I was making tomatillo sauce this morning (yes, at 7:30am, anything to procrastinate studying), and while going through the rote motions of chopping, etc., I got to thinking. And what I got to thinking about was my mom, who was the most profound culinary influence on my life.
My mother grew up the youngest of 8 children in Taiwan, probably one of the richest food cultures in the world. Besides just the sheer breadth and scope of cuisine, food is a very important part of societal norms. Feeding someone is an act of expressing care and celebration, and you would never invite someone into your home without giving them something to eat. As a child, I attended wedding and birthday banquets, helped make hundreds of tiny dumplings for a celebratory festival, partook in breakfasts cooked for my uncle’s factory workers by his wife, and traveled the night markets in search of coffin bread and stinky tofu.
I haven’t been to Taiwan since a high school visit, but my mother brought her traditions with her to the US. She also mixed them with traditions learned during her time spent studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Vienna. We might have Weiner Schnitzel with rice, spaghetti with a can of clams mixed in, charbroiled steaks with stir fried onions. Somehow her European culinary creations were always a bit off – but her Taiwanese and Szechuan cuisine is the stuff of dreams, dishes I can only approximate in intensity of flavor. Basil covered chicken spashed with rice wine, pickled mustard greens with bamboo and pork, tea eggs boiled with pork and seaweed in a rich brown broth, steamed egg custard topped with shiitake mushrooms.
Throughout it all, I was asked to help her chop and clean, and it’s from her that I picked up my most mundane, obsessive kitchen pet peeves. Before I left for college, I chronicled her recipes in a journal, where I wrote many other things from my past, which I then shelved and left for many years. The recipes are scatter shot, random strings of thoughts, (“fried tofu. chop old tofu, dry, deep fry until lt. brown. dice zucchini. finely chop garlic, ginger and whites of scallion. fry etc in oil. add zucchini. add sauce hoisen oyster water vietnamese s/sour”) but I think I’d like to try to resurrect some of those recipes and see if I can’t clarify them.
I’ve always been a recipe follower, not a creator, and I don’t pretend otherwise. My creations when I was younger were limited to things like, oh, a roll stuffed with an entire stick of butter (“fat free” was not a term I grew up with) until I discovered the joy of cookbooks. I posted my mom’s tomato and egg dish once; hopefully, I can bring some more new deliciousness to discover in the upcoming weeks!