My family got lost for a while after my father passed away, when my sister and I were quite young. Cooking was his territory, his responsibility, and his decision. My mother did not enjoy cooking. The kitchen is always messy when she cooks, even though she is neat and orderly in her personal appearance, and there were a few blackened disasters (funny in hindsight) that made everyone decide she should stay away from the stove.
My mother is a practical and disciplined person (if she has an appointment, she shows up early, and her basic beauty routine is moisturizer and baby powder). Although she did not have any career training, she was ferociously determined to stay as close as possible to my sister and me, so she got a job as a librarian’s assistant at our school—going off to work in her colorful outfits and sneakers. She was strict (she made me watch a lot of documentaries before allowing cartoons) but she valued our leisure time as a family. So she continued our traditions, learning to drive a car so that we could take road trips every weekend, as we’d done with my father, camping in the national parks, meeting new people and having new experiences.
On the weekends, my dad used to cook huge pots of food to last the week. Our favorite was steamed fish with lime and herbs—we could still conjure up the unique flavor. One Saturday morning, I woke up a little bit late to smell something familiar and wonderful. I went down to the kitchen, which was a mess—lots of dishes on the table, piles of chopped vegetables on a cutting board—and my mom was standing in front of the stove, wearing her favorite floral print pajamas. She was cooking my father’s steamed fish.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but I will try to imitate it. I know you miss it.”
I pitched in to help, excited to help recreate the dish, and feeling happy to renew this connection with my dad. In the end, our steamed fish was quite similar to the original—if a bit more pungent because of our heavy hand with the spices—and it made for a fine, happy lunch. I’m not sure I fully appreciated how much effort it took, but my mother will try anything for her daughters. She has gone on to experiment with other recipes, and I love the strange foods she has invented, no matter how they taste, because I know that she makes them with her unconditional love.
Wasina Rukvichai has a degree in medical technology from Chiang Mai University and is studying for a master’s degree. She can be found @travelwith.mind and @learnthaiwithmind.
large gourami or other firm white-fleshed fish
7 stalks celery, sliced
3 cloves garlic
2 slices fresh ginger, julienned
2 T. soy sauce
1 1/2 t. sesame oil
salt, pepper, and sugar, to taste
1 T. fresh chili pepper, finely diced
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
Bring water to boil in the bottom half of a large steamer.
Put celery, garlic, and half the ginger in the top part of the steamer.
Carefully add the fish and remaining ginger.
Place on top of the boiling water, cover and cook about 15 - 20 minutes.
Add soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, pepper, sugar, and half the chili pepper.
Cover and cook for another 5 minutes.
Squeeze lime juice over the fish, and sprinkle with cilantro and remaining chili pepper.