First section

luo song tang

(aka., Chinese Borscht)

Isabelle Shaw

Beef, onions, potatoes, cabbage, carrots. Tomato paste, garlic, and ginger.

These came out from the Sainsbury’s bag resting on the kitchen bench.

Salt, szechuan peppers, star anise. These, from the back of her pantry. Stuck far at the back, near the packet of vegan chocolate protein powder Charlotte had tried only once because a friend had promised, “It tastes like a chocolate thick shake” (it didn’t). Measuring the spices out into a bowl, one teaspoon, two pinches, three stars, she inhales deeply and imagines the rich aromas of the final product of thick stew once all combined. A strange blend of Russian and Chinese heritage brought together by a robust richness reminiscent of Italian cooking.

Charlotte’s mother, Xiaoqing, had always made the soup once the summer ended. Charlotte remembered the Melbourne skies would lose their colour and the world would transition from an over-saturated vibrancy of blues, pinks, and orange to grey. Only then would the large silver pot come out, its base blackened by the gas stove, the left handle almost burnt off. Loud battle-scars from the chaos in the kitchen at the hands of the girls. Souvenirs from their cooking adventures: pumpkin-infused macaroni and cheese with rosemary breadcrumbs and Parmesan crusted on top. Thick uneven hand-ripped noodles in a soy broth with edamame and seaweed and left-over braised duck from last night's dinner. Tart strawberry jam and slightly over-whipped cream on tall, buttery scones still steaming slightly from the oven. All this reminded her of home.

Charlotte heats a generous pad of butter in a pan and throws in the peppers and star anise, tossing them around, letting them release their flavour into the butter and the air of the cluttered apartment.

***

"Zdrah-stvooy," Xiaoqing had sounded out. "Zdrah," she repeated.

"Zdrah," Ginny and Charlotte chorused back.  

"Stvooy."

"Stvooy."

"And now try them together?" She smiled.  

"Zdrahstvooy." The young girls sang.  

"Yes, zdrahstvooy," she congratulated, before moving onto the next word.

Language lessons were always informal and spoken. Sporadic and at the mercy of the tides of interest that came with growing up, the girls always preferred Russian to Chinese because it seemed more exotic. For them, Chinese was boring, mundane, common. But Russian? That was European, that was cool.

The lessons were accompanied by tales of their mother's experiences of growing up near the border of China and the USSR. Xiaoqing told them stories of how her childhood had changed in the aftermath of Mao’s rise and The Great Leap Forward. How, as the eldest, she helped her own mother, Charlotte’s grandmother, look after her four younger sisters when her father had gone off to fight in the war.  

Charlotte often wondered whether her mother missed the harsh seasons of the North. The bouts of torrential rain interspersed with bright sunshine that made up Melbourne's fickle winter must have seemed mild in comparison to the frost of the Ice City she'd grown up in. Now, Charlotte knew even the endless grey winters of London surely could not compare to the thick snow canopies of Harbin.

***

Charlotte slices the onion into thick strips and crushes the garlic cloves under the blade of a knife. They all go into the pan with the dry spices. She adds in the tomato paste and lets it sizzle as the tartness and the bitterness of the tinned tomato cook away - tsssss, ahhhhh. She turns off the heat and sets it aside. In a separate pan, she watches water come to the boil as she begins to parboil the beef.

Her mother would never admit that she was from the North. Instead, she shaved off the sharpness of her accent and gave up Chinese-Russian words: lieba, gewasi, bulaji. Xiaoqing moved south to the city as soon as she could and eagerly took up the soft flowing Shanghainese dialect of her first love, incorporating the -er lilt to her words to imitate the dulcet up-and-down rhythms of the South.

Leading up to her wedding, she learnt the more delicate umami flavours of the South-East from her mother-in-law, Jingyu. They spent long but quiet hours together as they folded and wrapped shrimp and pork wontons into their thin egg-dough wrappers, and pan-fried Chinese cabbage with rice cakes with a thick soy marinade. She subbed out cumin and spice with cooking wine and scallions. It was almost a relief to shed her rural roots and adopt the superior airs of the cosmopolitan city – the first city that was truly open to the world. But even then, she didn’t change the recipe for that rich red soup.

Even after Charlotte’s father passed, Xiaoqing had stayed in touch with his mother despite never being close. Jingyu, or Nainai as the girls would call her, would check in every few weeks and even occasionally visit. Xiaoqing said it was more out of loneliness than anything else. Jingyu had only moved to Australia to be with her son. The rest of her family had chosen to stay in Shanghai, and she had no intention of going back. Her justification was that the city was no longer the same and the air was too dirty.

It was awkward at first. A grieving mother, widower, and two now almost-teenage girls all sat around a table; the incandescent light brought out the lines on their faces. Conversations were limited by heartbreak as much as they were by language. The girls fumbled around with a patchwork of Harbin, Shanghainese, and Mandarin that they'd picked up over the years, all pronounced with a broad Australian accent as they tried their best to converse with their grandmother.

Jingyu would often offer to cook, but their mother would adamantly refuse. "Please sit down, let me do the cooking while you watch the girls. They’re in the living room, go sit on the couch and relax," she'd say in Shanghainese.

One dinner, they had sat with the rich red soup in the middle of the table as an entree of sorts before the rest of the meal came out. The same way they serve it in Shanghai.

"You're not serving it with da lieba?" Jingyu had asked in Chinese.

"No, not today.”  

"What are they saying?" Ginny had whispered.

"Nainai is asking why we aren't eating bread with the soup," Charlotte whispered back.

Ginny ladled the soup up and took a sip, immediately spitting it back out into the bowl. "The soup tastes different today. It’s sort of gross, don’t you think?"  

Charlotte rolled her eyes and shuffled in her seat, so she was positioned closer to the edge of the table. She swung her leg back and kicked Ginny from under the table, giving her a stern look.  

"Ow, what was that for? Mum, she kicked me!"

"I cooked it differently today. It's how your grandma likes it," her mother responded in English, frowning discouragingly at Charlotte. "In Shanghai, they add ginger, and they don't fry the beef."

Charlotte sent her mother an apologetic smile and straightened up in her seat, determined to not get caught up in Ginny’s immaturity.

"Isn’t it supposed to be Russian? Russian's don't eat ginger. It tastes better when you cook it the normal way.”  

"Stop being so thick," Charlotte responded coolly, her earlier resolve to not engage quickly abandoned.

"Stop being so rude."

"Respect your elders."

"Both of you, stop fighting," their mother warned. "This is the way I’m making it from now on, so get used to it. I don’t want to hear any complaints, or you can make yourself dinner.”

"Fine."

***

Charlotte brings a large pot of water to the boil and chops the potatoes and carrots into large chunks. Salt the water slightly. The beef, vegetables and spices all go into a single pot and she adds water until the large silver pot is full. She brings everything to barely a simmer, watching as the water bubbles, softly and covers it with a lid. Then she waits.

She's always taken aback at how short the winter days are in London. It's barely four in the evening and the dark ink of the night has already spilt across the sky, leaving a scattering of warm yellow lights to shine through along the skyline.  

Back home, it would be just past three in the morning. Too early for her family to be up yet. She tries to distract herself as she waits for the soup to reduce. There's hardly any laundry in the hamper, a few sweaters and some sweatpants. Barely half a load, but she puts it into the washing machine anyway. She folds away a stray scarf left hanging on a chair and checks the time again. Somehow, it's only been half an hour.

She is putting away the dishes from the rack back into their cupboards when she decides she's going to clear out her pantry. A bag of dried kidney beans, black wood ear mushrooms and an expired box of baker’s yeast all emerge from the depths of the cupboard. She gives the soup a stir every so often.

The pantry has been purged of all expired goods. Wiped down once with a wet sponge and another with an antibacterial wipe, she has had all the products re-organised and re-housed back in the pantry when the lock of the door clicks open.

"In here," she shouts from the floor. "How was work?"

Samuel unwraps his scarf and drapes it on the arm of the sofa, near the radiator. "Yeah, alright. How are you feeling? I see you've been busy." He wraps his arms around her.

"I needed something to do so I did some housework."

"What's the point in taking the day off if you're just going to work?”

"I know. I still had a good day though."

"If you say so." He lifts the lid off the pot and breathes in the soup.

"Leave it alone, it's not done yet." She swats him away. "Do you want to shower or are you good to go?"

“I’m good, the camera loves me regardless of whether I’ve showered.” He grins cheekily.

They set up the laptop and sit together at the dining table. Charlotte fidgets with the laptop to adjust the camera angle as they wait for the others to join the call.  

Ginny’s face pops up onto the screen with Toto, her Shiba Inu puppy, laying in her lap. A close-up of their mother’s face joins a few seconds after.  Xiaoqing’s camera jerks down and Charlotte sees she is wearing an old t-shirt from Charlotte and Ginny’s high school. It has a big bear stretching up for a star and shouting “Reach towards higher things” on the front. Charlotte had always thought the t-shirt was ugly but it made her smile when she saw her mother wearing it.

“Mama, put the phone down so we can see you properly. Where’s Nainai?” Ginny asks, already exasperated.

“She’s here, but we can’t get the camera to work.”

“It’s working, you both just need to sit down and put the phone down,” Charlotte interjects.

“Hi, hi! How is everyone?” Samuel’s attempt to cut through are ignored as the back and forth between the women heats up.

“Nainai, how are you?” He tries again to no avail.

Eventually, everyone’s video is set up and all five faces can be seen clearly.

“Are you two going to bed soon?" Xiaoqing asks.

"Yeah soon, in a bit. We have some news though, which is why we wanted to have this call," Charlotte responds.

"What time is it now? Almost midnight? You should already be sleeping. It's not good for the heart to go to bed so late."

"I'm not a child, Mum. You don't need to tell me when to go to bed. And it's early, only seven p.m. The clocks went back last week remember?"

"Aiya, you still need to sleep earlier, you both work too hard. I read on WeChat that there was a young doctor who worked too much. He got up very early in the morning every morning, five a.m. And he worked all day and didn't go to sleep until 12 every night. He was very healthy before but always went to bed late. Then suddenly, one day, he died from heart failure. He was still very young as well – only 34 years old!"

"That sounds… fake. I’ve told you so many times that not everything on WeChat is true."

"You never listen to me. Why don't you listen to your mother?"

"I do, you just think I don't." She tries to sound annoyed, but she'd missed this too much. "I made luo song tang today. I think we'll be eating it for the rest of the year though, there's so much left over."

"That's alright, you can send some to me," her mother jokes. "Pay me back for all the times I cooked for you."

“Me too,” Ginny pipes up.  

"Sure, I'll pop it into the post first thing tomorrow," she smiles. "So, like I said, we have some news for you today." She shares a look with Samuel. There's a beat before it all comes out in a flurry, "I'm pregnant. We're having a baby."

Ginny lets out an uncharacteristically quiet, “Oh my god, that's amazing.” Xiaoqing and Jingyu let out a shout. They hug and cry. Ginny and Charlotte smile as they watch.

"We're not sure whether it's going to be a boy or a girl just yet, but we just couldn’t wait to tell you.”

***

The rain softly begins to fall as they start to eat. Charlotte takes a sip of soup and feels the warmth it brings to her chest. They chat about their day sharing moments that made them laugh and smile and cry out in frustration. How Samuel’s intern made palm cards to introduce himself in a meeting with the team, how she saw a dog wearing booties and a raincoat. She teases him about the dribble of soup that splashes onto his shirt, and he laughs at her bread soaking technique.  She breaks off strips and leaves them soaking on the rim of her bowl which he thinks looks like a bunch of old men lazing about in a hot spring.

As she packs the leftovers into plastic Tupperware and slots them into the refrigerator, he washes and dries the dishes. They have a comfortable rhythm as they finish cleaning and get ready for bed. Charlotte climbs into bed next to Samuel and pulls out the recipe card her mother wrote for her when she was first moving out. She starts a new page in her recipe book and begins writing.

“You’re copying the recipe into the notebook? Don’t you just make it from memory?”

“Yeah, but I’ve made some changes over the years, and I want to give this to our daughter when she grows up.”  

“Daughter? You don’t know it’s going to be a girl.”

“It’ll be a girl,” she counters. They laugh.

Eventually, she puts the notebook away and switches the lamp off. In the darkness, she pulls the duvet snug and tucks it under her chin, letting the soft humming of the heater and lingering scent of ginger and tomatoes lull her to sleep.

First section

luo song tang

(aka., Chinese Borscht)

Isabelle Shaw

Beef, onions, potatoes, cabbage, carrots. Tomato paste, garlic, and ginger.

These came out from the Sainsbury’s bag resting on the kitchen bench.

Salt, szechuan peppers, star anise. These, from the back of her pantry. Stuck far at the back, near the packet of vegan chocolate protein powder Charlotte had tried only once because a friend had promised, “It tastes like a chocolate thick shake” (it didn’t). Measuring the spices out into a bowl, one teaspoon, two pinches, three stars, she inhales deeply and imagines the rich aromas of the final product of thick stew once all combined. A strange blend of Russian and Chinese heritage brought together by a robust richness reminiscent of Italian cooking.

Charlotte’s mother, Xiaoqing, had always made the soup once the summer ended. Charlotte remembered the Melbourne skies would lose their colour and the world would transition from an over-saturated vibrancy of blues, pinks, and orange to grey. Only then would the large silver pot come out, its base blackened by the gas stove, the left handle almost burnt off. Loud battle-scars from the chaos in the kitchen at the hands of the girls. Souvenirs from their cooking adventures: pumpkin-infused macaroni and cheese with rosemary breadcrumbs and Parmesan crusted on top. Thick uneven hand-ripped noodles in a soy broth with edamame and seaweed and left-over braised duck from last night's dinner. Tart strawberry jam and slightly over-whipped cream on tall, buttery scones still steaming slightly from the oven. All this reminded her of home.

Charlotte heats a generous pad of butter in a pan and throws in the peppers and star anise, tossing them around, letting them release their flavour into the butter and the air of the cluttered apartment.

***

"Zdrah-stvooy," Xiaoqing had sounded out. "Zdrah," she repeated.

"Zdrah," Ginny and Charlotte chorused back.  

"Stvooy."

"Stvooy."

"And now try them together?" She smiled.  

"Zdrahstvooy." The young girls sang.  

"Yes, zdrahstvooy," she congratulated, before moving onto the next word.

Language lessons were always informal and spoken. Sporadic and at the mercy of the tides of interest that came with growing up, the girls always preferred Russian to Chinese because it seemed more exotic. For them, Chinese was boring, mundane, common. But Russian? That was European, that was cool.

The lessons were accompanied by tales of their mother's experiences of growing up near the border of China and the USSR. Xiaoqing told them stories of how her childhood had changed in the aftermath of Mao’s rise and The Great Leap Forward. How, as the eldest, she helped her own mother, Charlotte’s grandmother, look after her four younger sisters when her father had gone off to fight in the war.  

Charlotte often wondered whether her mother missed the harsh seasons of the North. The bouts of torrential rain interspersed with bright sunshine that made up Melbourne's fickle winter must have seemed mild in comparison to the frost of the Ice City she'd grown up in. Now, Charlotte knew even the endless grey winters of London surely could not compare to the thick snow canopies of Harbin.

***

Charlotte slices the onion into thick strips and crushes the garlic cloves under the blade of a knife. They all go into the pan with the dry spices. She adds in the tomato paste and lets it sizzle as the tartness and the bitterness of the tinned tomato cook away - tsssss, ahhhhh. She turns off the heat and sets it aside. In a separate pan, she watches water come to the boil as she begins to parboil the beef.

Her mother would never admit that she was from the North. Instead, she shaved off the sharpness of her accent and gave up Chinese-Russian words: lieba, gewasi, bulaji. Xiaoqing moved south to the city as soon as she could and eagerly took up the soft flowing Shanghainese dialect of her first love, incorporating the -er lilt to her words to imitate the dulcet up-and-down rhythms of the South.

Leading up to her wedding, she learnt the more delicate umami flavours of the South-East from her mother-in-law, Jingyu. They spent long but quiet hours together as they folded and wrapped shrimp and pork wontons into their thin egg-dough wrappers, and pan-fried Chinese cabbage with rice cakes with a thick soy marinade. She subbed out cumin and spice with cooking wine and scallions. It was almost a relief to shed her rural roots and adopt the superior airs of the cosmopolitan city – the first city that was truly open to the world. But even then, she didn’t change the recipe for that rich red soup.

Even after Charlotte’s father passed, Xiaoqing had stayed in touch with his mother despite never being close. Jingyu, or Nainai as the girls would call her, would check in every few weeks and even occasionally visit. Xiaoqing said it was more out of loneliness than anything else. Jingyu had only moved to Australia to be with her son. The rest of her family had chosen to stay in Shanghai, and she had no intention of going back. Her justification was that the city was no longer the same and the air was too dirty.

It was awkward at first. A grieving mother, widower, and two now almost-teenage girls all sat around a table; the incandescent light brought out the lines on their faces. Conversations were limited by heartbreak as much as they were by language. The girls fumbled around with a patchwork of Harbin, Shanghainese, and Mandarin that they'd picked up over the years, all pronounced with a broad Australian accent as they tried their best to converse with their grandmother.

Jingyu would often offer to cook, but their mother would adamantly refuse. "Please sit down, let me do the cooking while you watch the girls. They’re in the living room, go sit on the couch and relax," she'd say in Shanghainese.

One dinner, they had sat with the rich red soup in the middle of the table as an entree of sorts before the rest of the meal came out. The same way they serve it in Shanghai.

"You're not serving it with da lieba?" Jingyu had asked in Chinese.

"No, not today.”  

"What are they saying?" Ginny had whispered.

"Nainai is asking why we aren't eating bread with the soup," Charlotte whispered back.

Ginny ladled the soup up and took a sip, immediately spitting it back out into the bowl. "The soup tastes different today. It’s sort of gross, don’t you think?"  

Charlotte rolled her eyes and shuffled in her seat, so she was positioned closer to the edge of the table. She swung her leg back and kicked Ginny from under the table, giving her a stern look.  

"Ow, what was that for? Mum, she kicked me!"

"I cooked it differently today. It's how your grandma likes it," her mother responded in English, frowning discouragingly at Charlotte. "In Shanghai, they add ginger, and they don't fry the beef."

Charlotte sent her mother an apologetic smile and straightened up in her seat, determined to not get caught up in Ginny’s immaturity.

"Isn’t it supposed to be Russian? Russian's don't eat ginger. It tastes better when you cook it the normal way.”  

"Stop being so thick," Charlotte responded coolly, her earlier resolve to not engage quickly abandoned.

"Stop being so rude."

"Respect your elders."

"Both of you, stop fighting," their mother warned. "This is the way I’m making it from now on, so get used to it. I don’t want to hear any complaints, or you can make yourself dinner.”

"Fine."

***

Charlotte brings a large pot of water to the boil and chops the potatoes and carrots into large chunks. Salt the water slightly. The beef, vegetables and spices all go into a single pot and she adds water until the large silver pot is full. She brings everything to barely a simmer, watching as the water bubbles, softly and covers it with a lid. Then she waits.

She's always taken aback at how short the winter days are in London. It's barely four in the evening and the dark ink of the night has already spilt across the sky, leaving a scattering of warm yellow lights to shine through along the skyline.  

Back home, it would be just past three in the morning. Too early for her family to be up yet. She tries to distract herself as she waits for the soup to reduce. There's hardly any laundry in the hamper, a few sweaters and some sweatpants. Barely half a load, but she puts it into the washing machine anyway. She folds away a stray scarf left hanging on a chair and checks the time again. Somehow, it's only been half an hour.

She is putting away the dishes from the rack back into their cupboards when she decides she's going to clear out her pantry. A bag of dried kidney beans, black wood ear mushrooms and an expired box of baker’s yeast all emerge from the depths of the cupboard. She gives the soup a stir every so often.

The pantry has been purged of all expired goods. Wiped down once with a wet sponge and another with an antibacterial wipe, she has had all the products re-organised and re-housed back in the pantry when the lock of the door clicks open.

"In here," she shouts from the floor. "How was work?"

Samuel unwraps his scarf and drapes it on the arm of the sofa, near the radiator. "Yeah, alright. How are you feeling? I see you've been busy." He wraps his arms around her.

"I needed something to do so I did some housework."

"What's the point in taking the day off if you're just going to work?”

"I know. I still had a good day though."

"If you say so." He lifts the lid off the pot and breathes in the soup.

"Leave it alone, it's not done yet." She swats him away. "Do you want to shower or are you good to go?"

“I’m good, the camera loves me regardless of whether I’ve showered.” He grins cheekily.

They set up the laptop and sit together at the dining table. Charlotte fidgets with the laptop to adjust the camera angle as they wait for the others to join the call.  

Ginny’s face pops up onto the screen with Toto, her Shiba Inu puppy, laying in her lap. A close-up of their mother’s face joins a few seconds after.  Xiaoqing’s camera jerks down and Charlotte sees she is wearing an old t-shirt from Charlotte and Ginny’s high school. It has a big bear stretching up for a star and shouting “Reach towards higher things” on the front. Charlotte had always thought the t-shirt was ugly but it made her smile when she saw her mother wearing it.

“Mama, put the phone down so we can see you properly. Where’s Nainai?” Ginny asks, already exasperated.

“She’s here, but we can’t get the camera to work.”

“It’s working, you both just need to sit down and put the phone down,” Charlotte interjects.

“Hi, hi! How is everyone?” Samuel’s attempt to cut through are ignored as the back and forth between the women heats up.

“Nainai, how are you?” He tries again to no avail.

Eventually, everyone’s video is set up and all five faces can be seen clearly.

“Are you two going to bed soon?" Xiaoqing asks.

"Yeah soon, in a bit. We have some news though, which is why we wanted to have this call," Charlotte responds.

"What time is it now? Almost midnight? You should already be sleeping. It's not good for the heart to go to bed so late."

"I'm not a child, Mum. You don't need to tell me when to go to bed. And it's early, only seven p.m. The clocks went back last week remember?"

"Aiya, you still need to sleep earlier, you both work too hard. I read on WeChat that there was a young doctor who worked too much. He got up very early in the morning every morning, five a.m. And he worked all day and didn't go to sleep until 12 every night. He was very healthy before but always went to bed late. Then suddenly, one day, he died from heart failure. He was still very young as well – only 34 years old!"

"That sounds… fake. I’ve told you so many times that not everything on WeChat is true."

"You never listen to me. Why don't you listen to your mother?"

"I do, you just think I don't." She tries to sound annoyed, but she'd missed this too much. "I made luo song tang today. I think we'll be eating it for the rest of the year though, there's so much left over."

"That's alright, you can send some to me," her mother jokes. "Pay me back for all the times I cooked for you."

“Me too,” Ginny pipes up.  

"Sure, I'll pop it into the post first thing tomorrow," she smiles. "So, like I said, we have some news for you today." She shares a look with Samuel. There's a beat before it all comes out in a flurry, "I'm pregnant. We're having a baby."

Ginny lets out an uncharacteristically quiet, “Oh my god, that's amazing.” Xiaoqing and Jingyu let out a shout. They hug and cry. Ginny and Charlotte smile as they watch.

"We're not sure whether it's going to be a boy or a girl just yet, but we just couldn’t wait to tell you.”

***

The rain softly begins to fall as they start to eat. Charlotte takes a sip of soup and feels the warmth it brings to her chest. They chat about their day sharing moments that made them laugh and smile and cry out in frustration. How Samuel’s intern made palm cards to introduce himself in a meeting with the team, how she saw a dog wearing booties and a raincoat. She teases him about the dribble of soup that splashes onto his shirt, and he laughs at her bread soaking technique.  She breaks off strips and leaves them soaking on the rim of her bowl which he thinks looks like a bunch of old men lazing about in a hot spring.

As she packs the leftovers into plastic Tupperware and slots them into the refrigerator, he washes and dries the dishes. They have a comfortable rhythm as they finish cleaning and get ready for bed. Charlotte climbs into bed next to Samuel and pulls out the recipe card her mother wrote for her when she was first moving out. She starts a new page in her recipe book and begins writing.

“You’re copying the recipe into the notebook? Don’t you just make it from memory?”

“Yeah, but I’ve made some changes over the years, and I want to give this to our daughter when she grows up.”  

“Daughter? You don’t know it’s going to be a girl.”

“It’ll be a girl,” she counters. They laugh.

Eventually, she puts the notebook away and switches the lamp off. In the darkness, she pulls the duvet snug and tucks it under her chin, letting the soft humming of the heater and lingering scent of ginger and tomatoes lull her to sleep.