A dish from childhood was bai mon: poached chicken, served with ginger-seasoned rice, chilli sauce, and sliced cucumber. I assumed the dish was native to Cambodia until a few years ago, when I read that it was imported throughout Southeast Asia by Chinese immigrants from Hainan. I knew we were Chinese, but I didn’t know where exactly my ancestors had come from. I had no linguistic or religious or other cultural link to my family’s Chinese past except this recipe. One auntie confirmed our ancestors were from Hainan, and another auntie said they probably arrived at the end of the 19th century, as Dad’s great-grandfather had spoken broken Khmer with a Chinese accent.
The hours spent in the kitchen making this dish—Mom slicing the chicken, still hot from the pot, feeding me bits from the carcass while I crushed garlic and chili in a mortar and the aroma of ginger suffused the house—were hours of us replicating the same labours of the women in my family throughout generations. Like us, the dish is a migrant, from an island in the South China Sea, to Cambodia, Southern California, and the West of Ireland. It had weathered the passage across great distances, through necessity and conflict and loss. When we make the dish, we revive a link to the ancestors, eating what they had eaten. Centuries are crossed in a single bite, tasting as it had tasted for them.
Strange, isn’t it, that it was an online article that sparked my recovery of the past. The memory of the dish was like a gleaming thread in a labyrinth, which I followed, into the dark, leafy recesses of history, returning to origins, now fleshier and more aromatic. Rebecca Solnit writes, “The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center, as it is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end.”