Mantou from the Moon -- creative nonfiction by Rosie Hong
In Chinese legends, mantou resembled a barbarian’s head thrown into the violent waters of the Lushui. They were buns shaped like human heads and offered to the River God. But my story of the mantou began with my mother – her eyeballed measurements of dough thrown into her magic bowl to shape pearly white buns. “Mantou,” my mother would holler. “Mantou for breakfast!” I would bolt downstairs, hearing my mother’s favorite singing show playing in the background. When she would leave the room, I would peek at the kitchen counter in awe as the lump of dough rose in my mother’s bowl. With a mischievous smile, I’d stick my pinky in and poke the air out before my mother could catch the culprit of her collapsed dough.
It wasn’t long before my mother passed down her mantou recipe to me. She ushered me to a wooden stool with ingredients littered across the kitchen counter. In the middle sat her magic bowl, filled with an unfamiliar bubbly brown liquid. My mother scooped up a cup of flour with her hands, sprinkled brown sugar, dried dates, and diced pecans I had picked that November. She sang lullabies as her meticulous hands danced in the bowl. I watched one batch of the mantou dough transform into pillowy soft buns rising on the steam trays. My mother grabbed the finished batch of hot mantou and held it to my face. The steam clouded my pale cheeks when she ripped it in half – a warmth that made them flush.
One morning, my mother dumped the yeast-concoction and flour into her magic bowl. She hesitated, her hands fiddling with her apron. “Your turn.” I dove my hands into the mixture in a reckless attempt to clump the dough. But as I kept kneading, the mantou felt more like thick congee. My hands and arms were a gooey mess. “Mama, are you sure this is right?” I turned around. “Ah,” my mother sighed. She bent down and picked out the flour clumps stuck to my sleeves. “So impatient. Keep going,” she scolded. So, I continued to knead. My feeble hands struggled to mold the sweet dough into a round ball. Eventually, my mother pulled me away from the bowl. “Wo lai. I’ll do it. Your arm is too weak.”
The next day, the soft shells of the mantou we made turned rock solid. I peeled the skin off and took a bite, only to feel the tough, spongy texture. And as I made my own batches of mantou, ignoring the soreness from the kneading, my mother began to tell me a different story of the mantou. “You see this?” She knocked on the hard shell of the mantou. “Beggar’s bread. Your Nai nai jingchang chi. She eats it often.” I did not understand why my mother thought of mantou as food for the poor. I knew that if I could watch the dough rising in my mother’s bowl, feel the hot steam on my cheek, and taste the soft buns every day, I would be forever rich with happiness.
When I met my grandmother for the first time, I saw a glimpse of the beggar’s bread my mother described. Mantou carcasses were scattered across her table, their skin flaking off the meat. Flies perched on their remains, feasting. Wrappers littered the floor behind her, crumpled and caked in ashes. My grandmother’s wrinkly hands loosely gripped a mantou. But her mantou was not the luscious bun that tickled the tongue. It was a pale gray, coated in speckles of grit. The lumpy bun was clearly too hard to bite, so she ripped off chunks and squished them with her fingers. What I envisioned to be steam-filled air pockets of a mantou were replaced by huge, crater-like holes.
Just like the story of the Lushui, when mantou were sacrificed to the River God in a plea for survival, I saw the same fate in my grandmother. She grabbed pieces of the Moon and fed on it with her frail hands. Because if there was no sun left for her to take, she had no choice but to bargain with the Moon. It is the tedious labor my grandmother has to face every day – limping to the Moon and back – to get her hands on a few pieces of mantou. Stone bread that the Moon offered at such a hefty price.
I grew up with my mother’s soft, pearly white mantou. I was raised listening to the comfort of her coos when she kneaded the dough. I slept by the soft shushes sung by the steamer. The burn marks engraved on the roof of my mouth from biting into a fresh mantou was the mark of my childhood. But there is a reason why mantou was used as a sacrifice to the Lushui. There is a reason why my mother calls the mantou the beggar’s bread. Its humble appearance is steeped in history – constantly grasped by the poor as they struggled to survive on a meager existence. Now I peel away the mantou skin before I take a bite, ripping off the pearly white facade until the entrails spill out. Every time I do so, hot air escapes the pockets, leaving huge craters in its place. And I’m reminded of my grandmother, trapped in craters carved by poverty’s own hands.
Rosie Hong is a sophomore who writes for her high school's newspaper, and she enjoys writing stories that reflect her life and ancestry. Her work has been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Besides creative writing, she loves reading memoirs, watching short films, and competing in speech and debate tournaments.