Nattapong Kaweeantawong, a third-generation owner of Wattana Panich, stirs the soup while his mother (left) helps serve and his wife (center) does other jobs at the restaurant. Nattapong or another family member must constantly stir the thick brew.

I look around the table at what’s left of my loved ones in this world. We’re all holding hands and most of them have bowed their heads in prayer or quiet contemplation. I wonder how many of them resent me for my decision. My sister looks up at me from the corner of her eye and clears her throat. I shake my head, suddenly aware of how long I’ve been silent and that I’m sat at the head of the table. Everyone is waiting for me. I breathe in the smell of home for the last time and begin to pray out loud.

My dad was my hero growing up. He was a firefighter at the time. I think he liked his job. He was always smiling when he came home. His English wasn’t so great at the time but he got on well with his colleagues. When our schedule aligned, he’d roll up a cigarette and do my homework with me. Not to help me, but to do it for himself too. We talked to each other almost entirely in English.

Mum would lose her shit on any given day about it. This is how it begins, she’d say. How children drift from the culture. How could Chinese values ever take root in English soil like this? But Dad would diffuse her with his smile. It was important that we fit in, he’d say. That I’d fit in. And besides, values don’t take root: they’re grown. So long as she got her shop she didn’t care, she’d joke. Those were our golden days I think.

I finish praying and everyone tries their best not to seem overeager. I know they’re hungry. Some have travelled far. Obviously they’re allowed to be hungry and sad at the same time. My sister Amy stands over the pot and begins to serve them bowl by bowl, ladling hot veg and indeterminate meat stew. Almost all of them have tasted this stew before, but not like this. Not like this.

The chippy was a great success. We lived by my high school and all the kids would sneak in during free periods and lunch. I hated how my uniform smelled but no one ever said anything. Everyone knew my name but I never knew theirs. Every weekend I’d make some money for running the shop front. It wasn’t much but more than any of my friends had at the time. Thirteen years old and feeling all grown.

Mum and Dad were always tired. Dad would sit in his vest rolling his cigarettes and Mum would watch her soaps. Our wallpaper caked and cracked but we didn’t have much time to do anything except eat. We were our own bosses. We still ate together every night.

The stew tastes great and none remains, as planned. Amy seems disappointed slightly but she is a chef after all.

Have you ever heard of a perpetual stew? It’s a stew you keep going, always adding new ingredients to replenish what gets eaten. The taste morphs with time and stock. A tricky thing to experiment with, because one wrong item can throw the whole flavour off. And good luck keeping it from going off. That’s got to be an art in itself. But man, if you can keep it going… the flavour isn’t something you can just duplicate. It tastes like… home.

I had moved back into the city when we got the call. Amy was still studying in London. Dad wasn’t responding very well to chemo at the time and Mum was struggling without us. Dad had come home to find a black mark behind the counter and the fire extinguisher used up. I quit my job and moved back into the chippy temporarily.

Some things are worth keeping going. You British children could never understand. Work is work. All things my Mum would keep repeating whenever we tried to convince her to shut the shop down. The less Dad could do and the worse he got, the more Mum threw herself into work. She was a machine. But machines sometimes break down.

The extended members of the family all hug and kiss me and my sister, and take their leave one by one. We’re back in a mourning period and can’t leave the house for weeks. Since it’s mum, I actually feel obligated to do it.

I tried to hire weekend staff at the chippy after Dad passed, but Mum fired them all. She was still the boss and nobody was good enough. She didn’t have to work any more, I tried to explain. The shop could be sold. She could watch her soaps all day and call the auntie network all night. No. The shop was all she had left of Dad. That and the stew. The stew was older than me. I ate in quiet after that.

The stew was home. It was love and family and our roots and values and all those things. But more than any of that it was Mum. What difference did it make to keep it going with her gone? Was I going to make stew every night? For who? Amy certainly didn’t have the time. I promise I tried it for a few weeks, sat alone in that burnt chip shop. Her ingredients, her method. But not her loving hand.

It wasn’t even six months after Dad’s passing before Mum had another mental lapse. The fire spread out the kitchen quickly. I couldn’t stop her running back in for the stew pot. I pulled her back out and the ambulances took us both away. They said she’d inhaled too much smoke but I think it was heartbreak. She never came to. She’d thrown herself into her husband’s pyre.

So I resolved to go out with a bang and not a whimper: Mum’s perpetual stew would finish on her funeral. And all her loved ones would share in it for the last time. And Amy would help me prep it. I think she would have loved that part, if nothing else.

Dedicated to the Chen family