My sister never ate the food she cooked in the iron wok. I did not dare to ask her why. Each evening, all sorts of people would flood in from the streets – sweating clerks, shivering homeless people, even a few unaccompanied children – all for a taste of what simmered in that wok. Alya would stand at her station, eyes never leaving her work, with only an outstretched hand to ask for the oil now and then.
One day, I was washing a coat of stickiness from my hands when a man walked through the door. He loomed prestigiously, like a black-feathered peacock, the silken red scarf a tongue of fire around his neck.
Without glancing his way, Alya told him he had to wait his turn, just like everyone else. But the man was not interested in the buttery smells or the spicy fragrances. No, he pulled a notepad from his coat pocket and began talking to a fisherman who was standing in line. Alya’s eyes were hot coals. Still, she continued to cook with her head down, as if nothing had happened.
The stranger had a mane of chestnut hair that washed down his shoulders. Dark eyes peered over his thin sunglasses as he nodded and hummed, a bony hand taking notes of what people had to say about the food.
The fisherman told him about the warmth: perfect after an evening at sea. The businesswoman told him about the sweet-spicy taste, which was just like her wife’s cooking. The student told him about the serving time, quick and efficient, so they could always eat before catching the bus home. Through all this, there was only the sound of crackling bubbles at the stove, where Alya was frying rice.
When all the customers had left, the stranger finally approached her, his shoes clicking on the old tile floor.
She asked him if he would try the food himself. He shook his head.
“Then you can go.” Alya waved a hand towards the door. “There’s nothing more to get from me.”
The stranger did not leave. Instead, he went on talking, raising his pen to tap once against his chin. Throughout the day’s service, Alya had not tasted the food once. Why?
My eyes widened. I ducked behind the counter. I had not expected him to have been watching my sister so closely. I was about to tell him to leave when Alya pushed past the divider that kept her kitchen separate from the dining room. She took off her white apron, bunched it up and threw the crumpled ball of cloth into a box.
The chair creaked as she pulled it out. Alya gestured for the man to sit down, and so he did. As they spoke, I mopped at the stained counter idly, listening in.
He was a food critic, who wrote online. Alya had seen his full name several times, in bold and italics, but he insisted she only call him John. She wondered how people could buy John’s work, knowing he did not taste any of the food himself, and to that question, he smiled, laying an open palm against his chest.
“What I do and think are secondary,” he said. “You – have – heard what there is to say about you and your cuisine?”
John wanted to hear some words from Alya, now, atop the many chains of words from her customers. How would the chef describe her own meals?
Alya scoffed. She folded her arms and leaned back brusquely into her chair. She motioned for me to bring the bottle of white powder from the shelf, as well as a thick overflowing folder that I had never seen her touch since I started working here.
I had seen her use the bottle on nearly every dish she had served in the past few months. It must have been salt, or else some other type of seasoning.
She told him she could not bear to taste food from the wok because of this: she set the bottle down with a thump. Monosodium glutamate.
“And that’s just the start of it,” she said. “Disappointed?”
John did not look at the table. Instead, he smiled at my sister, moving to rest his chin on his hands. He only wanted to know how she would describe her food. What was in it did not seem to matter to him, as he pulled a rice cracker from his coat pocket and begun ripping the wrapper open.
I tried to protest when Alya asked for the wok to be laid out on the stove again – I had just cleaned it. One sharp look from her, and I was setting up her station. Beneath the clanging of metal, I could hear their conversation still. She was showing him the old dishes she used to cook, the ones buried in the folder. I saw his eyebrow arch up on his broad forehead, but throughout it all, he listened, and nibbled his rice cracker, and said nothing.
Alya used to cook health food. She would sell it here, at this very restaurant, at half the price of other shops. I dropped a spatula. Briefly, she turned to glare at me, but she was thankfully distracted by John. He had been the first person she looked in the eye that day.
She told him she could not stand people like him, who wrote dazzling obscure lines about food all day and converted nourishment into spectacle.
“And why did you start serving this instead?” he asked, gesturing to the all-fried menu laid on the table.
“Because people like it.” She gestured to her plain T-shirt, pinched the threadbare fabric between her fingers. “Otherwise, I’d lose so much money, I’d be cooking naked.”
Alya left the chair pulled out when she stood to cook a dish of fried noodles. John watched as she tossed the browning strands back and forth, resigned to the rule that she would not speak to him while cooking. He did not try talking to me to fill the time. Once she was finished, she dumped some noodles onto a blue ceramic plate and picked up a pair of chopsticks.
Her nose wrinkled. She pursed her lips, as if she were about to reconsider, but then she sighed and bit into the noodles.
“Sticky.” That was her word, and John wrote it down. Later, we would see it along with all the other words he had harvested that day, arranged neatly on rows on an online website about what locals had to say about the downtown restaurants, a website well-liked by people.
For now, though, Alya set aside the rest of the noodles, telling me to pack it in a takeaway for the beggar down the road. She resumed her seat. The ceiling fan above us slowly chugged its way to a stop, as the owners of the building shut the electricity off for the day.
There was a sushi bar across the street. Alya smirked. Non-alcoholic drinks served, so baby sister could come. Was John free, or did he have another restaurant to ransack? No. Alya was the last one. Then they should let sister dear help lock the door behind them.
As the two walked out onto the street together, and as Alya – loudly – pointed out the vegetable truck that often tried to swindle her, I let out a hissed breath. What a pair to wreak havoc on this world.