The call got me thinking about my grandmother, and the influence she's had on my attitude towards food. Since there was precious little I could do two oceans and three continents away, other than wait by the phone, I decided to keep busy by finishing these articles and dedicating them to my grandmother. I love you, ah ma, and I hope you're all right.
My grandparents grew up during the hated Japanese occupation of Taiwan in the early 1900s. My grandfather was a farm boy who, like most men of his generation, was forced to attend a military-style Japanese academy whose purpose was to indoctrinate him in the Japanese language and culture, as well modernize him by teaching him Western math and science. This education would serve him well after the Japanese left in 1945. My grandfather became a civil servant in Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, rising to a high rank in Taiwan's Ministry of Public Works. He ultimately made his fortune by entering the private sector to form his own construction conglomerate.
Much of my grandmother's life has been deeply interwoven with, and in some ways secondary to, my grandfather's. They married early in life, and in the farming tradition of the time that equated children with helping hands in the fields, my grandmother bore eight children for my grandfather; four boys and four girls. During my grandfather's rise to prominence, she supported him my tending the home and raising the children. She played the charming wife at business and social functions and the gracious hostess when my grandfather brought business associates home. For most of her adult life, my grandmother's world has been defined by her family, and by caring for her husband, children, and grandchildren. My father often jokes that although she's the smallest person in my family, my grandmother has a heart so large it encompasses all of us.
As a child, I spent most of the time during my yearly visits to Taiwan in my grandmother's kitchen. Even now, with so much time and distance between us, I can still remember the smells and flavors that permeated those humid summers. Since my grandmother never wanted anyone in her house to go hungry, there was always a table full of food in the dining room ready to feed her loved ones. Every morning, she'd wake up at dawn and walk to one of the many massive farmers’ markets in Taipei (the city my grandparents live in and the capital of Taiwan). I'd often go with her to help carry the heavier items, to fend off hungry stray dogs after our groceries with a trusty bamboo stick, and to eat the piece of fresh sugarcane she always bought me. I'd follow her through the noisy market, watching her pick out the freshest greens, ripest fruit, and best meat with which to feed her family. I learned how to pick a ripe honeydew melon by stroking its skin, how to gauge the flavor of an herb through its smell, how to choose fish by the clearness of their eyes, and many of the other food selecting skills she'd honed after decades of cooking for ten on a daily basis.
Back in her kitchen, I'd watch as she prepared breakfast. She'd start by simmering a pot of fan su xi fan, rice gruel with sweet potato, the signature staple starch dish of Taiwan. Then she'd chop the vegetables, herbs, and meat for the side dishes in order to have everything ready for cooking. In Taiwanese-Chinese cuisine, speed equals flavor. Unless they're soups, stews, or braised items, few dishes remain in the wok for longer than a couple of minutes. Everything is flash cooked at high heat in order to seal in the flavor and freshness. In addition, unlike some of the better known styles of Chinese cooking from regions like Sichuan, Guangdong, Hunan, Shanghai, or Beijing, Taiwanese cuisine emphasizes the taste of the ingredients, using carefully calculated levels of seasoning to bring out the natural flavors of the food. Because of this, Taiwanese cuisine is widely considered to be more austere than most other Chinese cuisines, and is often criticized as bland by the uninformed. However, my grandmother's cooking was always full of flavor and love. Watching her assemble her dishes was like watching a master magician perform his art. The gas ring burner would flare, oil would be drizzled, and ingredient after ingredient would be added to the sizzling wok as the food was tossed over and over again. Within minutes, the show would be over, and my grandmother would plate the dish before giving the wok a quick cleaning and moving on the next delight she was planning to make.
The three dishes whose recipes I've included below are my attempts at recreating some of my favorite dishes from my grandmother's kitchen. Please try them out. I hope you enjoy some of these tastes from my childhood.
Chao Fan Su Ye - Sweet Potato Leaves Stir-Fried with Garlic
A simple dish with only three ingredients, this is one of the signature dishes of Taiwan.
Jiu Cai Chao Dan - Stir-Fried Eggs with Chinese Chives
One of my family's favorite breakfast dishes, it's quick to prepare and can be eaten with every meal.
La Jiao Shao Kong Qing Cai - Seared Chinese Spinach with Chilies
A spicy, punchy dish that emphasizes the crispness and texture of the spinach stems.