The second day, she made braised pork with wood ear mushrooms, stir-fried tofu and vegetables in a flavorful sauce with a little more chili oil than the day before, and formed a dessert of crumbly sesame cookies. She would have sneered at the results in her previous gourmet life, but here the cookies were an unusual delicacy.
Fang Wenhui said nothing once more, but she ate five cookies by herself of the six Qi Xue had set aside for their own meal. Qi Xue grimaced but did not complain. In a way, she thought of it as bribing Fang Wenhui not to interfere. Not that the other woman needed much encouraging to stay silent.
Besides, Qi Xue said to herself, who wouldn’t want to give sweets to a beautiful woman? She remembered her middle school days and shy girls giving their homemade sweets to boys they liked. She, Qi Xue, had gifted her sweets to the most butch girl in the school who had eaten them and then started dating the pretty boy Liu Zhang shortly afterwards, not even noticing the broken heart she left behind.
Yes, Qi Xue had always found girls more attractive than boys! That was why she was trying so hard not to look closely at Fang Wenhui. She knew if she allowed herself the luxury, she would fall madly into a crush, which she did not need right now. Qi Xue had always been weak for the stoic, cool type, especially if they had muscles as well. That Fang Wenhui checked all these boxes was not lost on her, hence why she did her best to outwardly ignore the other woman and only peek at her when she wasn’t looking.
This evening, Qi Xue did not sneak by the master’s table. She didn’t want to establish a routine and get caught/punished for insolence. Instead, she paid the servant boy who delivered the dishes from the kitchen to the table to eavesdrop instead. Of course, she had hardly any coin, but to a boy, a few extra bites were as good as a string of copper.
So it was that Qi Xue heard of the increased praise for the savory meal and the delight over the novelty cookies. She rubbed her hands evilly and suppressed her triumphant laughter into a silent but wide smirk instead.
Fang Wenhui saw this reaction and said nothing, though her eyes rested soft on Qi Xue’s figure. She didn’t know what to make of this temporary cook who wouldn’t look at her overtly but was always watching her secretly. However, she felt that the actions of this mysterious servant were quite
The third day Qi Xue busied herself with hand-pulled noodles. Even in her original world of modern conveniences, this task was arduous. Qi Xue doubted the kitchen auntie ever went to lengths such as these, and that was without considering the advantage Qi Xue had of being a former culinary superstar. Kitchen auntie was a good cook, but Qi Xue was a chef. The difference between the two was immeasurable.
She found that the original owner’s body, previously honed for martial arts before she decided to turn to a life of con artistry, was well suited for making hand-pulled noodles. Qi Xue was able to smack the dough hard on the table with a loud whap! and then stretch it to her full arms-length many times without getting tired as she had in her previous life.
Unbeknownst to her, Fang Wenhui watched the repetitive slap and pull, slap and pull from behind. The other woman could not seem to stop watching this temporary cook, who looked so small but was working the stiff dough with such ease. Looking upon such a scene, who would not be curious and want to learn more? As she stared, Fang Wenhui noticed her eyes drifting to the curve of Qi Xue’s neck where it met her shoulder, the flex of her arms and shoulders as she slapped the dough onto the table again and again, and the soft locks of hair that had escaped the kerchief atop her head.
Fang Wenhui slapped her cheeks twice to snap out of it. What was wrong with her? She had probably got a little dehydrated in this hot kitchen. She quickly finished her task of washing vegetables and went away to drink some tea.
Once the noodles were finished, it was time to come up with a sauce. With a little digging, Qi Xue found some fermented black beans in a cupboard. It seemed the kitchen auntie was a little adventurous herself! Qi Xue shamelessly helped herself to the treasure. These she used to make a black bean sauce which was sure to amplify the taste of all her creations.
As if the tender and chewy noodles with savory black bean sauce were not enough, Qi Xue also whipped up steamed chicken and mushroom stew, steamed cabbage rolls, spicy lotus root stir fry, and scallion pancakes. Now, on the third day, Qi Xue was beginning to get bold with her deviations from the normal menu. In addition to the noodles, she knew the scallion pancakes would be very popular with her special dipping sauce.
The servant boy reported back that once again, all the dishes had been wiped clean and that everyone was raving about the noodles. One of the children had even licked the plate like a dog in order to slurp up the last of the sauce. He had immediately been scolded, but it was flattering nonetheless.
Qi Xue went to sleep that night, plans of future meals dancing in her head.
The fourth day was spicy pork noodle soup, salt-fried fish, cabbage egg drop soup, and chicken and pork spring rolls with cabbage. Qi Xue knew no one in this household had ever heard of them, probably because of the excess of oil required to fry them. Her guess was confirmed when the servant tasked with bringing the dishes out returned with the full plate.
“The old master is fine with the other dishes but asks what are these and how to eat them?” the boy asked.
“Wrap in lettuce like this and eat with the sauce here,” Qi Xue instructed. “They are traditional in my hometown, and I thought the old master might enjoy it as well.”
Based on the news the servant brought back, the master did enjoy them, very much. So much so he asked for them to be made again for tomorrow’s noon meal.
That night, Qi Xue was surprised by the old master appearing in the kitchen with a red envelope.
“The meal was very delicious, Miss,” he said. “Please, take this.”
“Ah, I couldn’t,” Qi Xue refused politely. “I only hoped that master would forgive this lowly servant’s insolence in daring to cook food from my hometown for the meal. This servant was missing home, you see, and before I knew it my hands had made them. That you ask me to make them again is more payment than I ever could have asked for.”
“I see,” the master said. He replaced the red envelope in his sleeve pocket. “Please feel free to make more foods from your hometown for my table. If you need more ingredients, simply ask.”
He turned around and walked away, and so did not see Qi Xue’s triumphant smirk. In truth, she had been nearing the bottom of the rations of salt and oil, which had been intended to last through the full two weeks. Qi Xue considered it an investment: spend more oil and salt to get more oil and salt. It turned out that her educated gamble reaped the rewards and now she was able to cook freely.
The fifth day, Qi Xue rose early and made hundreds of little dumplings.
After seeing Fang Wenhui’s miserable attempts at wrapping the dumplings, Qi Xue sighed gustily and went over. Wrapping her smaller hands around Fang Wenhui’s, she demonstrated with nimble fingers the trick of making the pleats in the dumpling without spilling the filling. She did this several times and then asked Fang Wenhui to do it on her own while she supervised carefully.
Was it just her, or was Fang Wenhui’s face slightly pink? Qi Xue resolved to open a window so as not to overheat her underling. It wouldn’t do for the tall, muscular woman to faint from the heat of a kitchen!
Although her dumplings were not as beautiful as the neat ones Qi Xue made, Fang Wenhui’s work was eventually deemed acceptable, so the dumplings were sent up. There were two kinds of fillings: both were typical meat and vegetable dumplings, but one was soup dumpling style. She had had to make the gelatin herself from pork and chicken bones, but for a chef such as her, it was no big deal. The soup dumplings were fragrant and tender and springy once steamed. One couldn’t help but marvel over them when taking a bite.
Qi Xue was aware that her meals mixed cuisines from all over China, but she had been a big star in the culinary world in her previous life and saw no issue with globalizing the dinner table a little. If pressed, she would just say they were foods from her hometown and no one from this world could know the difference. No one at the Wu house had ever asked exactly where she was from, and if they did, Qi Xue planned to name a foreign city from the modern world and pretend that it existed in this one.
The dumplings were accompanied with pork and lotus root soup, water spinach and water chestnuts sautéed with garlic, and steamed fish with scallion oil. These were relatively simple, but Qi Xue figured that any additional dishes would be overshadowed anyway by the dumplings and didn’t care.
By now, the family knew to expect an incredible dish from the kitchen, and still they were impressed by what was brought out by the servant boy. Old Man Wu had taken the liberty of inviting some guests over solely so he could show off his cook’s creations.
Behind the scenes, Qi Xue rubbed her hands in delight. The fact that the master now valued the good food of his household enough to brag to others about it meant that she could probably rely on him to promote her. Plus, tongues talked; she might even be able to score a position better than her current one if news of a marvelous cook reached the right ears.
From the shadows beside her, Fang Wenhui’s eyes settled on those rubbing hands, which just hours earlier had been wrapped around her own, and looked away quickly and shyly.