There is a definite difference between dining and eating. I’m afraid I have acquired the habit of eating standing up at the kitchen counter while watching a bit of this or that program. It’s a far cry from the way I grew up, eating by oneself, rather than gathering at the table with family. It does not even offer the companionable comfort of sitting beside someone on the couch while watching TV.
There is no absorbing experience related to eating, while dining offers the chance to enjoy a memorable event. The table becomes a set, the dishes props, the menu an ensemble cast, and the colors, textures and aromas the score.
It was the longing to put my feet under the table and enjoy the beauty of Mr. Wu’s cuisine that made me decide that it would be foolish not to dine in, so I called Mr. Wu to tell him I was on my way, and surprised him by answering yes when he asked if I would be a guest for dinner.
But I was in for the bigger surprise because Mr. Wu prepared a very special dish for me that is not on the Royal Panda menu–steamed red snapper with northern bok choy and brown rice. Mr. Wu basted the fish with a very complex sauce, then swaddled the fish in the bok choy and steamed the entire bundle for an hour over low heat. It was incredible.
For my dinner, he served me the fish’s tail. This afforded me the opportunity to ask Mr. Wu his thoughts on fish cheeks–did he consider them a delicacy. He answered that he felt the head of the fish was without a doubt the most delectable part of the fish, and I laughed, “but you have given me the tail!”
He quickly explained that the tail was the second best part of the fish, with the middle of the fish, in his estimation bringing up the rear. By his reckoning, the head and the tail are the most mobile parts of the fish, creating its motion through the water.
Mr. Wu makes many opportunities to get up close and personal with fish since his favorite past time is fishing with his friends. Fishing gives Mr. Wu a chance to enjoy nature and get away from the hectic pace of his very people-oriented business.
We talked about how Americans in general like their fish filleted and without the skin. I nodded in agreement, knowing though that up until the dramatic entrance of this red snapper in its splendid crimson swimsuit, that I had been the same.
Pulling the delicate fish from the bones made the meal all the more rewarding. The rich broth that had been created as the fish steamed was a rich reddish brown, and spooned over the fish and the brown rice, it was taste-boggling. The bok choy had become infused with the intense flavors of the broth and was heavenly, something I did not know that bok choy could aspire to be. There was a liveliness to the cabbage and a transformation that was unique and intentional.
The food on my plate did not begin as food. Once it was a wild thing, a fish that swam, a plant that searched out the sun from the darkness of the soil. To know this and to remember it, is to be more respectful of what we consume. Even if it was the part that went over the dam last, it once had life, and gives us life.
It’s a thought that will inform more of my choices, and is one more step along the path of the Wu Food Project.