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Amah's Dishes -- Heritage of Love

There is a very special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. When my kids were small, I remember my very strict mother saying to me: “It’s your responsibility to discipline your kids, but it’s our prerogative to spoil them, because we already fulfilled our responsibility for parenting. Now it’s time for us to enjoy the fruit of our labors.” I have also written about my parents’ special relationship with my kids in other articles which talk about their annual trips. In this article, I wanted to explore this special bond through the language of food, which really encapsulate so much of my kids’ childhood and their beautiful memories with my parents.

Minced Pork on Rice

By Caleb

There is something universal about a grandmother’s cooking. Their cooking defines entire cuisines, and the greatest chefs in the world are often driven by a desire to replicate the feeling they once had when they were a child, eating Ama’s cooking. Food memories... do you know what I mean? A food memory can define your understanding of a dish, such that no one, no matter how good a chef, can tell you that their way is better.

For me, that dish is Amah’s minced pork on rice. I associate this dish with my earliest memories of her, and it was something my mother could never replicate, which meant I would look forward to it each time I went to visit my grandparents in Vancouver. My first memory of it begins like this:

I was sitting in the little glass round table that we always ate at instead of the large dining table, between the kitchen and the TV. The table had gold accents I think, and above it hung a stained glass ceiling lamp with fruit patterns on it. We did so many fun activities on that table, from folding little boxes out of paper that we would spit our cherry seeds into, to playing board games, or just watching TV. The cathode ray TV was quite memorable also, as it was gigantic for its time (something like 60”, back in the 90s!), and it had these wooden doors that you could close to cover it, and those doors always fascinated me because at first, I couldn’t figure out how they managed to disappear into the cabinet. We watched a lot of wheel of fortune on that TV.

But back to the food. All of the food she made, I associate with that table, and the view from there. You could see the backyard, and back then, their white husky, Marco. We would wolf down bowl after bowl of minced pork meat, while looking out to a white winter wonderland, or other times, a brilliant rainbow of flowers. Amah’s minced pork was always perfectly fatty, juicy, and salty. Combine it with a steaming bowl of white rice, and some sweet Azuki beans (those were my favorite snack) - boy were we spoiled.

What made this dish stand out above every other (her Gua Bao, pork belly with pickled vegetables, bentos etc) is that somehow, it seemed like it was always the first thing she made for us when we visited her. Maybe she knew it was our favorite, as grandma’s tend to know these kinds of things, or maybe she just loved making it - either way, the smell of minced pork on rice will always remind me of her.

I’ve eaten a lot of phenomenal food since then, and even tried the minced pork from the famous night markets of Taiwan itself, but no one can really make it quite like hers. Amah’s way is the only way to make minced pork on rice. I know she will put as much love into this recipe as she did into making each bowl for me and my brothers, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as we did.

Amah’s Run Bing

By Jonathan

This year due to work, I actually forgot to formally celebrate Chinese New Year. Fortunately for me, I ran into my grandparents in Reno a week later and had the opportunity to eat one single home-cooked dinner, courtesy of Amah. This meal was Taiwanese Spring Rolls润饼 (see pictured) and it brought back amazing memories from childhood, through my teenage years, until now.

Thinking back to my earliest memories of Run Bing, I think of the hard work that Amah would put in to prepare all the ingredients and the complaining that my younger siblings and I would make because we were too lazy to fold those ingredients into a roll. Amah would always patiently help us roll the absolute best tasting Run Bing - as only an expert can. Egg, peanut powder, pork, fresh vegetables, cilantro, tofu, a hint of wasabi, all wrapped in a steaming fresh wheat roll.... Yummm... To this day, I so strongly associate these spring rolls with the Amah magic touch that I will still wait for her to help roll me her perfectly balanced rolls, which is exactly what I did this year at our makeshift Chinese New Year dinner. I also believe that Amah, and indeed most grandmothers, utilize their food as the truest expression of her love for us. This act of service is something that cannot be conveyed by words alone.

In my mind, these springs rolls are one of the purest forms of family comfort food, because the number of ingredients involved requires it to be eaten family-style. Some kids growing up remembering their family pizza, dumpling, or dessert making parties - I'll remember Amah ‘s Run Bing.

Amah’s Zongzi

By Stephen

My two older brothers and I all seem to have very distinctly favorite things from Taiwanese culture in terms of food, especially our favorite dishes by our Amah. For me, that has always been 粽子. I remember the first time I had Zongzi, and falling in love with the nice fatty chunks of 卤肉 (Taiwanese braised pork belly) and the 卤蛋 (Taiwanese braised boiled eggs) in the middle. It was one of the most delicious bites I ever bit into.

The making of Zongzi begins with a freshly stir-fried pot of sticky rice

Of course, the sweet and spicy red sauce that went on top of the Zongzi made it even more memorable. I remember Amah tying all the Zongzi together after wrapping each one and then hanging each buncle over the sticks that are propped up between two chairs.

Amah is not only a superb chef, but also a very patient master to her young apprentices!

She would teach me how to fold the Zongzi, how to hold the first fold a certain way and then put sticky rice in it.

The process of making Zongzi is a creative one. The making of each Zongzi is under different circumstances and feelings, combining different ingredients. This is why every single Zongzi is a work of art.

It was really hard but also really interesting as well, because at that time, we were all playing with these long strips of colorful origami paper to fold paper pyramids in my elementary school in Beijing. It was the exactly same way that Amah taught me how to make the real Zongzi, and I was one of the few people in school who knew how to do it. Other people who knew how to do it also had similar memories of making Zongzi with their grandmothers. It was this very nice community bond that was built between me and these people as we talked about whose grandmother’s Zongzi was the best. To me, my Amah’s Zongzi was clearly the best.

The end result of zongzi making is a pile of pure happiness!

Memories of making Zongzi always brought a smile to my face. Those moments of connecting through food is really what rooted me in having a sense of pride in my heritage and culture. When I meet others who have had similar experiences of food making in another culture, there is also this instant bond that forms, no matter the culture, because of that common understanding. For me, my culture has always been one of community honor and creativity and beauty and amazing recipes that have been passed down through generations in the family. Yet even though it’s the same food item, every family has a slightly different take on it. It’s not quite like a more mainstream type of cuisine like Italian food where people might talk about one recipe having an extra egg in the pasta or something, though. With Taiwanese food, it’s more distinct because it’s not something that is commonly available everywhere in America. Yet every family makes it just a little different, so when we come together, there is also a community aspect as we discover the uniqueness in our own family recipes.

My favorite part of the Zongzi making process is the community aspect. Because Amah doesn’t live nearby, she would make a big batch whenever she comes to visit and store them in the freezer. When I want to eat a Zongzi, I take one of those frozen ones out of the freezer and microwave it myself. It’s just not the same as before. Gone is the excitement of being in Amah’s kitchen, the arrangement of the furniture and the sticks, the hard work of wrapping each one with our favorite ingredients in the sticky rice, and the anticipation as the Zongzi comes hot out of her steamer to get unwrapped and each bite of the different stuffing to be discovered and savored. Gone also is Amah’s delight in seeing my delight and our bonding in that joy of community food making and food consuming. I have always loved watching Amah assemble the assembly line and when go to work on these Zongzi. There is no other feeling like it.

Memories of making Zongzi always brought a smile to my face.

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