This is a story about how I cook. I hope it will provide some insight to people who cook only by following recipes, or who “don’t know how to cook,” as to how one can go about figuring out what to do with the main ingredient that happens to be available. If not, maybe my chaotic cookery will be amusing, anyway.
Nengkan is a Chinese word (familiar to me from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan) which means the ability to do whatever you put your mind to. It usually carries me through cooking projects like this one, walking around unfamiliar places without getting lost, shopping, and writing data-management algorithms. I have learned, however, that I do not have tie-dyeing nengkan.
If there is a recipe for Cabbage Nengkan, it’s buried amid the confusion and musings below. Bonus points to anyone who can pick out the actual cooking instructions and reproduce this dish! All I’m going to do is boldface the ingredients for you.
How to discover Cabbage Nengkan:
Recall that you have a lot of cabbage in the freezer, at least two complete cabbages shredded and packed into small bags that you thought you’d find convenient to use one at a time, except you didn’t, and those cabbages were from last year’s farm share, and now this year’s farm share has started, so you need the freezer space for the new vegetables that are going to pour in faster than you can eat them, but what are you going to make out of all this cabbage?
There’s a church potluck dinner coming up. You’ll make some kind of a cabbage thing for that. Select four bags of cabbage (about 4 cups), two intense purple and two a green so feeble it cannot stand without the suffix -ish, and put them to thaw in that other crisper drawer that you rarely use because you can’t open it without opening the refrigerator door into the dining room.
You can’t make coleslaw out of frozen cabbage; it’ll be all flabby. You have to cook it, but could it be sort of like that “Chinese coleslaw” that’s so popular at potlucks, only cooked, like maybe stir-fried? Hey, don’t you have a bottle of “McCormick’s Szechuan Seasoning” that’s been in the spice rack in your past three houses? Yeah! Here it is! Okay, that smells good…
Obviously you’ll want some carrots. Sliced almonds would give it some crunch. Add items to grocery list. Collect tote bags and three-year-old child. Go to store. Realize you forgot the list. Shop anyway. Come home and discover you remembered everything except that bread you meant to get while it’s on sale. Put four carrots on counter. Finish ice cream to make room for new ice cream in freezer. Explain to child that Daddy will put him to bed while you cook the cabbage.
Muster nengkan. Get out cabbage and see puddle of purple juice in crisper drawer. Open refrigerator door as far as it can go, hold with knee, and attempt to wrestle drawer out of its slot. A small voice comes from the other side of the door: “Oh! Mama! You should not open the refrigerator so wide!” Explain difficulties of cabbage-juice removal. Remind child that it is bedtime. Clean and reinsert drawer. Scrape carrots and start grating.
Child reappears, wanting to help grate carrots. Entire family discusses this possibility while you determine, successfully, exactly how much of the carrot you can grate without grating your fingernails. Let child do a little bit of grating, tell him to be grateful (har har), and send him right straight to bed.
Muster nengkan. Get wok down from top of refrigerator without clonging yourself on the head this time. Remember how your mother always said her old roommate always said, “Hot wok, cold oil.” Set wok over nice gas flame. Get three cloves of garlic and start peeling them. Add sesame oil to wok. Slice one clove of garlic. Child reappears to ask you to read bedtime stories, heedless of Daddy’s call: “I told you she’s busy!” Explain that you are cooking right now. No, child cannot help you stir-fry in hot oil. Daddy is a great reader! Good night! Realize oil is smoking.
Remove wok from heat. Toss sliced garlic into hot oil. Open kitchen window. Feverishly slice remaining garlic and throw into wok. Open window in bathroom adjacent to kitchen. Stir garlic, pushing the burning pieces up the side of the wok to cool. Remind yourself that you have no sous-chef and should’ve prepped all ingredients before turning on stove.
Put colander in sink and empty bags of cabbage into it, turning each bag inside-out and rinsing off every last cabbage fragment. Realize rinse-water has just made cabbage even soggier. Let it drain while standing long utensils in dish drainer and hanging bags over them to dry for re-use. Smush cabbage with hands to remove as much juice/water as possible. This takes longer than you expect. Watch greenish cabbage limply succumb to the tide of purple juice. Recall the time you mixed blueberry pie filling into yellow cake mix and got a cake exactly the color of Frankenstein’s monster.
Finally get back to the toasty garlic, which has not turned to charcoal as you thought it might but actually smells really good. Add a bunch of ground ginger–maybe 2 tsp. Put wok over medium heat. Add cabbage and carrot. Sprinkle Szechuan Seasoning in a thin layer covering top surface. As sizzling begins, stir like a crazed weasel.
Smells kind of weird. Sprinkle with soy sauce. Immediately think this was wrong. Try rice vinegar. Uh oh. Recall C.S. Lewis says worrying about how your home appears to guests is the kind of Pride that is a Deadly Sin; theorize that worrying whether everyone will hate your potluck food is the same kind of Pride; renounce it and pray for courage to accept the cabbage however it turns out.
Taste some of the cabbage. Oh, man, how can it be so bland? Add additional layer of Szechuan Seasoning. Try to remember just how old Szechuan Seasoning is. Taste cabbage. Hey, not bad, aside from being too hot to eat. Drink water. Taste cabbage. Not…bad exactly…well, maybe kind of. Stir more thoroughly. Add 1/2 tsp. sugar in hopes that it will unify discordant flavors or at least distract from them. Recall that Chinese restaurant in a strip-mall in Maryland that had posted a newspaper review in its window, apparently because the owners couldn’t read English and didn’t understand what it means to get one star, which said things like, “That’s not to say all the dishes are inedible.” Taste cabbage. Resolve to stop tasting so as to stop being so anxious and stop burning tongue.
Wonder how to toast 1 cup sliced almonds. Muster nengkan. Transfer cabbage mixture to beautiful purple casserole dish that may make strange, mushy-looking food seem appealing. Put almonds into hot, almost-dry wok and stir frantically until you see that they are not even browning at all yet. Relax slightly. Wonder whether to put almonds on top or mix them in. Eventually decide that almonds are not going to brown evenly and need to be mixed into cabbage to conceal them. Turn off heat, push almonds up side of wok, return cabbage mixture to wok, and mix it all together. Transfer to casserole dish. Worry that steam condensing inside lid will make cabbage all soggy again; decide to leave lid off for now. Clear last bits of raw carrot out of grater and sprinkle on top of cabbage to brighten it up a little. Wash wok.
Go upstairs to investigate loud wails of “MAAAHma!!” Lie down next to child, who is determined not to go to sleep and demands another story. Bore child to sleep with tales of data management told in slow, soothing voice.
Get up and come back downstairs to put lid on casserole dish and put it in refrigerator. Next evening, try to warm it by setting dish over pilot light of ancient, huge church stove while attending Eucharist. Find that only the bottom gets warm. Heat up in microwave. Place on table amid normal foods brought by other parishioners.
It turned out to be pretty good! In fact, several people asked for the recipe, which is why I’m writing this! There isn’t as much left over as I’d feared, and I’m actually looking forward to heating the leftovers in a frying pan (to increase crispness) and putting them over some soba noodles. Thank God for nengkan!
UPDATE: Three years later, I decided to link this to the Hearth and Soul Blog Hop, where you can find other stories of cooking nengkan, actual recipes, and other food-related articles.