qun's grandmother, 98 years old and renowned locally for her cooking skills, even got in on the action at one point, shooing the aunts aside so she could make you zheng qiezi, eggplant that she browned slowly in a wok with salt and oil until its skin blistered and its flavor turned deliciously briny.
Finally, Qun breaks the news about her career as a big-city chef and brings out her trio of dishes. The older women seem amused and pleased by the revelation, but Qun doesn't look fully relaxed until her grandmother lifts a spoonful of the scallion noodle soup to her lips, closes her eyes contemplatively for a moment, and, without further ado, makes quick work of the dish.
Georgia Freedman is a SAVEUR contributing editor.
According to Buddhist tradition,_ lunch is the most important meal of the day_. In the words of the Diamond Sutra, a fourth-century collection of Buddhist proverbs: "Dawn is when the gods eat; noon is when the buddhas eat; dusk is when animals eat; and midnight is when spirits eat." By encouraging his disciples to have their main meal at midday, Buddha aimed to free their afternoons and evenings from thoughts of food, so that they might better contemplate the divine.