Dinner at the Lan’s has always been a quiet affair, and tonight is no different.
Lan Wang Ji watches intently at how Wei Ying uses his hands to tear a steamed chicken thigh into two, and literally inhales the succulent meat off the bones. The older man picks up a wing daintily with chopsticks, and places it into Wei Ying’s bowl (which is still half-filled with rice and suspiciously-untouched bittergourd slices), to which the younger man grunts in appreciation through a mouthful of food.
He goes back to his bowl of rice and finishes off the dwindling plate of mixed stir-fried vegetables containing chopped cabbage, sliced eggplants and potatoes. He takes the last piece of tofu, dips it into a saucer of blended chilli with soy sauce, before taking an elegant bite. Wei Ying continues to slurp on chicken wing bones (and later, his fingers) noisily in the background. Wei Ying occasionally spots a larger chicken bone on the table (it doesn’t matter whose), nonchalantly grabs and cracks it to suck out the marrow with even more unsavoury sounds.
Wang Ji then takes a spoonful of the lotus root pork rib soup which Wei Ying specially prepared for their meal. They had already tried eighteen iterations of the dish courtesy of Wang Ji’s excellent cooking skills and his carefully-curated collection of recipes – all were good, in Wei Ying’s opinions – so, the ninetieth would be the first that Wei Ying made, and is now the subject of evaluation by Wang Ji’s discerning tastebuds.
He sips the light brown broth and savours the simple yet flavourful liquid. There is a richly sweet meatiness to it, and is well-infused with the refreshing nutty taste of lotus and a slight hint of salt. A bite from a slice of freshly-harvested lotus root that had simmered and softened in the soup for at least four hours – is good, to Wang Ji’s judgement. He looks up to say a few complimentary words about Wei Ying’s handiwork, but when he sees the younger man engrossed in downing a bowl of the soup in record time (Wei Ying even raised his bowl high above his head and tips it to let the last drops roll into his waiting tongue, no less), he smiles and shrugs wordlessly.
Wei Ying scoops another bowl from the main pot and Wang Ji notices the younger man’s greasy fingers. The cutlery, tableware and the ladle are probably covered with oily fingerprints, he notes. It is a fair price to pay (for the one who will be doing the dishes) to watch his younger lover enjoy a satisfying meal after a long back-breaking day. They had spent the morning harvesting the last batches of crops before winter arrives, so that Wei Ying can quickly sell them off to Old Merchant Zhu in the afternoon, while Wang Ji hurried to Huang village to stock up with herbs, spices and other provisions. The trails leading out of Burial Mounds may be buried during snowstorms, so they needed to be prepared for the worst.
Lan Wang Ji stared at his bowl, then carefully picks up a cube of lean pork meat with the spoon to take an experimental nibble off it. He usually keeps to a vegetarian diet, although ever since they started living together, he had been increasing his consumption of fish (his favourite, so far), freshwater shrimp and limited amounts of chicken and eggs from their modest farm. He wrinkles his nose at the peculiar taste of the meat. It is gamey and stronger than usual – though he would be hard-pressed to find the right description since he doesn’t eat such meats frequently enough to tell the difference. He pops the rest of the meat into his mouth and takes another bite of lotus root – the taste balances out perfectly and he thinks no more about it.
“How is it? It’s delicious, isn’t it?” Wei Ying asks from across the table, breaking into a brazen grin. He leans back and pulls one leg up onto the chair.
“Mn. It’s good.”
“Of course it’s good! Yiling Patriach has unrivalled skills in every known discipline, including the art of cooking!” He laughs cockily and points a thumb at himself.
Lan Wang Ji nods lightly, curving up his lips a little.
Wei Ying reaches for a clean bowl from the kitchen’s drying rack and proceeds to fill it with more soup (Wang Ji notes the oily fingerprints on the new bowl). Next, he recklessly dumps more pork ribs than lotus root into the bowl, probably for wanting to clear out the pot sooner (Wang Ji notes the amount of spills Wei Ying made). Then, he places it in front of the older man (Wang Ji notes how the new bowl is carelessly pushed against the one he was still having, causing more spills) and gestures him to, “Here, have more! Have more!”
“I’ve made a big pot just for you, so you have to finish it, Lan Zhan!”
“Drink more, drink more!” Wei Ying chants encouragingly, as he goes for another meat-laden serving.
The ruckus and excitement eventually die down, and both men tuck into their soup peacefully to their (mostly Wei Ying’s) satisfaction.
There are no jars of wine on the table tonight; just a simple brew of oolong steaming inside a teapot.
“Ah.. Lan Zhan, I’m going for a stroll outside,” Wei Ying said as he stretched with a pleasant “Nnnh” and patted his tummy.
“Mn. Come, wipe your mouth and hands first,” Wang Ji instructed. He obeyed, leaned forward, and let the older man gently dab a clean damp washcloth over his lips and wipe the grease off his hands. Wei Ying gazed lovingly at Wang Ji, causing the older man to shyly avert his eyes and blush with the slightest tinge of pink on the tips of his earlobes. Wang Ji made sure to scrub clean each of Wei Ying’s fingers and nails, before taking the washcloth back to the kitchen sink.
“Go now,” Wang Ji said. Terse, concise, to the point. Wei Ying nodded and headed out from the kitchen. There were rustling sounds of him rummaging through their workroom, of putting on a thicker layer of robes and outdoor shoes, of hopping-skipping out of the entrance of their home – before silence finally befall their home.
Lan Wang Ji squeezed soapy water from the washcloth and resumed his kitchen clean-up. He felt a bit warm on the cheeks and opened the kitchen window to let cool evening air in. From where he stood, he could see the younger man rushing past with a freshly-plucked lotus seed pod in one hand, a bag of equipment in the other, and disappear to the fruit trees beyond their vegetable garden.
Wang Ji began to clean each bowl and plate. When he reached Wei Ying’s bowl, he noticed the leftover rice and some pieces of bittergourd. The warmth in his cheeks had spread slowly down his throat, and for a moment, he thought he might be coming down with a fever or a common cold. He took a piece of half-eaten bittergourd and popped it into his mouth, half-hoping that the cooling effects would help along with other medicinal herbs he’d just procured earlier that day.
Dinner at the Lan’s had always been a quiet affair, and that night was no different – yet.