Perfectly Pan-Fried Tofu

by Charis June Lee
age 16, West Springfield High School, Springfield, Va.

插图 Melinda Josie

The familiar smell of garlic, soy sauce, and onion permeated through the air as I opened my lunch bag to see what my mom had packed for me. On any other occasion, I would have been delighted to eat my mom’s braised pan-fried tofu: a Korean dish that I often ate for dinner. But not today, the day a nice girl had invited me, the new girl at school, to sit with her friends during lunch.

“Charis, over here!” My new friend was waving her arms, trying to get my attention.

As I prepared to walk over to the table, memories of elementary and middle school lunch times resurfaced. I remembered my embarrassment as my friends would hold their noses, or not-so-subtly scoot away from me when I brought homemade Korean food. I remembered how my embarrassment shifted to anger when I complained about the smell to my mom.

I had argued with my mom that I wanted “normal” food for lunch. I remembered the look on my mom’s face, a mix between disappointment and confusion. But I was adamant and she relented because she worried about my making new friends every time we moved. So for the remainder of middle school, my mom packed odorless, non-Korean fare like ham and cheese sandwiches. However, that day, she was in a rush to get to her new job and packed me leftovers from dinner.

As soon as I got to my new lunch table, I tried to sneak my bright lunch bag down under my seat before anyone noticed the strong smell. I looked up to see the other girls at the table, opening their normal American lunches. I sat meekly, trying not to be noticed when Katrina, a new acquaintance, asked where my food was.

“I’m not really hungry,” I replied in an insecure voice. But Katrina had already seen me carry my lunch so she spurted out, “Then, I’ll eat it!” The other girls laughed — apparently Katrina was known to be the lunch scavenger.

I didn’t want to be rude to a potentially new friend, so I reluctantly dragged out my lunch bag and unzipped it. The moment I partially lifted the lid, I could practically taste the garlic and soy sauce. The girls, piqued by the smell wafting through the air, all curiously peered at the oval-shaped Pyrex container. I expected an “Ew” or a “What is that?”

I expected them to turn away — and turn me away. What I did not expect was for Katrina to instantly grab a small piece of tofu and eat it ravenously. And I most certainly did not expect for her to encourage the rest of the table to try my lunch.

It took me a second to recognize that my foreign, Korean food was not being rejected; in fact, it had become a source of personal pride. My new friends were going on about how lucky I was that my mom took the time to prepare a cooked meal for me. They were enchanted by the fact that tofu could actually taste good. While I didn’t get to eat any of my mom’s pan-fried tofu, I was full — of pride and gratitude.

When I arrived home, my mom asked how my day went. Answering with a simple “Good,” I pulled out my Pyrex container from my lunch bag.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to buy bread or ham yesterday.” But when she noticed that the container was empty, she hesitated before asking, “How was the food?”

I paused a moment before I replied, “Perfect.”