Consider the hotel-apartment kitchen: Two burners, on one of those flat-surfaced electronic cooktops. A small but surprisingly powerful oven. A knife block with sharp, excellent knives. One pot. One little saucepan. One frying pan. A colander. A few other single things. It took a call to the front desk to bring up a rice cooker, which was a strange omission for a Chinese kitchen.
Account for the necessities that have already been bought: olive oil, plenty of garlic, a bag of salt, pepper in a plastic grinder, butter. Aluminum foil. A package of cherry tomatoes, minus two grilled-cheese sandwiches’ worth of tomatoes.
Make another grocery run. A one-pound bag of gemelli, which here in the foreign world is a 500-gram bag. Two full-sized tomatoes, as tough and unappetizing-looking as all grocery tomatoes are in China, but labeled “organic.” A package of three long, medium-green peppers, which are probably mild. An onion.
Put water in the pot, dump in a handful of salt, and put it on the ceramic cooktop on the circle that markes where the rear burner, the larger one, is. Press the seamless, wordless touch-control button with the key-like glyph, to unlock the cooktop controls. Here’s how the manual for the stove explains it:
Open: The fingers gently placed in the radiation furnace’s power on-off key : to hear ” di ” sound, the location of all the cooking shows on the show “.”
Di. Press the glyph for start. Di. The manuals for the other appliances, from the same manufacturer, are in flawless English. Press the glyph for rear burner. Di. When an LED zero appears, press the + / - glyphs to change it to 8. Di, di. Whole numbers only. Put the pot lid on tightly. The 8 is the highest setting, but it’s not very high.
The oven has a built-in pan that slides in and out like a shelf. Pull out the pan and line it with aluminum foil. Wash the cherry tomatoes and trim off the stems. There is a cutting board. Halve the tomatoes and scatter them on the foil, cut sides up. That’s enough tomatoes right there. Leave the big, unappetizing organic ones in their wrapper.
Wash one pepper, cut a sliver from it, and taste it. Mild. Mild-ish? Trim and seed the pepper. Taste a finger you seeded the pepper with. Not so mild, the seed parts. Think about what will happen when you try to stick that finger in one eye to take out a contact lens. Cut the pepper into quarters and add to the foil, skin side up.
Scatter salt and grind black pepper over the tomatoes and pepper chunks. Drizzle olive oil over them. Slide the pan back into the oven and study the oven glyphs. Turn the left-hand knob to the symbol that looks like a picture of a hot top element and a convection fan. Turn the right-hand knob past all the Celsius numbers, whatever they might mean, over to “MAX.” Close the oven.
Chop one quarter of the onion fine. Crush, peel, and mince two cloves of garlic. Dried hot peppers? There are no dried hot peppers in the inventory. Dig some stray seeds out of the pepper trimmings.
The water is not even close to boiling.
Get out the little saucepan. No. That’s ridiculous. Get out the frying pan and put it on the front burn—no, it bangs into the pot of water and overlaps onto the touch-control panel. Not possible. Get out the little saucepan, after all.
Pour some olive oil into the little saucepan. Go through the touch-control sequence to activate the front burner. Di. Di. What number? So far, the only firm conclusion about the numbers has been that 3 is a little too hot for French toast and 2 is a little too cool. Set the burner on 5 or 6, dump in the garlic and the pepper seeds, and watch as nothing happens. Wander off.
Smell something cooking. Is that the tomatoes on their way to being ready? The garlic! Discover that the garlic is already the scorched brown of the garlic on a garlic bagel, on its way to being browner still. Yank the garlic off the burner. Contemplate its brownness. Maybe it would add a note of—feh! Who are you kidding? Dump the garlic and oil into the sink.Mince two new cloves. Scavenge more pepper seeds. Get some new oil going.
When the garlic is cooking in a nice, non-scorched way, add the chopped onion and start sauteing it. Stir it with, let’s see, the slotted pancake spatula. Sprinkle in some salt.
The tomatoes! Crouch down by the oven. Remember the blast of steam you caught in your face when you tried roasting squash in there, the way one eyelid kept stinging all the way till bedtime. Something about the physics of the oven, maybe: smaller oven doorway forces out longer steam plume? Keep a distance, and—
Smoke! Hot gas! Tomato inferno. There are oven mitts. Pull out the sizzling tray and put it, where, cripes, this unwieldy sheet of metal heated to MAX degrees Celsius, in this itty-bitty kitchen? Smell the oven mitt starting to scorch—there! Balanced on the rim of the unused frying pan, which was still sitting out. Hey, not bad.
The water is still not boiling. Next time, try pre-boiling the water in the electric kettle. That boils fast.
Back home, you would peel the skin off roasted peppers. Funny, right? Grab the kitchen shears—not the good ones from the knife block, but the great ones, the spring-loaded ones, the ones you lived without for a year and a half because customs had blocked that particular carton for reasons too stupid to even get into, so they were still waiting for you overseas, while in America you had to cut up chicken with a big pair of scissors from Ikea. Those shears.Cut up the peppers, skins and all, and add them to the little saucepan.
Scoop up the roasted tomatoes and add them to the saucepan, too, along with the oil and juices from the pan. Mash the tomatoes up some with the spatula. See them burst. Turn the burner back to zero.
Eventually the water will boil. There. Dump in the gemelli, stir, and cover. Set the microwave to 7 minutes, power zero, start. Wonder why this microwave makes cooking sounds even when power is on zero. Watch the countdown go all the way down to 6 minutes, then below, while the pot steams and struggles to return to the boil.
When the pot does boil, take the lid off so it doesn’t boil over. Watch the boil falter and die. Put the lid back on, slightly ajar. Wander off for a few minutes.
Hear the hissing of the pot boiling over. Lift lid, stir. Realize there’s nowhere on a ceramic cooktop for spilled water to drain. Watch the puddle of water around the pot bubble and harden and scorch.
When the gemelli are done, drain them in the colander. Add chunks of butter. Is there a serving bowl? Not really, huh. How about this glass cooking dish? Could be. Yes. Yes-ish.
Pour the sauce over the pasta. Toss very slowly and carefully. Does it taste like home? It tastes like dinner.