Being the youngest of four with a significant age difference between her and her siblings, my mom had a relatively comfortable childhood in Chongqing. Though she sometimes watched my grandmother preparing meals in the kitchen, she didn’t start learning how to cook in earnest until she got married in her mid-20s. She started with simple recipes from a Chongqing cookbook and kept at it until she built up a decent repertoire of dishes.
After my sister came along, Mom also experimented with the odd cream of chicken and spaghetti Bolognese. There was often something a bit suspect about her attempts at western food – like her “salad dressing” made entirely of ketchup and mayonnaise – but Nancie and I appreciated the attempts.
However, my favorite home-cooked foods remain the ones passed down from my grandmother. When she came to live with us in Canada, my mom was a much more willing student. Beyond the typically hot and mouth-numbing flavors of Sichuan and Chongqing, there are a host of pickled and cured dishes that add color and character to meals. My mom still keeps a large earthenware pot on the kitchen counter containing string beans, turnip, cabbage, and Chinese radishes fermenting in salt brine. The pickles are sour, crunchy, slightly effervescent on the tongue, and a beloved fixture of Chen family dinners.
One of the most time-consuming dishes is Sichuan “bacon” (la rou), which involves curing thick strips of pork belly in salt, spices, and rice wine, then air-drying them for several days in a dark and cool place. My grandmother hung them from wooden rods in the basement, the strange silhouettes startling my sister and I when we went downstairs to play. The finished la rou is sliced thin and chased down with rice – a heady mixture of fragrant, fatty, tender, and sweet.
Equally treasured were our standing Saturday afternoon appointments with the Zhangs. Drawing on their northeastern heritage, they made prodigious amounts of jiaozi, jiucai hezi (chive “pockets”), huajuan (scallion buns), and congyou bing (scallion pancakes) for gatherings.
Once in a while, our parents caved in and took us to Chinatown for dim sum. Middle-aged women pushed trolleys stacked high with bamboo steamers, hawking their contents in Cantonese: “Shrimp dumplings! Tripe! Steamed spareribs! Congee! Egg tarts! Sesame balls!” If we were eating with another Chinese family, the kids reflexively slouched in their seats at the end of the meal to watch the inevitable tussling over the bill. This behavior went unnoticed in Chinatown, but drew the occasional open-mouthed stare in the more staid suburban restaurants around our house. Once, we watched my mom and Le’s mom shove $20 bills back and forth all the way to the parking lot, culminating in Mom furtively stuffing the money between their car seats.
My memories of food are happy, often blissful ones. These days, my preferred winter activity is having friends over for food, drink, and board games. Comfort food is a big part of this; people have contributed apple crumble, brownies, pigs-in-a-blanket, mashed potatoes, and pasta salad. It’s the closest thing I have to a Sunday family dinner here, and this too will become part of my food memories.
This article originally appeared on p9 in the January 2015 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Sijia Chen