Cast of Wonders 533: The Time Traveler’s Cookbook

The Time Traveler’s Cookbook

by Angela Liu

  • Day: 4202
  • Place: Northern Laurasia (later known as Mongolia)
  • Time: 66,000,000 BC (late-Cretaceous Period)
  • Meal: Magnolia and Grilled Oviraptor

Mom’s cookbook recommends tenderizing the meat so I fashion a club from a young cycad, but I might as well be beating a rock with a feather.

Don’t eat dinosaur. Just don’t. Mom marked it as a must-have, saying it looks and tastes “like an exotic giant chicken,” but just getting to the meat has been a nightmare. The skin’s teeth breakingly-tough and the sucker hooked me in the thigh with one of its nasty claws during the hunt. I’ve staunched the bleeding with Happy Time Traveler’s super medical glue, but holy hell it still hurts.

Magnolia helps to cloak the awful gamey smell. Pinch off a few young petals and shred them over the flame-grilled meat (well-done only—no one wants to contract an ancient parasite). That’ll add a nice warm gingery taste and even helps with nasal congestion. Grind in some of the bark and you’ll be sleeping like a baby by sundown. Learned that little trick from Li Shizhen back when he was making traditional meds for the emperor.

An over-eager juvenile T-Rex has been eyeing my leftovers for the past fifteen minutes. The Spinosaurus-cloak is keeping him at bay, but that huge second sun in the sky’s got me worried. The cloak’s temperature regulators keep me from boiling with all the volcanic activity, but even time machines aren’t asteroid-proof. I toss the leftovers to Rexi and shift on the warp drive engine before I create an anomaly in the fossil record.

  • Meal Rating: 2.0 ( -10.0 for claw wounds)

  • Day: 4230
  • Place: Tokaido Highway, Totsuka Stop, Edo Japan
  • Time: 1802 AD
  • Meal: Road-side Soba Noodles

The owner’s got a bad-ass scar over his left eye. I think the slab of meat’s been sitting in the sun for the past two days, and a few cats have pawed at it longingly while the owner’s hands were full, but I’ve been walking the Tokaido Highway for the past four hours straight and will eat anything I can get.

“Have you ever tried oviraptor?” I ask as Kent stares at the fruit fly floating in his sake.

“You reading mom’s cookbook again?” Kent says without looking up.

“She said it would taste like chicken.”

“Mom also used to think soy sauce on iceberg lettuce was a great snack,” Kent says, finally looking at me. He’s got that ragged look like he’s been hiking through the rocky Chinese countryside alone again. “Being a time traveler doesn’t mean you have good taste buds.”

The owner places two steaming bowls in front of us.

“Arigatou gozaimasu,” the universal translator translates through my throat.

“Not bad,” Kent mutters, slurping up his noodles. He’s still in a bad mood, but one thing that can put anyone in our family in a better mood is good noodles. Mom’s cookbook says this was one of dad’s favorite places too.

We’ve got blanched chrysanthemum leaves and chopped spring onion on a bed of chewy hand-pulled noodles. The cha-shu pork’s cut thick and fried one more time before topping the bowl. You can smell the smoky coals on the crispy surface.

The soup though. OMG as the early 21st century kids say. The soup is a distillation of culinary genius. Scarface says he starts boiling the soup the night before: dried kelp leaves, extra thick soy sauce, pork bones, dried bonito flakes—the cauldron smells like a boiling ocean, and trust me, I’ve smelled a real one before. By the time the soup’s ready, the bone marrow’s made a foamy top layer and it’s ready to melt your tongue into sublimation.

“Hurry up and eat,” Kent says, lifting the bowl to his lips. He gulps down the last of his soup, cheeks splotchy-red from the sake.

I follow his eyes to a company of drunken bandits dancing their way down the road.

He puts his bowl down and thanks the owner for the meal. “Lunch break’s over.”

  • Meal Rating: 10.0

  • Day: 5315
  • Place: Nanxiang Bun Shop, City God Temple (Shanghai, China)
  • Time: 1901 AD
  • Meal: Crab Xiaolongbao

A slight miscalculation, so I’m a few decades and miles off, but at least I won’t have to camouflage among the Red Guard this time. Those guys don’t know how to enter a building without setting something on fire.

The boiling crab soup filling has already burned my tongue and the roof of my mouth to oblivion. Still, I’ve got no complaints. This is the real deal, the OG of soup dumplings. The translucent dough skin is as delicate as moth wings. The chives mixed into the meat give it that extra aromatic punch. I douse one of the fragile treasures with black vinegar and top with a few freshly minced scallions. For a moment, I think I see singing dumpling angels in the sky, they’re that good.

They’ve got a handsome guy with iron hands working the towers of bamboo steamers in the back. He’s handing over those hot zhenglong to the servers like it’s nothing, like the boiling steam rising over his arms and face are just a balmy summer breeze. I catch myself wondering what our kids might look like, what those hands would feel like pressed against my back. What it would be like to stay in this time and make roots somewhere. It’s the worst kind of daydreaming for a time traveler. The whine of rickshaw tires coming to a halt outside the shop bring me back.

Mom’s cookbook recommended a street stand about two miles north on Qipu Road where the street vendors spoon frozen pork collagen and a barely-there dollop of minced meat into paper-thin dough. Steam mixes with coal smoke from stacked steamers on a makeshift barbecue pit. Day workers hunch over bone-thin tables, slurping up the soup, their faces anointed in oil and dust. I wonder if mom will sit there in a few decades, ordering a bowl of small soup wontons while her father (the time traveling grandpa I never met) burns his tongue on the xiaolongbao. Will it taste the same then as it does now? I’ll have to try it next time. In the meantime, back to work.

  • Rating: 9.0 (1.0 point lost for all the mouth burns)

  • Day: 5885
  • Place: Olde Inn (Perpignan, France – Normandy Region)
  • Time: 1430
  • Meal: Perpignan Perpetual Stew

Mom’s cookbook talks about a stew she once ate and then ate again two hundred years later. From the exact same pot. The Perpetual Stew of Perpignan might well be the oldest food on mom’s list—the same stew’s been boiling for more than three hundred years, replenished with fresh cuts of vegetables, hare meat and salted pork like young blood refueling an ageless vampire.

I glance around the dining hall as I wait for my food: cafeteria-style tables, a wooden chandelier of flickering candles overhead, jugs of water and frothy mugs of beer spilling from drunken hands. There’s a hole in the wall that someone’s crudely fixed with a couple of uneven wooden planks, the salty scent of the Mediterranean Sea blowing in with the sour stink of garbage piled outside on the streets. Rats poke around the floor, chewing on bones and rotting cabbage leaves. I wonder if any have accidentally fallen into the soup over its three-century life. There’s a reason all the time travelers say to steer clear of Medieval Europe. About a few million reasons.

One table over, a frail young man is stuffing his face with roasted goose leg, the burly woman with him urging him to slow down and have a vegetable or two from the stew. I think I hear her say something about high cholesterol, but it’s probably a glitch in the translator. Mom is nowhere to be seen, but I guess no small Asian woman would come here without a camouflage cloak, myself included.

A girl, no older than thirteen, probably the innkeeper’s daughter, brings me a steaming bowl of the vampire stew. Cubed carrots, potatoes, slices of onions, sprigs of rosemary, and meat cooked for so long it melts off the bone. I give it a 9.0 for meaty flavor, and -9.0 for the clumps of hair in my bowl.

  • Rating: 9.0 (minus 9.0 for possible bubonic rat hair)

  • Day: 6491
  • Place: Bianyifang (Beijing, China / Ming Dynasty)
  • Time: 1580 AD
  • Meal: Peking Duck

Mom’s cookbook calls this place the budget imperial Peking Duck experience. I’m not ready to break into the Forbidden City yet, even if I did get that expensive Ming princess add-on with my camouflage cloak, so this will have to do for now.

Bianyifang’s been around since the 1400s. The head chef’s a little neurotic, but he’s got a good eye for roasting. He gets the temperature of the menlu just right, brushes on a glaze, and turns the bird at the perfect time to get a good crispy skin. He breeds his own ducks on a plot of land just outside the city, claiming the snowy-feathered birds have more flavorful flesh than their Southern counterparts.

The sous-chef carves the duck with artisanal precision, the special knife in his hand like a conductor’s baton: crispy browned cuts of skin, the half-moon slices of meat with skin attached, the head and thigh strips. He slides the gristle and other unused parts into a metal tray with the backside of his knife to be used for a soup later.

A waiter brings over a steamer of thin pancakes, slices of leek and cucumber, crushed garlic, and sauce dishes filled with sugar. I peel off a hot pancake and lay the biggest skin slice in the center, topping with the vegetables, garlic, and sprinkling in the sugar. I wrap it: left, right, up, down, like origami, and take the first bite, hearing the crunch before the savory, sweet duck oil spreads across my tongue.

Mom used to buy half-roasted duck from a small shop in Flushing every week until her doctor showed her the test results: a map of the white plaque clogging up her arteries and the tiny vessels in her brain. Even time travelers can get sick. But mom was never good at self-control when it came to food. She’d still sneak in trips on her time machine to the original 1960s KFC when dad was away for work. “The oil was cleaner back then,” she reasoned, more to herself than us.

Halfway through lunch, a grandma comes in with the most beautiful silk dress on, snow white hair piled into a globe atop her head, pinned up with two ornate fazan made of silver and jade. She tells me a young lady shouldn’t be traveling on her own. It’s the first time someone’s seen through my camouflage cloak, so I’m too frazzled to notice the cucumbers and sauce falling out of the wrap onto my lap. She clicks her tongue and motions for the waiters to bring me a new kerchief.

“Food is a gift. Don’t waste it,” she sighs, picking up a stray cucumber slice from my shirt and putting it back into my wrap. Mom was crazy about wasted food too.

Still, the old lady’s pretty cool. We share a pot of oolong tea while her posse down shaojiu at a nearby table. She tells me how her granddaughter is getting married in a few days to a pottery maker who she doesn’t approve of. No respect, she scoffs, motioning for the waiter to refill our teapot. I nod, the familiar phrase like needles in the back of my head. I guess some things about Chinese parents never change.

  • Rating: 8.5 (too oily)

  • Day: 7515
  • Place: Domus Aurea (Rome, Italy)
  • Time: 68 AD
  • Meal: Ancient Roman Banquet

We’ve been eating for at least ten hours. After the fifth round of wine, I could’ve sworn the marble statues were laughing and dancing with us. Servers have brought in plates of everything from venison to parrot tongue—I’ve lost count of the number of dishes: pepper flaked wild boar, shellfish doused in lemon juice, towers of cakes and baked figs. We eat and recline on couches, recline and eat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Gorgeous women play flutes and lyres to accompany the sound of vomiting in the corridors. At some point, someone started washing my feet with lily-perfumed water.

At the start of Hour 12, someone starts screaming. A man is splayed on the floor (nothing new) and he isn’t breathing (new). An empty silver chalice lies near his open hand, wine spilling toward his purpling face.


From his couch, Nero points at all the people near the body like someone checking all the ingredients to bake a cake. He’s got that look in his eyes like he’s got a hankering for a staking. The advisors have gone from damage control to self-preservation, accusing each other of treason like a bad Monty Python skit.

As I sneak out into the corridor, I bump into one of the servers.

“Savillum?” the woman asks, holding a silver tray of cheesecake. Her motherly smile is contagious despite the homicidal chaos behind the door. Bay leaves line the top and bottom, the distinct aroma of orange zest, honey drizzled over the top. It’s one of the top recommended sweets in mom’s cookbook, but do I risk a staking for a slice of cheesecake?

“Non, gratias tibi aget,” I say with the translator. Before leaving, I recommend she come back later too.

  • Rating: 7.0 for food, 0.0 for risk of staking

  • Day: 8215
  • Place: Shanghai House (Chinatown, NYC)
  • Time: April 19th, 1998 AD, 11:50AM
  • Meal: Pork Dumplings and Pan-fried Noodles

“Did you see them this week?” Kent asks.

I shake my head. “You?”

“I thought I might’ve seen the back of dad’s head on one of the ration lines in a Chuxiong iron factory in 1977,” he says.

Kent and I meet here every other Sunday for lunch. It’s hard to coordinate when you’re traveling all over time, but we set our time machines like a universal clock, and so the good machine reminds me when it’s time to go.

We order some pork dumplings and pan-fried noodles like our parents used to every Sunday. The place isn’t so crowded, not like it gets a few decades later. There’s no ChowNow, UberEats, GourmetDrone, InstantChow, Tele-Eats. The old lady with the thick glasses and the eternal 1970s perm is still alive, serving lychee ices and making ahhhh faces at every kid under six.

The noodles are deep-fried to perfection, topped by a thick soup-sauce of shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, thunderbolt-cut carrots, napa cabbage, pork, and every other ingredient in a Chinese parent’s refrigerator. The dumplings are pan-fried perfection: one side browned and crispy, the other side still speckled with oily steam water and just the right amount of chewiness. Each one is filled with leeks, diced mushrooms, and minced pork.

At 12:10PM, they come in. Mom and dad and two little runts that look like the kids we’ll never have (kids are terrifying, no matter what time period you go to). We don’t say a thing, just eating our food as we listen to them talk, that dysfunctional family of four. Pokemon, Sailor Moon, unpaid loans and insurance bills, I-130 petitions, non-contrast CT scans, can they pay in advance? We can’t say a thing because, hey, paradoxes, self-correcting timelines, and hell, no child, even time travelers, ever really knows how to talk to their own parents. So we just listen.

When we’re done eating, Kent orders the sweet soymilk swimming in spoonfuls of sugar even though I remind him diabetes runs in the family and that he’s not so young anymore. He laughs it off and gulps down half the bottle in one go. Two tables over, mom orders the same thing, laughing when dad echoes my point. Every year we turn more into our parents even though they will never change from this moment because death is the final fixed point, the only place you can’t just hop into a time machine and run away from, no matter how long you loop around it.

In less than two hours, our parents and our mini-selves will walk down Canal Street, Dad’s backpack stuffed with oranges, napa cabbage, soy-marinated duck feet, and dried mushrooms. Street vendors will sell them Styrofoam boxes ladled with curried octopus and dinner plate-sized scallion pancakes that the EMTs will hand to Kent like an apology afterwards. We’ll leave the boxes in the fridge for days until Auntie comes and cleans everything out, tossing them into the garbage with the other rotted leftovers as she tells us to man up. Kent will man up so much he’ll forget how to cry during the funeral and the other relatives will marvel at how reliable he is, how strong, as if you can measure someone’s worth by how willing they are to eat their own pain so no one else has to see it.

After the funeral, Auntie will give us the keys to mom and dad’s time machines, complaining about the cost of cleaning dad’s garbage out and the persistent oil stains on mom’s steering wheel. She’ll hand us the list of unfinished assignments. She’ll tell us we’re on our own now. But sometimes I’ll still smell mom’s fried chicken when I open the door, even if I can’t see it.

We don’t follow them down Canal Street like we used to. Kent calls that progress, even though he looks miserable when he says it.

Instead, we will walk down Elizabeth Street, dodging the tourist crowds, the sun flaring overhead as it has countless times before. Kent will sip on the last of his soy milk, the taste of garlic and chives still clinging to my tongue. Nothing tastes the way it used to, even when you can go back. Mom said this before, though I never believed her.

We’ll board our time machines, cloaked as yellow taxis, eager for our next destination. I’m nearly half-way through mom’s cookbook. Kent doesn’t understand why I bother or why she bothered to write it all down. But I want to tell him it’s a gift, how you can spend a whole lifetime getting to know someone again through the things they loved to eat.

About the Author

Angela Liu

Angela Liu 8-bit image

Angela Liu is a Chinese-American writer from NYC. She researched mixed reality at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design in Japan and now works in IT consulting (and taming a kaiju-loving toddler). Her stories and poetry are published/forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Dark, Maudlin House, and Fusion Fragment, among others. Read more of her work at: Or find her on Twitter and Instagram @liu_angela

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About the Narrator

May Chong

May Chong

May Chong (@maysays on Twitter) is a queer Malaysian poet and speculative writer. Her work has previously been featured in Strange Horizons, Apparition Literary, Fantasy Magazine and Uncanny Magazine. She enjoys cheese, dangly earrings, and being on both sides of the mic at spoken word gigs.

Find more by May Chong

May Chong