Kung Fu Spice (2)
'Now,' he said, 'the lessons begin.'
The first week was awful. I tried to do things in the same way as Uncle. I wanted to look good, but I was nervous. I got things wrong. My food tasted just the same as it always did.
'Start trying to love the food,' he said. 'Enjoy yourself. Feel happy about your cooking!'
But I didn't feel happy. I felt terrible.
'It's no good, Uncle!' I told him. 'I'll never be able to cook like you. I don't know how you do it. It's like magic. I just don't know your secret.'
Uncle nodded and smiled.
'Ah,' he said. 'You've finally worked it out. I knew you would. You're a smart boy.'
Worked it out? Smart boy? I didn't know what he was talking about. Was I smart? I said nothing.
'You don't think I was a Shaolin priest for nothing, do you? I mean - we have secrets, we know things, we know all about spices - secret spices. Magical spices.'
Magical spices? I didn't know if Uncle was being serious or not. But then, he was Shaolin...
'Once I have prepared my food in the right way, it's ready for my secret kung fu spice!' he said with a smile. 'Come, you watch me as I prepare some spicy chicken with rice. You must do everything exactly as I do. Everything. If you do it right, I will add some of my kung fu spice and then your food will be as good as mine.'
Great! Uncle had some special Shaolin spice that made his cooking so good. I wanted it too!
I watched everything he did. I measured everything in exactly the same way, I cooked for the same amount of time, at the same temperature - I did everything the same. In fact, I really enjoyed cooking the meal.
I felt certain that my food was perfectly cooked this time.
Then I saw Uncle do something very strange: he took a small leather bag from his pocket, put in his thumb and finger and took out a little bit of some powder. He sprinkled it over his finished food, and then sprinkled some over mine. I only saw a tiny amount fall from his fingers. I couldn't see it when it was on the food.
'Taste mine first!' Uncle told me.
I tasted a mouthful. It was so delicious that I could hardly imagine anybody else producing anything as good.
'Now taste your own,' Uncle said.
Mine looked the same, but I didn't believe that it could taste the same. When I put the food into my mouth, my eyes opened wide with wonder. It tasted just as good as Uncle's food! I was so happy that Uncle laughed.
'You see!' said Uncle. 'If you prepare the food with love, that's when you can add a little bit of kung fu spice. Nothing will taste finer then! But it's our secret, yes? You mustn't tell anybody about the secrets of the Shaolin Temple, right?'
'Yes, Uncle. I won't tell anybody.'
'Now, come - we have much to study if you are to learn the secret ways of a Shaolin cook!'
The next few weeks were the busiest I had ever had in my life. I was doing my school work. I was cooking for Dad in the restaurant. And I was learning everything I could from Uncle.
I thought I already knew a lot. But soon I realised I knew very little. I learned how to measure food. I learned what to add to it to give it extra flavour - including spices. I learned about every meat, fish and vegetable. I learned how to make simple food tasty.
Every time I cooked some food, Uncle added a little bit of kung fu spice from his bag.
After a while, Uncle said I was doing very well indeed. But I still wanted to know about Uncle and his time at the Shaolin Temple. I asked him again if he had ever learned about real kung fu.
'I told you before,' he said. 'Kung fu just means "something done well" - it doesn't matter what is studied. But, Alex, I have a present for you.'
'A present?' I asked.
Uncle put a small leather bag on the kitchen table. It was just like the one he used.
'Take it!' he said. 'It's kung fu spice - it's yours. Be careful how you use it - not too much - just a tiny bit with every meal. If you cook with love, the spice will work. It won't if you don't!'
'Wow! Thanks, Uncle! Can I look at it?'
'If you want to, but take care - it's too valuable to waste!'
I opened the bag and looked inside. It was a small bag and inside was some white powder. It certainly didn't look special. It didn't smell of anything much either. But that didn't matter to me. I knew it was the secret Shaolin magic of a real Shaolin priest!
'This will last you a long time if you use it carefully,' he told me. 'But you must cook the way I taught you. You must cook with love - or it won't work.'
'Will it work on any food or is it just Chinese food?' I asked. I wondered about this because my mum made brilliant English and French food. I enjoyed cooking that too.
'If you cook any food with love, it will work,' Uncle said. 'Your kung fu spice will make it the best it can be!'
I put my bag of spice away in my room. I had never forgotten about Dad's idea about the Young Cook of the Year competition on TV. I asked Dad about it and he thought it was a great idea. We emailed my entry form the next day. I was feeling confident now. After all, with my kung fu spice, how could I lose?
'Alex! It's a letter!' Mum called.
It was morning and I was still in bed.
'It looks like it's from the TV people!'
I ran downstairs, took the letter from the table and tore it open.
Everybody was watching me.
'Well...?' asked Dad.
'Yes!' I shouted. 'They've said I'm going to be in the Young Cook of the Year competition! The first part is next week!' Mum hugged me, Dad shook my hand, Grandmother kissed me on the nose and Uncle smiled.
'Hey,' I said. 'It's not going to be easy. If I'm going to win this, I have to beat the best young cooks in the country!'
I looked at Uncle and knew that, with the help of his kung fu spice, nobody could beat me.
Time flew by. I worked hard. The first part of the competition was held in Liverpool for the northwest of England - my part of the country. All the other young cooks were having their competitions around the rest of England. I won my part easily with my Chinese cooking. It was fun! But I made sure that with every meal I added a tiny bit of kung fu spice. I didn't tell anybody about that, of course. It just looked like I was putting on a last bit of salt or something. But it worked. They all loved my cooking - and so did I.
The next part of the competition was in London. If I got through that, I would be in the final on TV.
Mum, Dad, Grandmother and Uncle had come to the first part of the competition. I wanted them to be there for me in London too. With my kung fu spice I couldn't fail.
The best young cooks in the country were all in the competition. I had to beat them all. I felt nervous. It was a big day! My family had to wait at our hotel, which was nearby. If I got through this part of the competition, they would see me on TV in the finals.
I was with five other young cooks from all around the country. We all had to cook in a top London restaurant and we were going to be judged by one of the top cooks in London. I wasn't going to cook Chinese food. I didn't mind. I could cook most things now. With my kung fu spice I could cook anything!
We were taken to the kitchen of the restaurant. The head cook gave us our instructions. He told us that we each had to cook one course of a meal. I had to cook steak with potatoes and green beans. Steak wasn't food I cooked often, but I knew how it was done. We had less than one hour to get the meal ready.
I knew exactly what to do for a course like this. I knew how steak should be cooked - not too much, not too little. I knew how to cook potatoes and vegetables so that they were just right. I did everything right. But the main thing was this: I felt good cooking the food. I enjoyed myself.
Soon, the food was ready.
All I needed next was my kung fu spice to make everything perfect. Just a tiny bit was all I needed. I reached for the little bag in my pocket.
It wasn't there!
I searched all of my pockets, but I just couldn't find it. What could I do? I felt afraid. The skin on my back went cold and my tongue went dry. I wanted to run out and find my uncle. He must have some more kung fu spice - I had to have it. I had to!
But it was too late. The judge was already on his way to taste my food. Oh, no! Without my Shaolin magic I was just an ordinary cook. What chance did I have of winning now?
The competition judge was French. He looked like he knew everything about cooking. He looked at my steak and cut off a piece. He put some potato on the same fork and some green beans as well. Then he put it all into his mouth and chewed.
Dad, Mum and Grandmother were waiting for me as I walked into the hotel lounge. Where was Uncle?
'Alex!' Mum cried. 'Did you get through?'
'Of course he got through, didn't you, Alex?' said Grandmother.
'I don't know how,' I said, 'but I did it! I got through!'
And why are you so surprised? You know enough about cooking to win, son,' Dad said. 'We all know that, even if you don't.'
Mum hugged me and Dad looked very pleased. I was pretty pleased myself. I had got through to the finals without the help of my kung fu spice. I could hardly believe it!
'Hey, where's Uncle?' I asked. I couldn't see him anywhere.
'I'm sorry, Alex,' said Grandmother, 'but my brother told us he had to go back to the temple. It's just like him to disappear suddenly. He never changes! But he left this letter for you...'
Grandmother gave me an envelope. I opened it and inside was a letter and... the bag of kung fu spice! The letter said:
I have to go back to the Shaolin Temple. I have been asked to help a young man with his wu shu - that's the real Chinese name for martial arts, which I also teach. Like you, he's good but he needs a little push.
I knew you didn't need my help any more. I took the 'spice' out of your pocket while you weren't looking. It wasn't magic spice at all. It was just rice powder.
I'm sorry about my little lie. All you needed was confidence - not magic. I was right, wasn't I?
I will visit again next year. I want to taste more of your delicious cooking!
'So he could fight like Bruce Lee after all. I knew it!' said Mum as she read the letter. 'But what's all this about spice?'
'Just something I borrowed from Uncle,' I said. 'It's not important - not any more.'