Bai Lian clearly never met a businessman so passionate. Hence, she smiled jovially: “Thank you, Uncle.”
The owner’s blood nose and expression read, “I can rest in peace now.” I couldn’t be bothered with him. I helped myself to a bowl.
Looking at the big bowl of vermicelli soup in front of her, Bai Lian picked up her chopsticks but had no idea where to start. She asked, “How do we eat this?”
“Are you being serious?” I asked, tone condescending.
All you had to do was wash down a piece of duck blood with the hot soup. The bun was a little soft due to leaving it there. Just have the bun then some soup. That helps with digesting it (don’t try this if you’ve never done it before).
Bai Lian imitated what I did and picked up a piece of duck. The duck was prepared perfectly. The smooth texture of the duck blood was perfect in the cold weather and great for appetite upregulation. Bai Lian only had a small nibble. As she chewed, she nodded to herself.
I asked, “Does it taste better eating that way or something?”
Bai Lian ignored me and focused solely on eating. I leaned over to look at her. She shot me a glare: “Where are your manners? Don’t speak when you eat.”
Bai Lian’s jab reminded me she wasn’t strict exclusively with others; she was equally strict with herself. That explained why it was dead silent when she ate and why I never got a response out of her while we were eating. I misunderstood she was in a poor mood back in Wuhua County.
Watching Bai Lian take her time chewing as if she was eating bird’s nest soup or shark fin soup got on my nerves. I said, “You’re ruining it with the way you eat. Watch me.”
Bai Lian’s eyes bulged as I scooped a big spoonful out of her bowl. I ignored her protest and smiled: “Answer me this first: what’s the opposite of small?”
After having her pronounce “big” to have her open her mouth wide, I quickly shoved the spoonful of soup into her mouth. She pulled her eyebrows together to try and stop me; unfortunately, I yanked my hand back quickly, forcing her to swallow.
“Wh-What was that for?!” thundered Bai Lian, glaring. “I almost choked on that.”
“What do you think? Tastes better, huh?”
“Who cares if it tastes better or not?! Safety comes first!” Bai Lian then blew on her hot soup and had a small nip, only to frown after: “Eating a big spoonful tastes better. Why?”
“That’s the essence of eating at street stalls. When you eat at street stalls, you eat the food immediately after it’s prepared. You also have to take big, hearty bites. This isn’t a banquet in the palace; this is what commoners eat. The ingredients are as common as they come. You’re never going to taste squat if you take your time, nibbling on your food as you do in the palace in the name of being prim.”
Bai Lian wasn’t totally convinced I was telling the truth. She resumed blowing and consuming small serves each time. When I wasn’t paying attention, though, she’d have a big mouthful then cover her small mouth. Eventually convinced my suggested eating style heightened the taste, she looked at me as if to say, “I suppose you do say sensible things once every blue moon.” Still, she refused to speak whilst eating unless absolutely necessary.
I smiled and began eating my own meal: “According to the eating guide, if you change the way you eat, the way you view the exact same food will be drastically different. With that said, you eat cream-of-the-crop delicacies in the palace. It’s only natural, then, for you to think commoners’ foods aren’t as nice in comparison.”
Bai Lian froze. She then revealed a warm smile. In a tone so tender it was surreal in the rowdy market, she said, “I think it’s nicer.”
It was my turn to freeze up. I blinked in rapid succession: “You seriously think duck blood vermicelli soup tastes better than Nine Dragon Phoenix Tail Prawn and Red Plum Cold Fish Belly?”
‘I disagree! If I had the chance, I’d ask the imperial head chef to make me a dish!’
Bai Lian picked up her bowl and gazed at the clear soup. She nodded and revealed a charming smile: “I do.”
Bai Lian looked serious, but I wasn’t sure what sort of past was associated with her certainty. Since I didn’t look convinced, she smiled again: “Since you showed me Snack King’s food, I’ll show you my favourite.”
“Are you saying you don’t want the rest?”
‘Give it to me if you don’t want it!’
I winked in hopes of Bai Lian understanding how pitiful I was. She pursed her lips and determinedly replied, “You shouldn’t waste food.”
Bai Lian leaned her head back and finished the bowl in one breath. I and the madams watching us from the table next door were flabbergasted. The madams scoffed at me as if to say, “What sort of husband is he? He must starve his wife. Look how hungry she is.”
Bai Lian looked slightly pale after she finished her bowl. She wiped her mouth and heartily said, “Let’s go,” as she took my hand and led me through the crowds…
“Clay oven rolls?” I asked.
We travelled three streets over and struggled through the crowds to arrive at a stall selling clay oven rolls. That was the last thing I expected. Bai Lian, however, smiled. She was in a great mood for the day; she smiled more times than all the months I knew her up until then combined.
Bai Lian said to the hawker: “Lucky it’s here. Uncle, please give him a roll.”
The hearty uncle wrapped up a roll and passed it to me: “Here you are, roll.”
‘Buzz off! Don’t call me a roll. You’re the roll!’
‘General Manager Bai, if you really want to give someone a clay oven roll, give one to Liu Yuan. There’s nobody at Liu Shan Men more appropriate to give a clay oven roll to.”
I exclaimed, “What happened to the premium delicacies?!”
“A bowl of tofu. A plate of mung beans and a bowl of white rice.” Bai Lian looked at me puzzled. Smiling, she stated, “That was the last meal I had before I left the palace for the job. I don’t usually eat any special delicacies. I don’t leave the palace, either. I guess I eat pretty similarly to commoners, though.”
‘Similar…? You mean drastically differently! You think commoners just eat beans or something?! Whichever family does that is the king of misers! The bloke selling pork at the market sells a kilogram and a half of pig feet a day. He’s even fatter than the pigs he raises nowadays!!’
“Your days sure are tough, General Manager Bai,” I sincerely said. “Is that how stingy they are in the imperial palace now?”
“They’re not stingy,” remarked Bai Lian, with a hint of loneliness in her tone and more emotions I couldn’t quite identify. Sounding as if she was reciting a belief in life, she told me, “It’s called being frugal. Think about it: it’s not easy to have a bowl of congee. My mother told me: when you eat your food, you should remember that it’s not easy to grow it.
A general manager is actually served a lot of nice meals. We are granted five to six different dishes per meal. If we’re not happy with what we’re served, we can go to the imperial kitchen to demand different dishes. I, personally, asked for modest dining.”
Bai Lian didn’t answer. She gently ripped off a small chunk of the roll in my hand and ate it. Unlike her formal dining style before, she chewed it as if she was trying to imprint the taste to memory. Evidently, her and oven clay rolls when she was young were secretly relat-. I meant she associated it with a memory.”
“Let me share a story with you. When I was first promoted to general manager, those ranked beneath me were afraid of me. Still, they organised a banquet for me. I accepted the invitation. We started off on a good note. Nevertheless, I lashed out at the end. As a result, it ended with everyone unhappy.”
It was common for General Manager Bai to lose her temper; she already lashed out at me more than ten times for the day. Of course, besides her fair, just, rule-abiding and disciplined character, the other contributing factor was her ego. One careless mistake and you’d end up on her bad side. I’d hate to imagine how many unlucky eunuchs offended her at her promotion banquet.
Bai Lian shook her head, snapping me out of my word: “Nobody actually broke any rules. I just couldn’t stand there being half of the food remaining at the end.”
I sure didn’t see that reason coming. I inquired, “Why was that?”
Bai Lian touched her nose and smiled helplessly: “Nothing really… I just couldn’t bear to throw it away. It’s a waste of food. They barely even touched some of the dishes. How many lives could be saved if we gave it to refugees or people starving due to a famine?”
I quietly listened to everything Bai Lian had to say.
“I don’t know when I developed the habit; I just can’t stand people wasting things. Before I was promoted to general manager, when I was a deputy manager, I had more than I could eat already. I told them to reduce the amount of food they delivered to me. Over time, I developed my current diet. I think it’s enough for me to eat.”
Bai Lian pursed her lips. She wore a uniquely determined look on her face. She’d be the tree that wouldn’t fall if the wind blew. Voice somewhat bitter, she continued, “I once lived in a refugee camp when I was younger. One time, I only had my first meal after starving for ten days. I had to steal and fight for that meal. I would already be dead if Her Highness didn’t take me in. I still remember she gave me a clay oven roll that day. That was the first time anybody cared for me since I lost my family. That was also when she told me every grain of rice we ate and every thread on our clothing was thanks to someone else’s hard work. I, therefore, don’t feel as though I’m suffering right now. If anything, I feel I don’t do enough to repay Her Highness and Lord Zi.”
“No wonder why you let Lord Zi call you Sister Lian and are on such friendly terms. I suppose you’re Brilliant Consort’s adoptive daughter of sorts. Ugh, I meant, adopted son.”
‘God, that was an awful mouthful to say! It’s a trap sentence!’
*Clay oven rolls joke – clay ovens are pronounced Shao Bing. The initials are S and B. Together, they can mean moron/retard/idiot and so forth. Essentially, handing someone a clay oven roll is a way of saying, “You’re an idiot.” There’s something for you to try.