Other families eat three meals a day. In mine, my mother often treated us to a fourth meal: second dinner at midnight.
The occasion combined the comfort of home cooking with the casual and transitory pleasure of a late-night snack. I’m not sure what a normal family dinner ought to be, but dinners at the Tsai residence tended to be slightly serious affairs that required us kids to be guai, to sit properly at a table with my father at the head, and my mother to nudge us to eat just one more bite. But the late evening chow sessions were something entirely different; they were all about fun – the equivalent of jumping up and down on the bed.
It didn’t matter whether I was parked in front of the TV watching sit-com reruns, bent over a table doing homework, or playing (or fighting) with one of my siblings. Out came my mother with a steaming bowl of soup noodles – or fish ball soup or fried rice – and each of us suddenly felt a bit more special. If the day had been a difficult one, the world now seemed a warmer place.
Beef noodle soups were often the vehicle of motherly love on these nights. I don’t know how she did it – perhaps she went back in time to braise beef and make soup stock, or perhaps she was simply a genius when it came to re-inventing leftovers in the kitchen of our cramped Bronx, New York apartment. Either way, my mother turned out the best Taiwanese-style gu ba mi, dark red soups that were spicy and a bit sweet, with juicy chunks of marbled beef, sliced tripe and tendon, and generous sprinklings of silky cilantro on top.
I see now that cooking the late-night beef noodle soups must have comforted my mother as much as eating them made the rest of the family happy. Living in a foreign land, she had no choice but to recreate the foods of home herself. Back in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, my family had a favorite restaurant, a crowded establishment that was no more than a glorified stall but was famous for its beef noodle soup. As a child, I loved the outings to this place so much that the memory of my anticipation has eclipsed the taste of the actual food. What’s stayed with me through the years has been the car ride into the countryside and a walk down a long, rocky trail, near the end of which drifted toward me the scent of something spicy and warm – a fragrance that would always remind me of home.
As Spring Festival and China’s official feasting season begin, you may too find pleasure in meals that will endure as memory.