The Hunan bloodline in my family loves spicy, aromatic foods. Almost every dish includes the option of hot sauce – whether it is soupy thin noodles, saucy thick noodles, sautéed greens, or braised meats. Gong Gong (my mother’s father), as well as each of his grown children (all five of them), had an entire shelf in their fridge dedicated to hot sauces of all varieties. Smoky peppers. Tangy ones. Chilis that had been fermented. Ones you had to shake because the solids sank to the bottom of the bottle with the crimson-hued chilli oil on the top. Part of this is because as with many Chinese families, there are distinct, almost fanatical, preferences of what type of hot sauce pairs best with specific dishes.
(I’ve seen this discussed at length at meals with other Chinese friends – to the extent that if you were a casual observer passing by, you would think they were engaged in a debate on politics. To the Chinese, it’s not politics that is best avoided at the dinner table, but the heated discussions of sauces or the width of a noodle, and alas, perhaps this is because food is more political than politics itself? Government policies affect the collective, but brand of hot sauce, well, that’s personal! I digress; maybe I’ll share more in another issue).
Without question, the most beloved hot sauce of them all in my family was the one made by Gong Gong. It was always kept in a glass jar with a lid screened with red gingham. (We were immigrants; we did not buy glass jars. We always sterilized and reused old glass jars after their original contents had been entirely consumed – jam and pickle jars being our family’s favourites since their mouths were often a bit wider – and the Bonne Maman jam jars because Gong Gong liked red).
As a child, when he was still alive, I could recall innumerable memories of him spending an entire afternoon in the kitchen. There, he would begin braising meats in a hearty stew or make dumplings from scratch, and once he got those going, he would begin what he considered the most important task of the day – making a new batch of hot sauce.
The green onions (scallions) swam in a sink full of cold water, before he began washing each stalk individually. As a child, the mountain of green onions looked enormous on this cutting board. He’d divide them into piles sorted by length and began chopping them finely. He’d do the same with the chilli peppers. Sometimes they would be the red Thai chilli peppers. Other times, depending on what was available at the supermarket, he’d chop up jalapeños. Either case, there would be a mountain of peppers, and an even larger mound of green onions after all the prepping.
When he began sautéing them in the hot oil, that’s usually when I would take a few steps back, because of the wok tending to hiss and splutter once he added the chilis. Plus once the aromatics were released into the kitchen air, our eyes would naturally tear up.
When dinner was eventually ready, we would sit all together – usually the adults at one table, and the kids at a separate one, with a mix of chairs and stools, and sometimes some standing because these family dinners often included friends-as-family or new friends who craved a comforting home away from home.
Heat as accessory.
Heat as flavour.
Heat as tradition.
Heat as fire.
Heat as a container.
Heat as lubrication.
Heat as alchemy.
Heat as magick.
When you’re living in a country that is not where you’re originally from, and are othered by folx who failed to realize that they are also not originally from that land, you understand the value of making friends with the othered folx. You sit together at a table, and you share hot sauce.
The first bite, with the hot sauce added, would quite noticeably determine the meal’s overall volume in the home. I came from a family where meals were (are) usually loud – the louder it was (is), the happier. Heat not only warms the body, but also the heart.
Long after Gong Gong’ passing, his hot sauce continues to hold us. There’s been days a-plenty this year of social distancing from the pandemic when I deeply crave the vibrancy of noisy voices when you have a home full of family and friends over for a meal. It’s led me to gather Gong Gong’s hot sauce ingredients, and search in my drawer for a couple of used Bonne Maman jars. Candles lit, incense burned, offerings made, prayers supplicated, rattles shaken, and Gong Gong invited. I hum, chop, sauté, jar, and drop them off to my parents’ and brother. Whether if it’s hot sauce, heat, fire, or passion, it’s meant to be shared.
Even my children at their young age, both of whom never did meet my grandfather in physical form, also love adding a kick to what they’re eating. And often times when they do, I would lovingly remind them of their family’s origin – that the hot sauce they added to their bowl of Tan Tan noodles is alive. The fire of love, the fire of togetherness, the fire of humble ingredients transformed – this fire is medicine.
For my Gong Gong’s Hot Sauce recipe, head to my online journal, UNSEEN, January 2021’s issue.
founder, spirit communicator + shamanic intuitive
This story, THE HOT SAUCE IS ALIVE, first appeared in my online journal, UNSEEN. Sign up for your FREE copy HERE.