I Love You by Remembering What You Hate: A Recipe for Herby Salad
I find joy in being let into the idiosyncrasies of someone’s taste.
3. Cut the green onions on the bias. I know I am always saying to cut green onions on the bias, but for this recipe it’s especially crucial. Because you will be eating these green onions lightly dressed, essentially raw, they must be cut into whispery slivers; otherwise you may be overwhelmed by their bite.
4. My friendship with M was not an instantaneous one, despite the subway ride. I found myself nervous when we were together again, unsure if I should invite her to have dinner one-on-one. I would collect questions to ask her, conversational topics that we might build upon: Was there a way to wear both a cat-eye and a red lip in the same look? (Yes, boldly.) What music was good to clean the house to? (She shared a playlist of Classical Bangers.) Follow up: What did it mean when someone said their favorite composer was Chopin? (They were pleasant but probably boring.)
I realized that we were well and truly friends with each other, not just mutual friends who got along, when one night she called me without warning to talk about an ex-boyfriend. I did my best not to let my grin creep into my voice. I was elated but also wanted to make sure I was appropriately somber while listening. Years passed. M stayed in my life, visiting me after I moved from New York to Boston and then again when I moved to Chicago. We had sleepovers with J where I saw how she looked without her perfect makeup, wearing thick-lensed glasses and an oversized sweatshirt. I met her parents, full of sharp quips and exuberant life just like their daughter. M yelled at me to wear sunscreen every day, no matter the weather. She taught me how to style neon shoes like they were a neutral. She coaxed me into eating more fat, especially butter, abandoning old food fear for the health of my hair, nails, and skin. I learned that the fearsome, gorgeous woman I met all that time ago was multifaceted, silly, vulgar, and a secret softy. It made me love her even more.
5. Halve, then cube your avocado. I suppose you could also cut it into thin half-moons, but I find that when cut into fat chunks, the avocado presents textural interest in the salad, which consists mostly of thin ribbons of herby greens.
6. By now you know I cook for the people I love. M was no exception. When I visited her in New York, or when she came to stay with me in Boston, then Chicago, I would inevitably make a meal or two. But for me, cooking is not simply an act of showing off culinary prowess but also an opportunity to show how well you know your guest. Even if I’m making dinner for someone for the first time, I always text them to ask if they have dietary restrictions or preferences. It thrills me when people take me up on my offer and tell me what they don’t like to eat.
I believe, with deep conviction, that dislike is valuable data. I think this about food, about people, about books, about movies. If a person has no dislikes, is constantly nice and taking things in, I feel a sense of despondent mistrust. If a person reveals to me the sea urchin of themselves, the places that are spiny and tart, I view that as intimacy, an act of building a real relationship.
As much as I find it interesting to know what someone’s favorite book or breakfast food is, I find it much more informative and charming to know that they hated so-and-so’s memoir or despise poached eggs and then to ask why. The why-dislike answers are so often more interesting than the answers people give after being asked why they love a book, movie, or meal. To be clear, I’m not saying I prefer negativity or that I enjoy listening to someone complain. Instead, I am saying that I find joy in being let into the corners and twists of someone’s preferences, the idiosyncrasies that make up their taste, the trust that I would listen to what they say and then cook for them without the things they would rather not eat.
7. In the bottom of a large bowl, combine the oil, salt, vinegar, sesame seeds, and chili flakes. Grind a few rounds of black pepper and whisk. Taste and adjust as necessary. Add the cilantro, green onion, and avocado to the bowl.
8. When I first met M and started to eat meals with her, I noticed that she strategically, politely avoided certain foods. She didn’t seem to be much for grilled meats but liked braised ones that were fatty, falling off the bone. She preferred noodles to rice. She wasn’t much for raw fruit, and she would eat a few, well-behaved mouthfuls of salad but would never order one herself. She loved kimchi, any type of pickle, really.
I loved cooking for my picky, stunning, ferocious friend.
One day, leading up to a meal I was preparing for M and her new boyfriend, I asked M to text me a list of foods she didn’t like. After a little hedging that I didn’t need to worry about her, and after my pushback that not only did I want to worry about her but I would be thrilled for her to explicitly tell me her food preferences, she responded with a detailed, paragraph-length text. Some were foods she would eat if prepared a certain way but didn’t love. Others she abhorred.
I started to piece together that she disliked tough textures and bland flavors, along with food that could be described as mealy or starchy in mouthfeel. I was gratified to confirm that yes, she disliked eating plain rice despite being Asian. She disliked watery vegetables and fruits, like grapes and cucumbers. Her palate was not one of gentle, muted flavor. She preferred foods that were oily, briny, indulgent—foods that matched her temperament. I dreamed up this herb-forward, spicy, salty, playful salad for her, carefully avoiding all the raw vegetables she said she hated.
I know that some would see this as an inconvenience if not an annoyance. But I want to be clear that I unequivocally delighted in this moment. We have social scripts for talking about allergies or foods we need to avoid for medical reasons. But desire and dislike, especially for women, are not a given. I saw the list of foods as an act of intimacy, a moment where I could unabashedly love my friend by knowing what she liked and didn’t like to eat.
9. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut the packet of roasted seaweed into the bowl, like a cascading shower of dark, savory confetti. Toss the salad gently, taking care not to smash the avocado. Serve it immediately, preferably as a side dish to hot pot. The salad will keep well in the fridge for a day but not two.
10. M cooks more now that she’s moved in with her boyfriend, and as a result she has started to discover ways she can tolerate or even enjoy the foods she used to dislike. Just yesterday M and I had a conversation about a new salad recipe we both had seen online. It involved a green goddess dressing, made with garlic, chives, and basil, poured over crisp cruciferous vegetables. We both agreed it was a revelation, a way to eat bowl after bowl of raw cabbage without giving it a second thought. A few years ago, I would have worried that she would hate so much roughage. Now, she texts me to say she’s made it a second time to feed her boyfriend and cousin.
Like people themselves, dislikes can change and evolve with time. I loved cooking for my picky, stunning, ferocious friend. I can look back and remember her preoccupation with galbi jjim when living in her first studio apartment, or the delicious hash of root vegetables in leftover duck confit she made me one morning, despite my suspicion that leftover duck juice wouldn’t go well with sweet potatoes. Knowing the changing landscape of my friend’s appetite is a way of knowing her through her many past selves, a testament to the longevity of our friendship. Though we’re cities apart for now, I can’t wait to cook for her the next time we’re in each other’s homes, taking care to continue to know her ever-shifting self.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Chicago, IL. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The Collapsar, and RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.