In The Steam Kitchen

tampopo21The best way to the restaurant is a long sloping cobbled street through an old part of the town, which has faded to resemble a derelict museum. No, it’s the other way past the town quay. No, you reach here along the underpass, grimed by pigeon shit and imaginative graffiti. Actually, you head through a preserved street renovated as part of a tourist initiative, where the shop fronts are painted in bright primary colours and actors mill about in traditional costumes.

The restaurant shack stands in the corner of a bright courtyard. I have helped the family here for these last weeks. I cut the fat from the fish. It crumbles away like grain. I soak the fish in a savoury sauce. Its flesh is a dark brown colour, like game meat. The liquid bubbles up when the flesh hits the frying pan and evaporates into the air. The steam clings to my clothes and hair. The food is unusual but filled with flavour. Sometimes, it is so hot you need a cup of a milk to soothe your mouth. This is only my opinion.

It occurs to me that the family do not want my help: that I am imposing myself on their time and business. I hear the mother hissing outside the kitchen, the clipped hurried blur of her conversation. The father greets me at the door, smiling, but his eyes look weary and hard. I recover, though. These are cultural differences. Why would I come here day after day, not expecting payment or any form of recompense, only welcoming a foreign family to our town? The clatter of dishes in the sink. The shouts and oaths of the chefs. The fluid movement of the waiters. The scents and energy of the steam kitchen. I would not swap this life for anything.

One time, I surprised the daughter of the family at the kitchen door, as I carried a bucket of fish heads. She dropped a tray of glasses. Perhaps one day we will be married. I imagine being welcomed into the bosom of my adopted family, their joy and pride in gaining such a son-in-law. The father carries the weariness of years in his trade, as well as the seriousness of a man who had fled his home to save his family. He has wisps of hair above his ears. He looks at me carefully when he speaks. He takes the knife from me, and says that I can leave early.

Later, I walk back up the hill through late sunshine, singing this song to myself:

Some people walk to work
from perfect homes
and love their jobs.
They live in places like Tupelo
and Wanderlay
and all across the mountains.

 

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