Once, while waiting for a pig to start sizzling in the oven, Si-fu asked me why I hadn’t written a book about Chinese food to coincide with the 2008 Olympics, when everyone would be interested. I admitted I hadn’t thought of it. He shook his head with gentle disappointment. “You can’t be lazy,” he said. “You always have to be thinking if you want to make money.”
But his own numbers seem hard to figure out. He pays a lot for his pigs, he admits, but he likes the quality he gets. “The guy I buy from’s got a family to feed, too,” Si-fu said. “Hell, maybe he has a couple of them.” But after all the cutting and the curing and the scalding and the resting and the lifting and the roasting, if he manages to sell the whole thing, he nets $30.
It’s a cruel irony that people are increasingly willing to shell out for artisanal foods, and yet for so many cooks plying their traditional crafts in immigrant communities, the numbers don’t really add up. For Si-fu, it’s a brutal calculation, and it’s fine by him that his children don’t want to take over when he retires. He doesn’t want them to, despite his pride in his work. “You see how tired I am,” he said. “This is not what my children go to school for.” He just told the story of the immigrant in one sentence.
Still, I protested. What about all your hard-earned experience? Who will carry on this craft that you’ve learned? He smiled and pointed toward the notebook in my hand. “Besides, I learned to cook,” he said. “When I retire, I can just relax and cook for myself and my friends. Cooking for them is the most satisfying thing I can think of to do.” Then, I understood why he cut me good pieces from the pig all day long, why he hands out the tofu. His work is hard, but he also gets to give.
Back in the basement, I stared at 40 pounds of pork in the sink before pouring on the marinade that will turn it into cha siu. It was like a kiddie pool full of meat. I dug in with my hands, intensely aware of the cold pork, the salty grit, the slippery liquid. I tossed and folded at first, as if working a delicate dough, but then with an animal urge sank down to the elbow and stirred with my arm. I could feel my biceps warming, grinding through the resistance. I could feel my muscle working in this muscle, heard with satisfaction the sloshing and gurgling of so much meat and moisture. Behind me, Si-fu hauled out a massive propane stove and set water on to boil.
I ran upstairs to deliver a chicken and noticed that the case was nearly empty. There was hardly any pork left, a few bits and pieces, and I ran back down to report. Si-fu looked at the clock, a few hours from closing. He leaned on the table and thought. “Let them sell out. We’ll just close up.” He took a beer from the fridge and got back to work, showering hanging pigs with boiling water. Then he added, “It’s not worth the gamble.” By that he meant roasting one now and risking its not being sold. He doesn’t sell leftovers. “I only sell fresh. You have to do things ‘number one’ if you want people to come back,” he said. “That’s why every step matters. That’s why how you season matters. How you brush on the sauce matters. Sewing the ducks up so no marinade comes out matters.”
Just then, I noticed one of the ducks springing a slight leak from its braided flap and pointed it out to him. He took a swig of his beer, his eyes glassing over with tiredness, and aimed his kettle full of water at another pig. “To hell with it,” he said. No, I thought, his kids are not going to school for this.
ho ho bbq 3833 Midland Ave., Scarborough, Ontario (416-321-9818)