The Taste of Home
“Just remember, soy sauce, cooking wine, rock candy and five spices. These are all you need for cooking Hongshao Rou.” My grandma was teaching my cousin how to make braised pork with brown sauce (Hongshao Rou). She would only teach my cousin while she was cooking the dish. “Just trust your tongue,” She said. That is my grandma’s cooking style. She never uses recipes during cooking. For her, it was too much trouble. “All you need to do is watch and learn. Experience will make you a good cook.” My cousin was about to leave home and study abroad in less than a week. He spent all day in my grandma’s kitchen learning all of my grandma’s specialty dishes. After attending a college 12,000 kilometers away from home, my grandma’s cooking was the one thing that brought him the most direct memories from home.
The method of cooking braised pork was not hard. Just like what my grandma said, “You just have to try it with your tongue. Everything is based on experience.” There was never a written standard for how long the pork should be simmered in the pot or how much seasoning you should put in. All the standards were on my grandma’s tongue. I would not compare my grandma with Tita in Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate because most of my grandma’s cooking does not trace back to any of my family’s traditions. Her cooking mixed flavors from all over China.
I was born in a city named Xi’an in western China into a small family of only eleven members (with both sides combined). We never needed a fancy family reunion to meet with all of my family members. A simple family meal would bring us all together. My family meals, like most Chinese family meals, were a combination of dishes from all over the country. My hometown was representative of the western cities in China that were extremely underdeveloped in the 1950s when my grandparents first moved there. With almost 85% of the Chinese GDP coming from industries and services, my hometown’s economy was heavily dependent on agriculture alone. As older generations would say, farmers always suffer the most, because their incomes are “depending on the mood of the gods.” As the other regions of China were quickly industrializing, my hometown was still fighting with the capricious climates in the West. In order to help the western cities to develop, the government started to move many industries and institutions there. My grandparents were part of the “mobilized resources” to support the construction of the West.
Both of my grandparents moved to Xi’an with the military. My grandfather was retired and became a college lecturer while my grandma kept her position in the military. With my grandma away from home most of the time, my grandfather had to take on the responsibility of taking care of the children. My grandfather was from a southern city in China, Shanghai. The eating habits there were very different from the eating habits in the West. Food in the South emphasized delicate cooking skills and the harmony of colors and nutrients. In the West, food culture is a different story. The cold and hostile climate gives the residents no mood to look into the art of cooking. With scarce resources and a desperate need for energy, western cuisine is usually easy to cook and greasy. My grandfather, with limited ingredients and facing the danger of having two starving children, adopted the western cooking style. Vegetables and tofu were thrown into the pot with noodles. The mixed stew could not only keep his children fed, but could also save him a lot time. My mother and my uncle had to wait until Chinese New Year or Birthdays for my grandfather to cook a nice meal for the family. Braised pork with brown sauce was almost always the most popular dish. The pork was cooked so tender that the fat could melt on the tongue and the flavors in the brown sauce were so nicely cooked that the sweetness would leak into the hearts of every family members. Braised pork with brown sauce was the most delicious memory in my mother and uncle’s memory.
Forty years later, braised pork with brown sauce is still my favorite dish. When I was eating the dried pork chops or barbecue ribs in the dining hall, the flavor of braised pork always came up in my mind. Even the most famous dish in the local restaurant could not replace my love for braised pork. For me, there is no right way to cook pork belly other than braised pork with brown sauce.
After my grandfather passed away, my grandma had to take on the responsibility of cooking for the family. Fortunately, both my mother and my uncle were already graduated from college and she was also retired from the military. However, her responsibility became heavier after the birth of my cousin and me. My cousin and I were born only a half year apart from each other. Feeding both of us was not an easy task, but my grandma’s cooking skill improved rapidly the first few years after we were born. She adopted some of her cooking skills from my grandfather, including some of his speciality dishes such as braised pork, and the rest of her dishes she collected from the neighbors and her co-workers. Sometimes she also added her own creativity into her dishes.
Unlike my cousin, I was never a good cook. I never learned my grandma’s cooking like my cousin did; therefore, I hardly had any chance to taste the flavor of my family after I moved to America. When I was working on this project, I suddenly realized that it would be a completely different story for my children to write about our family story by tracing back through my eating habits because I eat more American dishes both in school and at home. Moving from place to place added different tastes into the family meals. These changes tell the story of my family’s history.
I interviewed my mom for this project, since she is the only person I can interview face to face during this semester. It would be hard for me to talk to my grandma over the phone. My mom is not a good cook, but she grew up with my great grandmother in my grandfather’s hometown, Shanghai. She tasted the original flavors of the family before my grandfather moved to my hometown, Xi’an, and is able to compare my grandmother’s cooking with the original flavors of the family meals in Shanghai.
My interview questions would be:
1) Where did you born?
2) Where did you grow up?
3) What’s your favorite food as a child? What food do you eat most often?
4) What dish do you think can represent our family the most?
5) Who do you think is the tradition bearer of our family?
6) Can you tell more about the story of my grandparents?
1)“Shanghai-Style Braised Pork Belly (Hong Shao Rou) — The Woks of Life.”The Woks of Life. The Woks of Life, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
2) Yeung, Yue-man, and Jianfa Shen. Developing China’s West: A Critical Path to Balanced National Development. Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong: Chinese UP, 2004. Print.