The afternoon shadows lengthen in my grandparents’ living room in southwest San Jose, and like a sacred ritual, preparations begin for that night’s dinner.
Morsels of pork sizzle in a pan while my grandfather slices chicken with a cleaver on a wood block. The scent of hard-boiled eggs simmering in soy sauce fills the kitchen as does the fragrant vapor of rice steaming in its cooker.
Over it all floats the dialogue of a Chinese soap opera playing on the TV and my grandmother’s nervous voice talking in her flat central Chinese accent to one of my aunts.
I spent years’ worth of lazy afternoons in that apartment sharing family gossip, some of it decades old, while enjoying the kind of Chinese home cooking only offered to family and close friends. Natural-born cooks, my grandparents prepared throwbacks to the unfussy food that people ate nearly a century ago on the banks of the Yangtze River or in the Pearl River Delta, where they grew up.
Some days, my grandmother would toil for hours shredding turnips and then shaping the flakes into a pork-flecked loaf that she would slice and then fry, turning out their version of turnip cakes, a dim sum favorite. Other days, their small home would bubble with the aroma of pork belly steamed in soy sauce on a bed of preserved mustard greens. The pork was cooked so tenderly it would dissolve into pure flavor on my tongue.
I recently dined in a Sunnyvale Sichuan restaurant with a couple I know, and the wife brought along her father, who is from Beijing. When I ordered that same dish of pork belly and mustard greens, the father laughed.
“I haven’t had that for so long.” he said, amused that I had chosen a home-style dish like that in a restaurant. It didn’t stop him, however, from eating slice after slice of the savory pork, chased with clumps of salty greens.
Both of my maternal grandparents died last year, first my grandmother in February at age 96 and then her husband nine months later at 100. My memories of them, however, survive in the lingering flavors of braised beef and orange slices, now shared among the remaining family.
Both grandparents barely survived World War II and the Chinese Civil War before fleeing to the island of Taiwan after the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. They worked as schoolteachers there until they joined their children in the South Bay in the 1980s and settled in their modest two-bedroom home in a sprawling, innocuous senior complex.
On some of the afternoons I spent with them, my grandmother told me stories of how she suffered the indignity of going without good food during the war. Separated from her family and bouncing among refugee schools, she subsisted on ground corn cob boiled in hot water, she said with livid embarrassment.
Just so I understood, she described in detail how farmers delivered that corn cob meal in filthy sacks and how passing children would taunt her and her friends as “the Corn Cob Gang” when they saw them eat that gruel.
My grandfather grew up in a wealthy southern Chinese family and inherited that region’s love of dancing and feasting – steamed fish, homemade char siu sausages and, of course, dim sum. His family owned a swath of land in Guangdong province worked by tenant farmers, and that love of the soil stayed in his blood. Even after settling in California, he grew herbs and dried sausages on his tiny, fenced-off apartment terrace.
When I was younger, my grandfather would try to please his American-born eldest grandson by broiling a steak as I waited on the white leather couch and watched the soap operas with the sound turned down. Only after I insisted repeatedly that I preferred their Chinese food over tri-tip did he instead concentrate on dishes such as Zhajiang noodles prepared in a thick savory black bean sauce and shredded chicken stir-fried with hot peppers.
They put together their food from memory, like how people speak their native languages, and came up with the night’s repertoire by searching their refrigerator stuffed full of Chinese green beans, baking soda, a whole chicken and, for some reason, always a white gallon jug of Tropicana orange juice.
My grandmother was ruthless when eating at Chinese restaurants around the Bay Area, spending half the meal trashing the food and service and only occasionally admitting that one dish or other was done right. She knew that whatever they ordered, they could make it better at home.
The message was clear, no matter the dish: Food meant love, and serving a mediocre lunch was tantamount to family betrayal.
I’m glad now that I had the foresight to sit down with my grandmother in 2003 and have her detail for me how to cook some of my most beloved specialties. She often had to stop and think in the middle of remembering: “How exactly do I make that? In what order do I prepare everything? With how much of each ingredient?”
Rather than cups or tablespoons, she used her own lingo in those jotted-down recipes. For the pork belly, she advised cutting the meat into mah jong tile-sized pieces. The soy sauce was measured using Chinese spoons, those porcelain or plastic implements that restaurants bring with the hot and sour soup.
For some spices, I had no idea how to translate the names into English and asked her to write the words down in Chinese instead. Her handwriting in black ball point ink still marks the pages of my old journal.
When I tried making the Lion’s Head pork meatballs, I was surprised by both how simple the recipe was and how flavorful the dish turned out. This wasn’t fancy cuisine. The recipe didn’t call for any other seasoning on the ground pork but salt and soy sauce. It was just the heartiest dish she could make with the ingredients she had at hand when she had to feed a house full of hungry kids.
Now, tasting those meatballs, I can’t help but think back to my grandmother picking through the mustard greens with her chopsticks while insisting that I eat another piece of chicken. I remember how lunch used to start with my grandfather emerging from the kitchen holding a baking pan containing steak, which he proudly set in front of me.
Like a favorite song or movie, food can take us back in time. The flavors and smells belong to those lost to us who knew the power of the food they were preparing. Cooking these dishes keeps them alive, long after they’ve joined the irretrievable past.
Lion’s Head pork meatballs
Time: About 30 minutes
1 1/2 pound fatty ground pork
4 tablespoons cornstarch
3 or 4 tablespoons soy sauce
Pinch of salt
4 leaves of Chinese lettuce (also called celtuce or stem lettuce)
In a mixing bowl, mix the ground pork with 3 tablespoons of corn starch, soy sauce, a fifth of a tablespoon of salt and 6 tablespoons of water. In another bowl, mix a tablespoon of cornstarch with 4-5 tablespoons of water and coat palms in the mixture. With wet hands, separate the ground pork into 4 to 5 meatballs each about the size of a tangerine.
In a pot, add a Chinese rice bowl’s worth of water (about 3/4 of a cup) and lay out leaves of lettuce on top of the water. Heat on a stovetop until the water simmers, then place the meatballs on top of the lettuce and lower the heat. Cover the pot and boil for 15 minutes.
Pork belly with mustard greens
Time: About 1 hour
7 ounces of preserved mustard greens (meigan cai in Chinese) It usually comes in packs in Asian supermarkets.
1 pound pork belly with the skin on
1/4 cup frying oil
2 pieces of ginger
Soak the mustard greens in water for about 10 minutes and then make sure to clean the sand off the greens. Dice and fry without oil in a pan until fragrant. Set aside.
Cut 1 pound of pork belly into pieces about the size of mah jong tiles (1 inch by 1 1/2 inch by 2 1/2 inches). Place the pieces in a pan and add 1 tablespoon of oil and 1 to 2 whole pieces of ginger. Fry until oil oozes from the pork. When the pork is done, add 3 to 4 Chinese soup spoons (5 to 6 tablespoons) of soy sauce and fry a minute or two longer.
Place the prepared pork on top of the cooked mustard greens in a pot and add about 1/2 of a rice bowl (1/3 of a cup) of water. Lower flame, and add 1 Chinese soup spoon (1 1/2 tablespoon) of sugar to the sauce. Cover and steam the mustard greens and pork for about 30 minutes.
Time: 30 minutes
This is quick, easy comfort food. Like marinara, this sauce can be prepared using a can or jar (of bean paste) or made from scratch. This recipe uses the canned sauce.
1 pound wide wheat noodles, cooked
One 8-ounce package of dried tofu (tofu gan in Chinese)
1/4 cup frying oil
1 pound ground pork
One 6-ounce can of bean paste
1/2 cup water
1/2 pound bean sprouts
Dice the dried tofu into small cubes about 1/4 inch in length and brown the pieces in a pan with oil. Add the ground pork and brown. Add the bean paste and water and heat until boiling. Pour the sauce on top of a bowl of cooked noodles and mix in raw bean sprouts.