I was once quite particular with my cooking. The pandemic has taught me to appreciate substitution.
“I could have purchased the glass noodles, mandu, rice cakes, and brisket to make the dish anatomically correct, but leaving the house for the sake of correctness and ego felt frivolous.”
In my most recent memory of Somewhat Normal Times, my partner and I are enjoying lemon ricotta pancakes with mediocre berries and too much maple syrup while looking out the window at an uncharacteristically glum and rainy LA sky. It was sometime in March, when we hadn’t grown tired of the word “unprecedented” yet and everyone was discovering how often they touched their faces. My partner’s company had issued its first temporary work-from-home policy, and I was still indulging in recipes that required ingredients outside my regular arsenal. You know, the ones you add to your shopping list with just one specific recipe in mind.
Pictured above, the author’s “ethnically confused dish” made of an oxtail broth with soba noodles, frozen chicken wontons, and daikon radish.
As someone who primarily cooks Asian food, ricotta cheese was not a kitchen staple like dried shiitake mushrooms and Shaoxing wine and miso paste. I don’t pick it up at the store unless I’m having a particular craving, like I did in early March for the pancakes I ate at Berkeley’s Venus Restaurant once upon a time. So once the pandemic began taking hold in Los Angeles, non-staples such as ricotta cheese disappeared from our grocery carts. As we shopped to feed ourselves for weeks at a time instead of days, items that were more versatile took precedence. Those hour-long trips only occurred every two to three weeks, and it made sense to prioritize ingredients I had experience incorporating into half a dozen different dishes over the ones I worked with just to diligently follow a single recipe.
Our infrequent grocery store visits and new approach to restocking the kitchen had me, at times, making confusing dishes I never would have before the pandemic. I remember taking a moment of silence before serving one such meal: an oxtail broth with soba noodles, frozen chicken wontons, and daikon radish. “It’s a little ethnically confused,” I told my partner in a feigned lighthearted tone, tapping each part of the dish with my chopsticks. “Japanese soba, Chinese wontons, Korean broth.” Forgive me, I recited to the dish. I felt a strange guilt for forcing these ingredients into an unfamiliar situation. I remember closing my eyes and pretending that the soba noodles were glass noodles and that the Chinese wontons were Korean mandu. The dish wasn’t right, but it tasted alright.
As we shopped to feed ourselves for weeks at a time instead of days, items that were more versatile took precedence.
I could have purchased the glass noodles, mandu, rice cakes, and brisket that would have made the dish anatomically correct. They were likely sitting in a market a short trip away. In Lemon Ricotta Pancake Times, I would have made the journey to honor the dish, the accuracy of its execution a reflection of my skills as a cook and my respect for the culture it belonged to. But at a moment when unnecessary outings could help transmit potentially fatal virus particles, the idea of leaving for the sake of correctness and ego felt frivolous.
In cooking and in life, these have been times for substitution. For making burgers with flimsy slices of sandwich bread that grow inconveniently soggy too quickly. For playing Youtube vlogs in the background so you can feel like you’re around people. For zoning out during family video calls because it’s their presence you miss, not the knowledge of what they did or ate that day. Even though substitution often follows an absence of some sort, we mustn’t forget how fortunate we are to be able to substitute. Something else had to be present to begin with.