Fried Sauce Noodle
By Howard Tseng
Missus Seto waves and smiles, parting the oncoming tide of swirling heads and flashing camera lights, as she makes her grand entrance into Chongqing Real Food Restaurant, onto the stage of the continent's most-watched culinary show.
"Oh my god! Those are real teeth! She actually went out and got herself real teeth," exclaims Formerdol, the head waiter standing by the bar, gaping at the giant screen floating above him. Then, as if struck by Seto's quiet glamor of dental authenticity, Formerdol purses his lips, concealing his porcelain-like, too-perfect teeth.
A moment later, Formerdol turns to Mr. Song, the anxious owner of the restaurant right beside him, and whispers. "Don't worry, we're in good hands. She and I go way back."
"The one and only Chef Americas for eight straight years, creator and owner of the Michelin three-starred, Borderless a La Carte, Missus Seto! Welcome!" the show host announces. "After weeks of hard work and reinvention, tonight, the big moment for Chongqing Real Food Restaurant has finally arrived. So, Missus Seto, how may we whet your appetite?"
"Well, as you all know, I'm totally big on fusion and cross-genre. And I tend to push boundaries as well," says Seto, the ex-cook bot who once slaved alongside Formerdol at the same affluent household, leveling the flat of her hand before her apron just below the logo of her restaurant, a globe crisscrossed by a long knife and a spatula.
"And since I've been a loyal fan of this show right from the start, I'd like to, you know, shake things up and try my luck a little. So, how about some Jajangmyeon?" Like some innocent, mischievous nine-year-old, Seto winks with a half-smile at the close-up camera, showing off her real, slightly stained canines and incisors.
Initially, the shareholders of Chongqing Real Food Restaurant disagreed on the name of their signature dish. Some wondered whether or not it should have been called Jajangmyeon, a much more recognizable name, especially to the post-War generations, instead of Zhajiangmian. As pointed out by the younger co-owners, the two names, though the former Korean and the latter Chinese, not only meant the exact same thing—Fried Sauce Noodle—but sounded almost indistinguishable. However, as indicated by Mr. Song, the only shareholder old enough to have tasted the real deal of both extensively, the two dishes are certainly different taste-wise despite being virtually identical in every other way. And so the debate concluded swiftly and amicably without changing the menu, for its affinity to the masses would make little sense anyways for a real-food restaurant targeting only the One Percent.
Taken aback, the host cocks his head with a hand on his thick, black eyeglass frame, averting his look of surprise from the cameras while focusing on his teleprompting right lens. Though the text area remains blank without a single word of instruction on how to respond to the special guest's unexpected, off-script act, the adjacent chart area has already erupted with a red bar denoting real-time viewing rate, seemingly about to go through the top of the frame.
"Well, well, well, " after a brief pause, the host improvises on. "Ordering a Korean dish at a Chinese restaurant! What can I say? Missus Seto does not disappoint!"
"Bitch!" Hoisting Mr. Song, keeping the dumbfounded, completely limp senior citizen from collapsing to the floor, Formerdol bares his exquisitely clean teeth at Seto's suddenly filthy-looking denture. He then whips around his head, slinging his worried gaze towards the far end of the dining hall, at the door opening into the kitchen.
Scowling, Junior raises his spatula at the screen behind the stove, where Seto's teeth gloat.
"Whoa," a smooth voice wafts by from behind. "Easy, big guy."
Letting out a heavy sigh, Junior hunches up his shoulders and looks back at Mr. Formerdol, the legendary server whom Mr. Song has repeatedly declared as the restaurant's competitive advantage.
"I think we still have a few minutes before the cameras roll in here. A quick break?" proposes the former chore bot with the most soothing tone.
Junior nods and plods to the cleaner, thrusting his forearm into a hole as hard as if it were the heart of Seto. Seconds of muffled blasts later, Junior pulls out his cleaned and shiny spatula. "Cooking mode off." At Junior's command, the spatula's handle recedes into the stub of his wrist as its blade melts into the shape of a hand.
"If they had this kind of tech before I got my Humanship," says Formerdol, eying up and down Junior's brand-new looking ChefMate 2039-GT. "On top of all those fucking chores, they would have made me cook, too!"
Cracking up, Junior grabs his breathing helmet from his locker and follows the head waiter through the inner door of the restaurant's back entrance. After a flurry of fumigation, the outer door opens into a wall of smog.
"Fire up those fog lights, will you?" Formerdol jerks his blade of a chin at the blinding grey fluff outside. "The PM2.5 level is slightly out of the norm today."
Squatting in his usual spot in the restaurant's backyard facing the lake, Junior murmurs, "du Maurier regular, 1990."
"Negative," the helmet's AI responds. "Current air composition is inadequate."
"Well then, "Junior shrugs in disappointment. "Marlboro classics, any year."
Slowly, Junior's face shield fogs up from the inside as a plume of vapor rises, wisps of smoke shrouding his face from the chin up.
"You know," says Formerdol, lying on his side atop a row of spare chairs with his head propped up by a palm. "People used to pay big bucks for that. They came in little sticks and had to be lit up."
"Really? I've only seen those vapers in old movies. Was it the time when people actually could afford to throw away real food?"
"Yup. Those crazy years before the War when a two-bit breathing unit like yours was only worn on stage by celebrity DJs as fashionable ornaments, and New-Humans like me were still droid prototypes."
"I should have been born back then." Junior exhales a smoky breath as he gets to his feet and turns around. And right in the center of his field of vision, illuminated by the helmet's headlight, there lies Formerdol's six foot three of a perfectly proportioned, incorruptible body, as if atop a bed of cloud floating.
"The world today belongs to guys like you, like, you wouldn't even need this clunky thing to enjoy a smoke or just to breathe!" Junior clacks at the side of his visor with a finger.
"Yes and no," says Formerdol as he sits up and scoots over to the end of the row, beckoning Junior over to the seat beside him. "Sure, it'd take less than a millisecond to generate a signal that emulates the sensation resulting from mild toxin inhalation, but, sensation alone doesn't make for a complete experience."
Formerdol brushes a hand up lightly over the breast pocket of his shiny black vest. And between his thumb and forefinger, a tubular thing twinkles like a jasper in the periphery of Junior's headlight. "That's why I have invested in an Estonstine."
Developed with the technologies from the War, Estonstine is a famine-curing artificial nourishment system replacing the inefficient esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Superior to IV and TPN, with an intelligent Dispenser capable of releasing just the right amount of nutrients only at the right time, Estonstine has also eradicated obesity and most types of diabetes. As a result, everyone, including the elites, embraced it with open arms, except for the likes of Junior and his father, whose bodies, unfortunately, repelled implants.
"You never had to plug yourself into a wall's electrical outlet, so you'd have no idea how much more this means to a New-Human like me. Now, if you'll excuse me for a sec." Formerdol twirls his other three fingers with a flourish, sliding the gemstone-like vial most elegantly through the seam between his lips.
Eyes closed, hands flat against his alloy breastbone, Formerdol is still as a statue. As the vial swishes down the Upper Chute towards the Dispenser, nothing in the whole wide world matters more to Formerdol than to sop up every last bit of that sensual rattle, even the most infinitesimal wave of vibration, now rippling throughout the chassis of his torso.
Presently, at the crisp click of the finger-sized vessel, having refilled itself with waste on the way down the Lower Chute, finally slotting into the Collector, Formerdol opens his eyes. "Is Seto's sudden change of heart bothering you so much?"
Junior puffs out his chest as he sags back into the chair, defogging his entire face shield at once, closing his eyes to embrace the black and white picture of his mother behind the curtain of incense smoke on the family altar. "Well, I did promise my mom that I'd honor her on the show tonight."
It was certainly not easy being the mother of the only kid in the neighborhood without an Estonstine. None of Junior's classmates had to interrupt class or recess the way he did. They simply popped a tube now and then and kept on.
No one would have noticed when someone else had casually reached into the brim of a shirt or blouse, pressed that Collector-ejecting, dainty button beside the belly button, and pulled away quickly in a tight fist a refilled capsule, aromatic and clean as a whistle.
On the other hand, Junior had to slither his throat like a snake time and again and disappear into that mysterious, smelly little room no one else ever used. So when the Ministry of Manpower finally released the decision on Junior's future occupation on the day he turned twelve, Zhuzhu could not have felt more relieved.
Frowning in concentration, she carefully rinsed a small sieve of noodles with a spoonful of precious drinking water. "If your body hadn't rejected the Estonstine— ” she broke off, staring at the bottom of the bowl where a droplet had just exploded, unfurrowing her brow.
Lucky for her inhabitants, it only took Mother Earth half a decade to start showing her resilience against the War's devastation. At the first sign that real food's growth had finally stopped dwindling, everyone seemed to have grown tired of the Estonstine at once. All those public spittoons for all that useless saliva blocked by the Upper Chute were suddenly such sores to the eyes. Those forgetful of minding their Collectors could no longer laugh off the occasional, unexpected ejections of their refilled vials.
Overnight, the last vestige of tolerance for anyone with a tube flying out of one's mouth unannounced evaporated. And the elites collectively had turned into nostalgics. Overwhelmed by the yearning for that stomach rumbling, they all missed the sensation of swallowing so terribly. Many even remodeled their dilapidated restrooms in a vain attempt to resurface the long-buried, self-reflecting moments of absolute solitude. But as soon as they sat down, they knew it wouldn't do, for without having eaten real food, the confinement felt no different than a jail cell. So one by one, the rich got up and wanted their Estonstines gone.
"Quack, quack!" Junior feigned a squawk, mocking his mother, who had just popped her lunch vial.
Zhuzhu did not react as usual by waddling around with her hands like little wings pressed against her thighs. Instead, she screwed up her eyes and steadied herself, fending off a surge of vertigo.
"Maybe you should call in sick for the night shift?" asked Junior, eyes fixed on his mother's sallow face and knotted forehead.
"I am fine." Balance regained, Zhuzhu loosened her grip on the edge of the countertop and picked up the Chinese cleaver again. She resumed chopping rhythmically, suppressing a too-wide grin at the prospect of a much brighter future for her son, nodding in time with the beat of thuds.
Moments later, as she lay over the meat sauce shreds of fresh cucumber, threads of lightly boiled cabbage, and tiny chunks of raw garlic, Zhuzhu spoke again with all seriousness. "Don't you get too carried away in school and brag about how you are going to be a chef, ok?"
Entirely focused on the bowl and chopsticks handed over by his mother, Junior couldn't hear a thing. He couldn't even hear himself, neither the constant slurping nor the occasional moaning. For he was fixated totally on a promiscuous texture seesawing between elasticity and crunch in a trance. He couldn't see either, not beyond the sheet of savory meat sauce captivating every one of his taste buds but never getting too salty, thanks to the punchy, crushed bits of raw garlic.
Nestled in a cocoon of Zhajiangmian, Junior was in no rush ever to leave, not even when the Ministry of Manpower had just given him a pair of wings.
"And the mentioning of Jajangmyeon brought back all these memories," Junior flinches, his eyes darting about nervously as if the bullies that once hurt him were now hiding in the smog again all around him.
"You know why I have not deleted all the memories that had accumulated before I got my Humanship?" No longer facing Junior, Formerdol shifts with unease in his seat. "It would take less than a second to purge every relevant record, from the most obscure database instance in my hard drive to the furthermost backup in the cloud."
"Cuz … it was fun at times?" Junior ventures a guess, his eyes bracing carefully on the side of Formerdol's face.
"No!" Formerdol hisses in a tone Junior has never heard before. "For a slave, nothing is ever fun!"
His eyes light up, illuminating a small patch of smog before him at arm's length.
Saying nothing, Junior follows Formerdol's gaze onto a temporary, small floating screen. He flinches again as a furious-looking man points at a broken vase with one hand and smacks Formerdol with another. His knee then jerks reflexively, rising as if to cover his eyes from the woman in the next scene with a lustful smile, groaning and misusing Formerdol in the bedroom. And then his breath turns raspy and heavy as a group of laughing teenagers hurl their used vials at Fomerdol, who is ducking behind a trash bin in some back alley at the far end of the small screen.
"Because as dreadful as those memories are," Formerdol says, "they are nonetheless part of me, keeping my free will in check, constantly reminding me never to do something just because I can."
After a du Mariurer 1992, though at a 52% similarity only, Junior's helmet's ventilator hums gently again to the calm rhythm of the misty Great Lake.
Formerdol turns to his young colleague again, his glinting eyes reflecting off Junior's fogged-up face shield. "Now, of all those memories that came back with Seto's order of Jajangmyeon, are you sure they are all bad?"
"Come," the landlady's voice came as the sixteen-year-old Junior fumbled with the keys to the door leading up to his apartment two levels above the convenience store. Reticent yet willing, he turned and headed for the store.
Behind the counter, Mr. Park was dozing with his shotgun on his lap as usual while Mrs. Park's knitting suddenly stopped, her eyes darting up from her drooping reading glasses.
"How many?" the landlady asked. Her gaze swept across Junior's face and then back at her knitting needles that had already resumed chasing each other. Her expression remained blank as if she hadn't noticed a single bruise or scratch mark.
"Four," said Junior, looking down, fidgety. On that particular day, there were, in truth, only three of his classmates waiting in that particularly dark alley three blocks down the street. But one of them was Big Billy.
"Have you been practicing?" asked the landlord abruptly as if sleep-talking. His eyes still closed, his body sank ever so comfortably in that boggy, threadbare office chair as immovable as the wall-to-wall fridge thrumming at the back of the store.
"Yes," Junior responded with conviction, for the only other thing that kept him going at that point in his life, besides looking forward to his eventual employment at a restaurant, was Taekwondo. A thing first introduced to him shortly after the very first time he had been summoned off the street by Mrs. Park, and the only thing he knew that could prove Mr. Park was, in fact, separable from that creaky swivel chair.
"There, a new flavor." Mrs. Park tipped her chin towards the end of the counter. "Let us know if we can sell it."
At the peppery-red, shiny pack of Jajangmyeon, Junior could hardly hold in his drool. He scampered to the treat, held it up, and examined all six sides of the instant noodle's richly decorated tinfoil packaging. "Oh, you've asked me to try this already, just a couple of weeks ago," said Junior, trying his best not to sound disheartened as every adolescent cell in him screamed disappointment.
The landlady jerked her chin again, dismissing Junior's observation. Still knitting without looking up at him, she reassured Junior as she had had many times before, with the same bland expression and impassive voice, that minor flavor changes wouldn't have warranted a corresponding change on the packaging.
"In that case, then, thank you! I'll let you know in 10 minutes!" Junior beamed.
"We were robbed again last night," cackled Mr. Park in the same sleep-talking manner as his young tenant reached for the door.
Junior stopped and glanced over his shoulder, nodding his usual, empathetic nod as the landlord laboriously ratcheted up his numbed-out leg, centimeter by centimeter, over onto the less numbed other.
"But we have to stay open tonight." Eyes still closed, legs crossed again, Mr. Park yawned with such an egregious peel-back of his lips as if the slight change in the posture he had just managed was a monumental feat, an effort no less than moving an entire mountain, most gloriously accomplished.
Lean or fat, round and jagged, they are all jumping and turning, on the iron, by the fire. As Junior's shoulder bounces, the wok in his hand tosses and dances with a billowing sail of glinting meat sauce. The kitchen is hot and smokey again, with a silvery, overarching range hood screaming at the roaring stove with its petals of flame blooming. But Junior does not mind, for he finds such heated exuberance consoling, homey.
The center of his spatula blade irises open, revealing a hole just large enough to fit through the neck of the Erguotou bottle. With a flick of his wrist, Junior scoops up the 62% ABV alcohol and whips it above the wok, spilling a sinuous queue of crystal-clear beads. As droplets meet flame, an ensuing explosion sets the meat ablaze for the final hints of charcoal. And the heavy black wok upends, cascading into the white porcelain bowl, the steamy, shimmery base of the town's best Fried Sauce Noodle.
Even though the host had given plenty of warnings, when Missus Seto's upper body collapsed onto the table at the center of the dining hall, the audience-filled Chongqing Real Food restaurant still buzzed like a stirred beehive.
Shortly after she had swallowed the first mouthful of Junior's Jajangmyeon, Seto had to relinquish her body's control from a network of processors to her Old-Human brain implant, which, operable only on its own, had not the capacity for the non-flesh part of her body.
Understandably, for a New-Human who had already dealt with the hassle of installing a complete Old-Human GI tract plus teeth, it would have been such a shame to then process all the beautiful, authentic, neuron-stimulating taste modalities with mere circuits and un-soulful electricity.
"While we wait for Missus Seto's final judgment, here are the sponsors of our show ..." the host intones one brand after the other. Then, finally, between the last of the food industry and the first of the cosmetic clinics, he stops as Missus Seto seems to be waking up.
A curious glisten traces through Seto's left eye.
The faint sparkle has lasted so briefly that the audience either hasn’t noticed or ignored it as nothing more than a standard boot-up signal. Except for Formerdol, as only another equally emotional New-Human of no less sophistication and complications could have seen through the flitting moment's sheen of LED and caught that rare nanosecond of abstract irrationality.
When the paralyzed Seto enjoyed Junior's cooking with solely the electrons and photons generated by her Old-Human implants, she was also reliving an exceptionally sentimental moment of her past.
It was a junction bridging her previous life and the present one. A transitory place where she had nothing but newly-gained freedom, as everything else of tangible value had been sold for the operation, the only measure to give her a shot at the culinary world dominated by Old-Humans.
When she finally woke up from the procedure, she saw, perching atop the bedside table, the first real food meal of her life. And it was the best picture she had ever seen, the most magnificent thing ever painted on the canvas of a red tinfoil sheet.
With stories accepted by Douban Read, Tales to Terrify, Queen’s Quarterly, and Seize The Press, Howard Tseng is a house dad in Toronto cared for by his wife and teenage son. Before quasi-homemaking, he enjoyed a two-decade adventure working in IT across Asia and North America.