I had a hard time deciding what to write about here, because there's a lot of different foods that could fit this slot. But then I figured that I would go one level deeper: a particular nostalgia spice.
When I was younger, my parents had a grill on the back porch, and we would grill chicken on it. But it wasn't the same kind of grilling that the Irish-American family next door did, bland hamburger patties and store-bought hot dogs, where the real interesting flavors had to be added later. No, my mom would steep the chicken in a marinade overnight, so that you could eat it as soon as it came off the grill, and it would be delicious.
The components of the marinade were mostly familiar to me at the time -- soy sauce, garlic cloves, scallions, sliced ginger root, sugar -- but there was always one component that she used that was unfamiliar to me. It was a spice that she kept in a unlabeled plastic container in the cabinets, and she told me that she had gotten it from her own mother, my grandmother, who lived in Taiwan.
I guess it always had this air of mystery about it, then, this strange spice that came from the East. The smell of it would linger on my fingers for hours afterwards when I would help her with the prep work, even after I washed my hands.
I never did ask her what the name of it was, or if I did, I forgot it soon after. I didn't even realize how strongly the smell had imprinted on my brain until many, many years later after my parents moved and my mom got busy and we didn't grill chicken anymore.
When I was in college, I used to cook a lot more than I do now. Part of that was roommates, who I could fob my leftovers at and who could usually be counted on to be an extra pair of hands or eyes if I needed help in the kitchen, and part of that was having a schedule that was less rigidly enforced than that an office job. The thing about that was that I could be ambitious with my cooking adventures. One of my cooking adventures was an attempt at Chinese (Char Siu) Roast Pork, which could be a nostalgia food post in and of itself, and one of the ingredients of the marinade was Five Spice Powder.
It was extremely expensive at the local supermarket, I remember. But I did buy some. They say that smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory, and it really was true this time around. When I cracked open that seal and smelled that spice again for the first time in at least six-seven years, I was back at home, helping my mom turn those chicken legs while they were soaking in their marinade.
I made it a mission to find cheap Five Spice Powder after that, though now that I don't cook that much anymore, I don't really use it for anything. So it's mostly just taking up a comically large portion of my spice shelf. Oh well. Maybe I'll figure out how to cook with it again. Or maybe not. Maybe I'll just take it down from the shelf every once in a while and take a sniff, just so I can remind myself what it smells like.
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