It was a few years before culinary school, and I suddenly had the urge to recreate a favorite soup from my beloved grandmother who had unexpectedly passed away the year before. What happened next was, hands down, my worst cooking disaster ever.
Bored and unfulfilled at my desk job, my mind usually wandered to food and cooking during the interminable workday. I can't remember if it was missing my grandmother, a desire to make something delicious, or both that prompted me to decide to try to make one of her famous Chinese slow-cooked soups one day.
My grandmother was the biggest culinary influence in my life. We ate dinner at her house more frequently than at our own, and, surrounded by extended family, feasted on multiple-course meals that she labored over all day. Her pride and joy was always the giant pot of soup that we sipped at the end of each dinner.
The soup would vary every few days. Among my favorites were a meaty oxtail loaded with potatoes and carrots, and an earthy, vegetal watercress soup simmered with chicken, pork, and Chinese herbs. Every soup was always loaded with flavorful ingredients, tended to with love, and served with pride.
The soup I craved and decided to make that fateful day was a tofu and fish soup. I had no idea how my grandmother had made that soup, just a vague sense of the ingredients. I stopped off at a grocery store in Oakland's Chinatown and picked up some tofu and other ingredients I remember being in the soup. My last stop was the fish counter to get a whole fish, and that gave me pause.
While I'm fluent in conversational Cantonese, speaking to people outside my family still intimidated me, especially at grocery stores. I was too scared to ask the fishmonger which fish would be good in soup, so after staring at the live fish in the tanks for awhile, I just opted for one that was dead and sitting on ice instead so that I wouldn't have to talk to anyone.
When I got home, I realized that the fish was literally a whole fish, guts and all. Having no clue about how to scale and gut a fish, too impatient to wait for my mom to get home to show me how, and honestly, too grossed out to even think about attempting it myself, I just threw the fish into the pot with the other ingredients, added water, and brought it up to a boil. I naively reasoned that I could cook the soup, then just remove the guts and clean the fish later.
The smell that soon emanated from that fated pot of fish soup was horrible. Gag-inducing, window-opening horrible! Realizing what an amateur mistake I had made, I drained the contents of the pot into a colander and tossed everything into the trash. Then, to hide the evidence from my parents (I don't know to this day if they ever suspected), I even took the trash out because the house reeked so badly.
Although I've made a few other of my grandmother's soups since then, I've never even tried to make this fish and tofu one again and don't think I ever will. Part of me is glad that it was my worst cooking disaster — I think it's my way of honoring my wonderful grandmother and her cooking by just savoring the memory of this soup instead of trying to recreate it. It's also a humble reminder that learning to cook is a lifelong process full of sometimes funny mistakes that you just laugh off and try not to do again.