As I stand at my kitchen window waiting for the first batch of pies to come out of the oven I can hear firecrackers popping and banging in the lane. They started early, around eight, and will continue to punctuate the day at random noisy intervals. As the sulphur fades, I can suddenly smell the distinctive and sweet scent of the first osmanthus flowers of autumn. The smell is so typical of these flowers I can pinpoint exactly when their flowering begins. I rush downstairs and pick a branch from the tree to bring inside the kitchen. The tiny yellow flowers are yet to open, and I play with the idea of steeping them in warmed cream to flavour it, but time is running short and I still have a lot to do. The branch sits in a vase on the windowsill instead.
I’m looking forward to seeing our Australian Shanghai friends today, and their two beautiful girls. They were some of the first friends we made here and will be the ones we miss the most when we leave. They love good food, good wine, and a good joke, and will be bringing two old friends of theirs for us to meet. We have family visiting too from Australia, so together we’ll make a very cosy group of fourteen in our little lane house.
I began thinking about this lunch several days ago – wondering what impressive dishes I could coax out of my tiny kitchen with its dysfunctional oven, worrying about how my cooking could possibly measure up against everyone else’s. After a day of fretting it dawned on me. People don’t like my cooking because of any technical prowess I have (I don’t). What they like is to turn up, knowing that the next four, or six, or eight hours will be filled with wonderful laughs, interesting conversations, and good wine, and that along the way I’ll bring them delicious food, cooked with love and to the best of my ability (which is sometimes sadly lacking), and they’ll leave with that wonderful feeling of being full. Full of food, full of love, full of life.
So I scrap the fancy plans and instead start planning the way I often do – with a trip to the markets to see what’s looking at its best this week. The persimmons are wonderful – plump, deep orange, and perfectly ripe, and the last of the grape tomatoes sit plumply red and orange in the baskets. I see the first pears of autumn, and suddenly there it is, a whole early autumn menu laid out in my imagination.
At the back of my mind there is always the same group of thoughts when planning to cook for a large group.
-When I have a dinner party, I want to spend as much time as possible with the friends I’ve invited – so everything I serve comes from a simple repertoire of dishes I’ve made dozens of times, all of which can be cooked in advance and heated to serve. That way, I enjoy the guilty pleasure of two days of cooking on my own, then the shared pleasure of hours of uninterrupted conversation with friends.
-The food I serve should be in season – it will be luxurious in flavour, but not in cost.
-The food should enhance the company eating it, not compete with it. So although my food will be good, it won’t be distracting or confusing, and it will appeal to most ages and palates (because not all my friends like to be adventurous when it comes to food)
-Lastly, I think – What flowers will go well with these dishes? This, of course, is pretty trivial but buying flowers in season gives me an insane amount of enjoyment. And I reason it will add to the ambience.
I decide to go with a largely Australian menu – as a treat for the homesick who live here, and a reprieve for the visitors who have had Chinese food back-to-back for a week. Other than the champagne, we will drink all Australian wines too – because we love them and Chinese wines are unmentionably bad.
I learnt to play mahjong years ago, and since moving to China it seemed only right to keep it up. In Shanghai mahjong is played in living rooms, cafes, on the streets, and just about anywhere you can fit a folding table. Shanghai rules are simple and fast, so when there are new players we start with these. Someone is east wind, and play goes in turn anti-clockwise to South, West and North. I could never remember this until a mahjong guru said to me ‘It’s easy! Eat Soup With Noodles – ESWN’ I never forgot again, and I always eat my soup with noodles.
(If you would like to read up on the Shanghai rules for mahjong, this is a good place to start.)
We play round after round, stopping between for wedges of sweet persimmon and sharp blue cheese, and luscious soft camembert with oatcakes. The rich aged muscat comes out of the cupboard, made by my own father-in-law, all the way from Ballandean in Queensland. It gets better and better with age.
Lunch began at two, and at midnight we have to finish playing because we’ve run out of wine, and it doesn’t occur to any of us to call up and have some more home delivered. And yes, in Shanghai, you can call up at midnight on a national holiday to have a bottle of wine delivered by motorbike courier to your door half an hour later. It’s that kind of city. Instead, we play our final round, nibbling on the leftover cake and pears.
Time to wash up, and put away the tiles. Goodnight everyone!