Mrs Be has a secret msg for you.

Magic Hot Pot

By Cam Dang

For The Hairpin Tarpaulin Award

It’s Christmas lunch at Ms Be’s house, and as usual she’s cooked something the adult guests love: her signature hot pot.

Thirty guests, tables pulled together in the backyard, pots steaming on portable stoves, plates heaped up with seafood and rice noodles, and giant bowls overfilled with wombok and mints. The teenagers, accustomed to Western party food, poke at the seafood and ask their mums if there’s fried rice or fried noodles or ‘whatever’. Ms Be says, ‘Wait,’ and ducks back into the kitchen. Ten minutes later she returns with cooked rice and a pot of sauteed beef. The teenagers start digging in, and then one of the girls says, ‘I don’t eat meat.’

Back into the kitchen Ms Be goes. This time she returns with a veggie and tofu stir-fry. ‘Oh you shouldn’t have, I feel terrible,’ the girl’s mum says. The girl mumbles thanks, takes two bites, and declares she is full.

The adults, on the other hand, are killing it. Ms Be constantly gets up from her seat to refill the pots with broth. ‘Delicious. What’s your secret?’ they ask, slurping noodles, sipping soup, peeling shells. Her grey hair rolled into a bun, looking like a grandmother as she gently rocks a six months old boy in her arms so that his mother can eat, Ms Be winks, ‘The secret is love.’

‘Your cooking needs some love. It’s terrible,’ a man side-eyes his wife. Seeing the wife about to show the husband what terrible truly means, Ms Be smiles, ‘Cooking is a great way to show love, so is giving each other shit.’

In the lounge room the kids are snacking on chicken nuggets and hot chips and watching Shrek. Next to the television is a plastic Christmas tree dotted with ornaments. Ms Be’s late husband bought this tree ten years ago. The kids smear food all over the couch before mistaking it for Mount Everest. Before long someone gets pushed off and wails, someone else gets a smack for pushing, another one runs out to dob with their mums. ‘Eat, I’ll handle them,’ Ms Be tells the women. She comes in and points at the Christmas tree. ‘See those gifts? Go crazy.’ The kids dive into the heap of presents, shrieking and laughing. Soon the floor is flooded with wrapping papers ripped into bits. Sometimes peace can only be restored through chaos.

After the last guest leaves and her house is back to its usual state where there’s nobody around but herself, Ms Be slides under the blanket in her bed and watches a Vietnamese drama. The usual love triangle before someone dies from cancer. Like MSG, her hot pot’s ‘mysterious’ ingredient, these series make her nights curiously delicious. It’s another one of her secrets to living. And she’s not telling anyone, because some secrets are so simple they’re like tricks – the moment revealed, they lose their magic.