Dad’s Red Bean Paste

One of my favorite things to do as a kid was eat my dad’s red bean paste straight out of the bowl. Back then, he would prepare a batch of fresh, sweet red bean paste for his baked tapioca pudding. That is my absolute favorite dessert (sorry, cheesecake!) and it was always a treat to have that.

Dad would spend hours in the kitchen; boiling the beans, draining the liquid, straining the shells, pouring the remaining liquid into a large saucer and patiently stirring the mixture. It was mesmerizing, watching him work his way to create such a smooth, perfect paste.

Then, he’d scoop out his creation into a porcelain bowl and set it out on the dining table to cool down. After it cooled for a few moments, I’d grab a spoon and sit at table, picking at the mound. My favorite parts were the edges, when it’d dry out slightly and create a crunchy sensation in my mouth. The red bean paste was velvety smooth, still warm from being freshly made, but slightly crumbly on the outside from drying out. I’d dig multiple holes into the bowl, shamelessly double-, triple-, quadruple-dipping my spoon into the mix.

I tried making my own today for Thanksgiving. Before I began, I called my dad. I never called him. There just was never anything to say to him. Our phone conversations do not last beyond one minute and thirty seconds — and that’s already considered the maximum. This time though, I needed to ask him for the recipe.

A few rings in, he picked up. “Wei, Baba?” I asked. Dad laughed loudly into the phone, saying how happy he was to hear me through the phone. Suddenly, I felt a bit selfish for calling him only to ask about making red bean paste. Before an awkward silence could insert itself into the conversation, I quickly asked, “ni hai hao ba (are you okay)?” Dad grunted like he always does, uncomfortable with talking about himself. He continued to ask me whether I had booked my ticket for winter break and study abroad; typical dad questions to ensure that I have my life together. After some back-and-forth, the conversation began to die (we were over two minutes in — incredible!) and I quickly asked him how to make the paste. He paused, and I half-expected him to say that it would be hard for me to make it right. It wouldn’t be the first time he doubted my abilities.

But he said that he’d write down the directions and ask my brother to send it to me (he wasn’t good with technology). I thanked him, wished him well on his health, and ended the call. A few hours later, I received the photos. Dad’s handwriting is really nice.

Instead of writing my papers tonight, I decided to make the paste. Admittedly, I got lazy and decided to not look at dad’s recipe because it was all in Chinese. As I got going, everything seemed to go well. The beans were softening, nothing was burning; I thought, I didn’t really need Dad’s help.

Towards the end, I skipped a step; which was to drain the shells from the mixture so that the paste can come out smooth. That was a costly mistake; my red bean paste came out chunky. As I let it sit to cool down, I stabbed my finger into the paste to give it a taste.

When the tip of my finger hit the slightly hardened surface, I was immediately transported back to when I sat down at the dining table, eating spoonfuls of my dad’s red bean paste. For a moment, I wished I could go back to those moments; the naive, carefree memories of my childhood.

Ignoring that bit of nostalgia, I stuffed the bit of paste into my mouth and tasted it. It was good. Chunky, slightly-off texture, but good. But not the same; far from the rich, silky-smooth dessert from my memories.

I guess I don’t like to think about Dad a lot. He’s done a lot of hurtful things that are forever carved into my memory. But in that moment, I remembered the sweet times he made red bean paste for me, when he would patiently and lovingly create the smoothest, most delicious red bean paste I’ve ever had.

Those are some of the memories that I miss the most.