Staring into the confounded gaze of a sardine, I think, “Clear eyes. Fresh.” I don’t lurch back in disgust or point and squeal at the glistening fish preciously tucked into its bed of crushed ice. I grew up here, among the briny bodies, the mollusks and, further out in the fluorescent sea, the giant bags of rice, the agar, the beloved monosodium glutamate. I was raised beneath the swell and peak of Chinese opera, jostled down channels by hip-high gray-haired women who indiscriminately elbowed kidneys in their haste. I have always been the random grain of brown rice in the Asian supermarket.
My mother was born and raised in Singapore, one of six siblings in a family so ethnically diverse that to ask what we are is to start a never-ending, inconclusive argument sharply punctuated by “lahs” and “eh-ehs,” so my sister and I discovered during our first visit. I may not know my precise ethnic makeup but what I do know is that my maternal family eats Asian food. Because my mother’s palate developed in multicultural Singapore, her cooking exposed my sister and I to an abundant variety of Asian flavors.
My father, a chef, didn’t enjoy coming home from a long day of cooking to fire up the stove in his own kitchen, though he would occasionally concoct a perfect pot of smothered chicken for dinner. If my sister and I weren’t preparing our own meals, it was my mother who handled the cooking and certainly all of the grocery shopping. Which is why we spent so much time scanning the aisles of Hawaii Supermarket for Yan Yan and individually wrapped prunes with the seeds which, to my mother’s horror, my pearly baby teeth would crack open for the cherry-flavored liqueur secreted inside.
It was among the boxes of Vitasoy and endless bowls of instant ramen that I discovered I could simultaneously exist in the ancient, umami-flavored world of powerful potions trapped in the dried fibers of mushrooms and roots, and in the bright, exhausting future of colorful, complicated packages that promised impossible flavors in their vacuum-packed treasures. It was beside soft fruit individually padded by netted foam skirts that I learned to locate the canned quail eggs, baby corn, and straw mushrooms for those common enough nights of taxi rides from school and late nights in the office for mom and in the kitchen for dad. Stir-fry noodle nights. And it was beneath a cloud of unrecognizable words and characters that I became skilled in the art of steering around shopping carts screaming across slick floors and bodies perilously compelled by unbreakable momentum.
That’s part of the beauty of the Asian supermarket: food means business and business means no nonsense and no nonsense means nobody had the luxury of time or patience to spend a minute passing a wary gaze over the ethnically ambiguous young woman and her African-American daughters. In Alhambra, one of many Asian meccas in Los Angeles, we would buy our galangal and screwpine, our fish heads and oxtail, without a cold shoulder, a glare, or an ill-mannered question, though even as a kid I somehow expected all of these things. We would drive our haul down the street to pick up my mother’s dry cleaning from the nice Korean lady who was ever-astonished by my mother’s age, and end our day at the friendly Chinese bakery next door for custard tarts, meat pies and sesame buns filled with sweet red beans.
I inherited a sense of comfort not in a loaf of ground beef glazed in ketchup or cinnamon and sugar coated apples baked into a flakey crust, but in the sweet, nutty aroma of steaming rice; in the pungent, aggressive note of shrimp paste; in green rice flour “worms” squirming around in my mouth with coconut milk and palm sugar. So when I have to call my landlord to fix something for the fifth time or my inbox at work is filled with impatient emails, when being an adult is much too much, I grab my car keys and head to Alhambra to hustle down the aisles with the rest, a different kind of fish in a collectively hungry sea.
S. Zainab Williams, a voracious eater of food and words. She blogs about writing at szwordsmith and eating at Little Porkpie. The rest of her free time is consumed by obsessive revisions of her young adult fantasy novel and her horror graphic novel. She pillages eateries and bookstores in Los Angeles where she resides with only a cat and a bottle of wine for company, and works a day job you’re not interested in reading about. She has an English degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was once told that her degree is only good for getting a job writing copy on the back of cereal boxes. Follow her on Twitter @szainabwilliams.