(The Story of the Stewed Beef)
“Alright!” Tang Wulin grinned; he was already starting to feel hungry.
The stewed beef dish was prepared by boiling the meat in a light brown coloured earthen jar. After the meat was cleaned, slices of onions and ginger were added inside. The jar was used to trap the moisture in and keep the flavours during the stewing process. As soon as the meat changes colour, ten or so different types of spices were sprinkled into the jar before the long duration of stewing began. The meat would then turn soft and tender, and the flavours of the spices would combine well with the meat. This was a well-known dish within Eastsea City.
The shop was small in size, and the cooking table was situated outside the shop. There were a hundred little flames, and on top of the table were earthen jars filled with the savoury stewed beef. The steam coming out from these jars caused small vibrations upon the lids. Soft humming sounds echoed from the jars as a sweet and pungent fragrance lured passersby on the road.
Inside the shop, there were only five mediocre-sized square tables. With a maximum occupancy of twenty or so customers, half of the shop was already filled at this time.
It was now mid-autumn and the temperature was dropping as the days went by. The entrance welcomed customers with a gush of warmth and the fragrance of stewed beef. This was a comfortable feeling to experience.
Gu Yue showed a shocked expression to Xie Xie. “I’m surprised that a rich young master like you would eat at a roadside shop!”
Xie Xie didn’t bother to argue with her this time round. “The stewed beef from this shop used to be my mother’s favourite, and I ventured here occasionally.” As he spoke, he had already moved into the shop and chose a seat at the table furthest inside the shop.
Tang Wulin nudged Gu Yue before following Xie Xie into the shop. He sat opposite Xie Xie.
“Oh! Xie Xie has come, and he brought friends with him. The usual dishes?” The boss was a middle-aged man. He had an oil-stained apron tied around his waist and a wide grin on his face.
“En. Uncle Li, thanks.” Xie Xie grinned back as he gave his thanks.
Three portions of stewed beef were delivered to them in a short moment, together with three bowls of rice and two vegetable side dishes.
“It’s a first to see you’ve bring friends with you. These side dishes are on the house.” Uncle Li grinned as he spoke, stroking Xie Xie’s head as if Xie Xie was his own nephew.
Tang Wulin was shocked as he looked at Xie Xie. Xie Xie was obsessed with cleanliness, and his bed was by far the cleanest in the dorm. But at this moment, it didn’t seem to matter to him that this roadside shop owner was touching him. Furthermore, he grinned without any signs of cringing. “Thank you Uncle Li”
Both Tang Wulin and Gu Yu’s image of Xie Xie was overturned by his current behaviour.
Xie Xie questioned them, “What are you waiting for? Hurry up and eat.” He was already opening the lid of the earthen jar as he spoke. At that very moment, a thick wave of fragrance flowed out from the jar. The broth was dark gold in colour, and small chunks of beef were visible within it. These chunks were so tender that they instantly fell apart when Xie Xie poked one with his chopsticks.
He picked up a piece carefully and rested it on his bowl of rice, before eating them together. His face lit up in contentment.
Tang Wulin had long since lost his patience. He followed Xie Xie’s lead and started to eat.
“This is delicious.” He voiced some words of praise as it really was tasty. The strong fragrance from the beef and broth was a beautiful marriage of freshness and saltiness that was perfectly supplemented by the rice. It was a perfect combination.
Gu Yue tried a mouthful and broke into a smile.
This was a small shop, with dingy yellow light and worn furniture. But the food was astonishingly delicious. Beef, broth, side dishes, and rice; these four dishes provided its customers with warmth and comfort.
Though the three of them had undergone special training for three months, but this type of moment that had never happened during their rigorous training. A harmonious atmosphere existed around them.
“Uncle Li, I’d like ten more sets.” Xie Xie waved towards Uncle Li as he knew too well the eating abilities of a certain someone.
Tang Wulin scratched his head awkwardly. “Thank you.”
“Yes?” Xie Xie lifted his head towards Tang Wulin.
Tang Wulin gave a helpless face as he answered, “Your name isn’t good at all. I was trying to thank you.”
Xie Xie gave a bitter smile, his eyes a little red. “My mother gave me this name. She told me that she picked this name as she’d chanced upon something she was grateful for. The best thing that happened in her life was that chance encounter with father, but…” His face turned a shade paler at this moment, his hand gripping his chopsticks harder.
“Your mother?” Tang Wulin questioned cautiously. Though he knew that Xie Xie’s family was wealthy, this was the first time he heard of his family’s matters.
Xie Xie pursed his lips before he spoke. “Father is always busy during the day. Even when mother was gravely ill, he didn’t come home. In the last moments of her life, she had only wished to see father once more, but he came too late. I can never forget that night; Mother’s tears, and the regret in her eyes when her grip on my hand finally lost its strength. I hate him. I hate him! I detest my name too. If not for that chance encounter, mother wouldn’t have…”
As he reached this moment, Xie Xie dropped down onto the table.
In this place, it seemed that Xie Xie had dropped all of that icy arrogance front he’d put up when they first met him. This was also the first time he shared his private thoughts with them.
At this moment, Uncle Li came to their table with fresh jars of stewed beef. As he placed the jars onto the table, he sighed. “This child is really pitiful. His mother loved bringing him here to my shop. But after his mother left, he came here alone with only the memories of his mother to accompany him. You can’t blame him for that! It’s rare to see him here with friends. I’m so happy for him. He’s such a young child, yet he has such a heavy heart. Please help him if you can. Ay, how horrible!”
Tang Wulin patted Xie Xie’s back lightly. Gu Yue, however, sat in the same position, staring ahead at the crying Xie Xie. Her eyes seemingly filling with something.
“Hey, don’t cry. I’ll take back back my words and let you treat me today then.” Gu Yue kicked across at Xie Xie.
Xie Xie lifted his head and wiped his tears off with his sleeves. “Don’t I reek of money’s stench!”
Gu Yue curled her lips before commenting, “So this brat loves bearing grudges.”
Xie Xie threw back vehemently, “We are born on the same year and you’re even several months younger than me. If I’m a brat, what are you? Bratty girl?”
Gu Yue opened a new earthen jar and lowered her head to consume it. She spoke as she ate, “I won’t fight with someone who’d just cried.”
As the trio left the stewed beef shop, Uncle Li gazed at their figures and sighed. “Kids these days have such a large appetite!.”
The meal of stewed beef had not only brought Tang Wulin and his friends warmth, but had unknowingly knitted strong bonds between the three.
Salt grilled huge prawns was next in line. These large, fresh prawns were skewed through with bamboo skewers before being sent off to the coal grill and topped with a sprinkle of salt.
Tang Wulin fully displayed the demeanour of a glutton god. As the three of them went from one end to the other end of the food street, their conversation was filled with happiness and laughter.
“I’m full now.” Gu Yue held onto Tang Wulin’s shoulder for support while Xie Xie did the same on the other side.
Tang Wulin grinned as he spoke, “If your appetite isn’t big enough, don’t try to eat like this glutton god.”
Xie Xie rolled his eyes. “What glutton god? You’re merely a foodie. That’s what I wanted to say when I first witnessed your enormous appetite.”
Tang Wulin hummed cooly, “Come on, let’s continue eating since you’re paying for it.”
Xie Xie cried out in astonishment, “You still have space for food?”
‘Hasn’t this guy already eaten enough to equal a whole cow as we went down this street?’
Tang Wulin answered proudly, “Yes!”
“Ah! What’s that over there?” Gu Yue broke them off suddenly.
Tang Wulin and Xie Xie lifted up their heads and followed Gu Yue’s sight. There seemed to be a commotion near the entrance of food street and there were many bystanders crowding around.
The shop’s position seemed to be that of the stewed beef shop!