⟨ Food ⟩

Bitter Melon Salad

Is it bitter or sweet?

Words and Photography / 林琪香

 

1.
「那我反問你啊,為何不結婚呢?」被由起子一問,坂口突然語塞了,抓起啤酒杯,把剩下的酒都乾了。

坂口瞄了瞄坐在對面的奈津,她臉上一直帶著淺淺的笑容,默然不語。一整個晚上,奈津忙著廚房與餐廳兩邊跑,總算稍為坐下來,呷一小口冷清酒。小魚豆腐沙拉、煮茄子,還有涼拌苦瓜⋯⋯他最討厭的苦瓜。

「為甚麼要做苦瓜呢?」坂口搖了搖空的啤酒瓶,奈津便站起來,繞到他身邊去:「夏天嘛。你還不夠老,不知道苦瓜的美味。」說著伸手搓了搓坂口的頭髮,坂口卻輕輕將她的手撥開。奈津笑著拿起空啤酒瓶走向廚房,回來時手上是兩瓶冰啤酒,順便為坂口注了滿滿的一杯。

「坂口先生一直能吃到奈津姐做的菜,又健康又美味,很幸福呢!對吧?」由起子夾了一把苦瓜放在陽太的碟子裡。

「是呢。」陽太說。

「你真的覺得她做的菜好吃嗎?太淡了,不是嗎?呀,不過啊,反正晚上我都不吃飯。」坂口右手托著頭,左手拿著筷子,怎麼夾,都夾不起碟子裡的菜。

2.
陽太已好幾年沒跟奈津聯絡了,再見面時,是奈津把咖啡廳改為烹飪教室的時候,他套著圍裙來學做菜,當作慶祝她新店開張。他記得那時,奈津已經跟丈夫分開了好一陣子,在她身旁的是一個叫坂口的男人。烹飪課結束,學生們與奈津坐在長桌上用餐時,他首次見到坂口,他奉著一個紙箱從後面進來,然後從紙箱裡取出一個個老舊的白碟子。「他是我的伙伴,替我在古物市買了些北歐白瓷了。」奈津輕描淡寫的低聲跟陽太介紹,坂口也沒跟大家打招呼就匆匆離開了。

伙伴,陽太嘴嚼這稱呼。他跟由起子是情侶,跟奈津是朋友。奈津跟坂口是伙伴。是甚麼形式的伙伴呢⋯⋯

陽太對坂口沒有多少印象,只記得他很黑很高大,至於年紀,似乎共大他幾歲⋯⋯然後再過數年,某天陽太接到奈津的電話,不知她從哪裡聽說,陽太快要結婚了,硬要替他慶祝,於是這天,他就帶著由起子來到烹飪教室,享用奈津為他們準備的一桌料理。當年於烹飪教室學習的涼拌苦瓜也在桌上,而只在廚房稍為露過面的坂口,仍在奈津的身邊。

3.
「我也想結婚啊。你介紹結婚對象給我吧!」坂口對由起子笑說,撒走由起子跟前的空盆子,把較遠的一盆蕃茄蝦子放在她面前,然後又給離座的陽太的空杯子添了紅酒。

「我才不要害我的朋友!」由起子嚷著時不小心把蝦子掉在衣服上了,坂口急忙用水沾濕了紙巾遞給她。

坂口跟由起子在鬧著時,陽太正在廚房幫忙奈津準備鯛魚飯。大土鍋在火爐上,火早已關起來了,但蒸氣仍仍裊裊升起,再過兩分鐘就可以掀開蓋子。

「那道涼拌苦瓜,我現在偶爾也會做呢,就是沒有奈津姐做的好吃。我做的太苦了。」陽太說。

「可能是切得太厚了吧。」奈津說:「陽太很喜歡苦瓜呢。」

「因為我夠老了。」陽太笑說。

奈津聽罷大笑起來。廚房昏黃的燈光下,奈津額上剛泛起的皺紋給迷糊了。「陽太今年才三十出頭吧。坂口應該比你大五六歲呢,這個年紀也吃不了苦瓜,很少見吧。」

「嗯。」陽太說:「對了,奈津姐的女兒快大學畢業了吧。」

「是呢,而且已經找到工作了。」

「坂口先生⋯⋯跟奈津姐的女兒相處得來嗎?」

「好啊,因為都是大孩子嘛。」奈津在廚櫃中邊找飯碗邊說:「你別看坂口吊兒郎當的模樣,他很溫柔細心的。在我們遇上任何困難時,他總是守在我們身邊。但,離過婚的人,要再決定走進婚姻,始終都需要一點勇氣。他跟我都一樣。」

奈津要陽太先把碗拿進餐室排在桌上,兩個一模一樣的漆器碗是給陽太及由起子用的,另外兩個,一大一小,不一樣的,卻是一對。

4.
陽太及由起子跟奈津及坂口道別時,已接近零晨十二時。喝得東歪西倒的坂口,堅持要送他們往屋後的停車場。坂口的腳步走出波浪線,奈津抓緊了他的手臂免他撞到。

「一直喝酒都吃晚餐,當然容易醉啊。」由起子揶揄說。

「酒就是我的晚餐!酒就是我的晚餐!」坂口嚷道。

「你安靜一點嘛,會吵到鄰居。」奈津按住了坂口的嘴。

陽太與由起子上了車,站在駕駛座旁的坂口彎著身,頭靠在奈津的肩上,奈津一臉的無奈,卻不自覺地輕撫著他的髮鬢。奈津請他們有空再來吃飯,請他們路上小心,坂口一直在她肩上嘟噥,口齒不清。

陽太的車駛出停車場,最後一次回頭向目送自己離開的奈津揮手,正打算搖起車窗時,忽然又傳來坂口的叫嚷聲:「奈津,陪我去吃拉麵好嗎?又油又濃又咸的拉麵!陪我去。」

*

涼拌苦瓜

材料:
苦瓜 1 條、鹽 1 小匙、梅子 2 個、柴魚片 約5克、醬油及橄欖油 少許

做法:

  1. 把苦瓜去瓤,切成兩毫米闊的薄片;
  2. 灑上鹽,稍為揉一下後,擱上十分鐘;
  3. 倒掉苦瓜滲出的水分;
  4. 煮一鍋開水,把苦瓜倒進煮十秒左右便撈出;
  5. 放涼後,用手略擠出苦瓜的汁液;
  6. 梅子去籽,搗成茸,與柴魚片、醬油、橄欖油混合;
  7. 將 (6) 拌進苦瓜之中。完成。

.

1.
“Then let me ask you, why do you refuse to get married?” Sakaguchi was taken off guard by Yukiko’s question and couldn’t utter a word. He simply grabbed the beer glass and chugged it up.

Sakaguchi quickly took a glance at Natsu who was sitting across from him smiling mildly without talking. She has been keeping herself busy running back and forth between the kitchen and the restaurant. Now it was finally time for her to sit down and take a sip of the chilled sake. Small fish tofu salad, aubergine stew, and bitter melon salad… Bitter melon is what he hates the most.

“Why are we having bitter melon?” Seeing Sakaguchi shaking his empty beer bottle, Natsu stood up and went to him, and said, “It’s summertime. You’re not old enough to know how tasty bitter melon is.” She held out her hand to give Sakaguchi’s hair a rub but he brushed her hand away. Natsu brought the empty bottle to the kitchen and returned with two bottles of chilled beer. She then filled up Sakaguchi’s empty glass.

“Mr. Sakaguchi, you’re so lucky to have the privilege of enjoying Natsu’s dishes every day. They are so healthy and tasty! Isn’t that right?” Yukiko picked up some bitter melon and put them on Hatuta’s plate.

“That’s true,” said Hatuta.

“You really find them tasty? The taste is so mild. Well, I don’t eat dinner anyway.” Sakaguchi was resting his head on his right hand and holding the chopsticks with his left hand but failed to pick up the food.

2.
It had been years since Hatuta was last in touch with Natsu. She had already transformed her cafe into a cooking classroom when they finally met again. So he put on an apron and took part in a cooking class to celebrate the grand opening of her classroom. At that moment, she had been divorced for quite some time as he remembered, and standing next to her was a guy called Sakaguchi. After their class, the students were gathering around a long table with Natsu to taste the food together. It was the first time Hatuta met Sakaguchi. Sakaguchi entered the classroom through the back door holding a carton. While he was taking out from the carton some ancient looking white plates, Natsu just casually told Hatuta, “He’s my partner. He just went to a flea market to get me these Scandinavian white porcelain.” Afterward, Sakaguchi just swiftly turned away without saying anything.

“Partner”… Hatuta was trying to understand this word. Yukiko and he are a couple, he is a friend of Natsu, and Sakaguchi is Natsu’s partner. So what kind of partner is he?

Sakaguchi did not leave a big impression on Hatuta; he could only remember Sakaguchi was dark and tall, and he was probably a couple years older than he was. A few years later, Hatuta received a call from Natsu. She somehow heard the news of Hatuta getting married and wanted to celebrate for him. Therefore he brought Yukiko to the cooking classroom. They were welcomed by a table full of dishes, including the bitter melon salad that he learned to make a few years ago in Natsu’s classroom. Sakaguchi, who showed his face briefly last time was still with Natsu.

3.
“I would like to get married too. Can you introduce me to someone?” Sakaguchi said to Yukiko jokingly. He took away the empty plate in front of her and replaced it with a plate of shrimp and tomato that was just placed further away. He also refilled the wine for Hatuta who was sitting next to him.

“I would never do that to my friends!” While teasing Sakaguchi, Yukiko accidentally dropped a piece of shrimp on herself. Sakaguchi immediately passed her some wet napkin.

As the two of them continued teasing each other, Hatuta went to the kitchen to help Natsu preparing the seabream rice. The clay pot was sitting on the stove. Although the fire had been switched off, the pot was still steaming hot. It should be ready to serve in two minutes time.

“I sometimes make bitter melon myself too, but it doesn’t taste as good as yours. My version is always too bitter,” said Hatuta.

“Perhaps you have sliced it too thick?” Natsu said, “You’re really a fan of bitter melon.”

“Because I’m old enough,” Hatuta replied and laughed.

Natsu also laughed along. The wrinkles on her forehead got blurred by the dim warm glow of the kitchen lamp. “You’re just over 30 years old. Sakaguchi should be 5 to 6 years older than you. It is so rare for people of his age to dislike bitter melon.”

“True,” said Hatuta, “oh, your daughter will soon graduate from university?”

“Yeah, she has already found a job.”

“She and Mr. Sakaguchi… Do they get along well?”

“Sure they do. They are both kidults.” Natsu was going through the cabinet for rice bowls and said, “Sakaguchi may look somewhat unreliable, but he is a gentle and attentive person. He is always by my side whenever there are problems. But you know, it needs a greater courage for divorced people to get married for the second time. We both feel the same.”

Natsu asked Hatuta to bring the bowls to the dining room — the two identical lacquer bowls are for Hatuta and Yukiko, the other two that are of different size and design are quite apparently a pair.

4.
It was almost midnight when Hatuta and Yukiko left. Sakaguchi was really drunk but he insisted to walk them to the car park in the backyard. Natsu was holding his arm to prevent the drunk walking man from tripping.

“Of course you get drunk by replacing dinner with wine,” Yukiko said mockingly.

“Wine is my dinner! Wine is my dinner!” Sakaguchi screamed.

“Be quiet or you will disturb our neighbors,” Natsu placed her palm over Sakaguchi’s mouth.

Hatuta and Yukiko hopped on their car. Sakaguchi was standing next to the car, he could not stand straight and had to rest his head on Natsu’s shoulder. There was nothing she could do except rubbing his hair. She said, “You should come over for dinner again. Have a safe ride home.” Sakaguchi simply kept mumbling indistinguishable words, over the shoulder of Natsu.

Hatuta drove his car out of the car park and turned to wave goodbye to Natsu. When trying to lower down the window, he heard Sakaguchi yelling, “Natsu, shall we have some ramen? I want a bowl of greasy, thick and salty ramen! Let’s go.”

*

Bitter melon salad

Ingredients:
1 bitter melon, 1 tsp of salt, 2 plums, 5g bonito flakes, a dash of soy sauce and olive oil

Step:

  1. Remove seeds and pith from the middle of the melon.
  2. Sprinkle salt on the melon and rub to spread it evenly. Let sit for 10 minutes.
  3. Pour away the excess water from the melon.
  4. Put the melon into a boiling pot of water, cook for around 10 seconds.
  5. Let sit until it cools down. Squeeze out the juice from the melon.
  6. Remove core from the plums. Crush the plums and mix the mash with bonito flakes, soy sauce, and olive oil.
  7. Mix the dressing with the melon. Ready to serve.