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  • Writer's pictureMegan Jarrett

The Speed of Time

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

I've spent a lot of hours over the last couple of weeks reflecting on the passage of time and I still don't understand how a treadmill minute feels so much longer than a TV minute or how a week flies by faster than seven days do. Or how you can look back on a lifetime and feel like the memories were made just yesterday. Facebook reminded me that this weekend marks a decade since I went to my first prom and I actually stopped and checked the math because I couldn't believe it. At the time, high school felt like it would never end and yet looking back now, it feels like I blinked and it was over.


When I was little, I remember thinking it was so annoying when adults droned on and on about "how fast time was flying by." All I wanted to say back was "no, it's not!" because I was always antsy to get onto the next thing and I never felt like I could get there fast enough. Time passes pretty slowly as a child, and it's probably because not a lot really changes year to year. Second grade doesn't look much different than first grade did. Your parents and grandparents don't seem older each year over in your narrow frame of reference.


Even then, we have an understanding of how not all seconds pass by the same, like how recess minutes always felt shorter than the minutes spent in detention. As an aside, because I know Jordan will be quick to point out that I wouldn't know what detention minutes felt like, I actually did get sent to detention once in 5th grade. I left a book in one of my classes and when I went back to get it, the teacher gave me detention and made me write "I will not forget my things" 100 times over. So yes, detention minutes are very slow minutes, especially when you have to practice your cursive the whole time.


 

As I started reading through the potential recipes for the Taiwanese-inspired dinner Jordan and I were planning to make a couple of weekends ago, I was immediately shocked by how fast a lot of the recipes moved. It felt like every 30-60 seconds new ingredients needed added to the pan. It was quite the contrast to our French-inspired dishes the prior month, which gave us plenty of time to check-in between each of the steps. I wasn't sure how well we would keep up with the pace of the recipes, especially given that we were going to be trying to stay in sync with each other while communicating through Teams from nearly 4,000 miles away. We were all in on giving it a try, though.


There were so many amazing sounding dishes to pick from when I was researching Taiwanese cuisine, but some of them required exceptionally long braising times that just weren't practical when you're six hours apart and trying to cook together over Teams. Balancing staying true to Taiwanese cuisine with being realistic about what was feasible to pull off during Jordan's afternoon and my evening, I was still able to find some dishes that looked delicious. We planned to start with a Taiwanese Fried Chicken (popcorn chicken), followed by Gua Bao (pork belly buns) with Chinese-style pickled shallots and optionally, Taiwanese bubble tea.


I didn't know it when I put together the menu, but apparently Jordan's go-to order at his favorite Taiwanese restaurant in NYC is actually popcorn chicken and pork belly bao, so I guess we know each other's pallets pretty well at this point.


Neither of us have cooked much Asian-style cuisine, so there were a handful of ingredients that were new to us and that we needed to find at a specialty store. Both Madison and Bristol have a few different Asian supermarkets to shop at, so we were both able to find basically everything we needed (with a few researched substitutes for ingredients we had on hand). Jordan's mom was visiting him in Madison that week so they were able to go shopping together and had a fun time exploring the market and learning about a lot of new ingredients there.


The only prep work we needed to do this time around was again to marinate the chicken. We both prepped it the night before by adding our cubed chicken to a mixture of fermented bean curd, oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, pepper, and garlic to give it plenty of time to infuse the flavors. Before we jumped on the call, I started making bubble tea because I knew Jordan wasn't planning to make any and he wanted a few extra minutes to rest before we started cooking.


Making the bubble tea was a lot simpler than I expected. I quickly made some strong black tea and let it begin cooling while I waited for a pot of water to boil. One trick I've learned along the way is to heat the water in my quick-boil kettle before putting it in a pot on the stovetop. It only takes me about a minute to get the water heated in my kettle and it significantly cuts back on the amount of time it takes to get water boiling (from 10+ minutes to 1-2 minutes). Once the water was boiling, I cooked the tapioca pearls and then soaked them in brown sugar and hot water to make a syrup.

Once the tapioca pearls soaked in the syrup for about 30 minutes, I put the pearls, ice, tea, brown sugar syrup, and a splash of half and half into a glass and enjoyed the tea while we cooked. It was delicious, and because I had a lot of the brown sugar syrup left, I used it later that week to make sweet tea. I didn't add the tapioca each time, but it was a sweet treat throughout the work week and it made me think of our fun dinner when I needed an afternoon pick-me-up.


Once we met up on the Teams call, we were ready to start prepping to cook. More than ever before, our mise en place — or kitchen prep, "everything in its place" — was critical. Some steps in the recipes happened only five seconds apart! The first dish we needed to get started was the pork belly so that it could braise while we made and ate the chicken.


There were a lot of components to the pork that we needed to prep. We needed: garlic, green onion, ginger, star anise, cinnamon sticks, Chinese chili peppers (we used red pepper flakes), Shaoxing wine, light and dark soy sauce, brown sugar, white pepper (we used black pepper), and water. We tried to group the ingredients by step so that we could quickly add them all at once since we knew we'd need to be ready to toss them in every 30-60 seconds after we started cooking. I finished prep a couple of minutes ahead of Jordan and was able to quickly slice a shallot and toss it in a jar with some rice vinegar, pepper, salt, sugar, and water to pickle. Jordan had already prepped his shallots the night before.


Once our ingredients were laid out as best as we could, we heated up a bit of oil in a skillet and lightly seared the pork belly to give it a bit of a crispy outside. After setting the pork aside, things really started picking up. The oil was still really hot and we added garlic, green onion, and ginger to the skillet. After about 60 seconds, we added the star anise, cinnamon sticks, and red pepper flakes. By this point, I already had oil splattered everywhere and each passing minute felt like about 15 seconds.


A quick stir and it was time to measure and add the wine. Another stir and then measure and add two kinds of soy sauce and the brown sugar. By now, I had sauces flying everywhere and I had no idea how much time was passing between steps, I was just trying to get things added as fast as I could without letting everything burn. Oh, and I was also trying to shout instructions over to Jordan through my laptop while my skillet sizzled away. And he was at the mercy of my direction.


Somehow, we both got to the point where all of our ingredients were in the skillet and we were ready to put the pork back in, add some water and pepper, and let it braise for an hour or so. It was truly a frenzy. My kitchen was a mess, and I think we both kind of burned our sauces just a little bit. We were having fun, though, and the fragrance coming from the skillet was incredible.


Now that we had the pork braising, which was going to be our longest step in the meal, it was time to work on the chicken. We started heating the oil while we coated our marinated chicken in sweet potato flour. Using sweet potato flour is supposed to give the chicken a crispier texture than normal white flour would. Once the chicken was coated and the oil had reached 350 degrees, we dropped the chicken into the hot oil in batches. Jordan dropped his chicken piece by piece as the recipe suggested, whereas I dropped a handful at the same time using a metal sieve. I think it came out the same either way. Supposedly, the chicken would float to the top of the oil when it was done and that's how you'd know to take it out. We couldn't tell at all what chicken was floating so we just cooked it for 3-4 minutes and then pulled it out and set it aside.


After cooking through the full course of chicken once, it was time for the second fry. You're supposed to turn up the heat on the oil, drop the chicken in again, cook for 30 more seconds, then throw in a handful of Thai basil, cover with a lid for five seconds and then pull the chicken and basil out. Once set aside, sprinkle with a mixture of Sichuan peppercorns, white pepper, paprika, and salt.


Neither of us got that to work. I wasn't even able to find Thai basil (or regular basil) at any of the grocery stores here and Jordan was frankly just done trying to fry stuff. I tossed my chicken back in for about 30 seconds then pulled it and tossed with the seasoning mixture. Jordan went ahead and just topped his with the seasoning and we sat down to eat.



The chicken was phenomenal. Truly, it was fantastic, and I'd recommend the recipe to anyone looking to try something new and perhaps out of their comfort zone but still pretty simple. There were only a few ingredients we didn't have on hand, and it's a dish that could appeal to a wide audience. We ate it plain; it didn't need a sauce.


When we sat down to eat the chicken, we finally had a minute to reflect on the chaos that was our last 40 minutes or so trying to get all of the dishes cooking. We truly couldn't comprehend how fast everything had been moving. Jordan said, "I know you said the steps were going to go fast, but I didn't expect them to move that fast." But now, we had 45 minutes or so to let pass while our pork braised so we could just sit and enjoy our yummy chicken and actually catch up on how our weeks had been and what was new since we'd talked last.


Unsurprisingly, the 45 minutes flew by as we told stories, laughed, and occasionally flipped the pork over. Quickly enough, the pork was almost done and it was time to steam the bao buns (we bought frozen ones, we know our kitchen limits). While the buns were steaming, we pulled the pork out and sliced it while the sauce reduced. Oddly, Jordan heated four buns and sliced his pork into thirds while I had three buns and sliced mine into quarters. Who knows what we were thinking. I also chopped up some peanuts and cilantro and pulled out the pickled shallots. Once the buns were steamed and the sauce had reduced, we coated the pork in the sauce one more time and then assembled the bao.



Another tasty dish, though next time I would have the butcher slice the pork belly a bit thinner so it would be easier to eat. We were stuffed by the end of the meal and couldn't believe 3+ hours had passed by so quickly. While we would obviously prefer to be cooking together from the same kitchen, it is quite amazing how technology can connect you from across the globe to actually kind of feel like you're dining together.


I don't think I've ever cooked a recipe that moved as quickly as the Gua Bao did. Looking back, I think if we had been a little less precise in trying to measure out the perfect amount of each ingredient and about timing each step out and instead just worked through adding approximately the right amount of each ingredient in the right order, it wouldn't have felt nearly so rushed and overwhelming. With all the hurrying, I felt like I was always a step behind where I was supposed to be instead of just being on the step I was on.


 

Over the last couple of weeks, I realized that I am now one of those adults who understands that the passage of time accelerates as you get older. It leaves you waking up some days wondering how you've been out of college for six years and other days wondering how many years you'll have left with people you love.


I don't know exactly why time feels like it moves at different speeds or how something can feel like it happened just yesterday but also like it was another lifetime ago. To be honest, I still don't really understand why science says time is relative. I think it's something about speed and acceleration but I was never very good at physics. The only thing I do know for sure is that no matter how fast or how slowly it feels like it's passing, time always keeps moving. Knowing that, I think the best thing we can do is love the people we're with in the moment we're in so that we can appreciate it while it's happening. And one day, after that moment has passed, we can look back at it with peace in our hearts and a smile on our faces.


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