My memories of my grandparents, Puo and Gong, centre around a teak and smoked glass dining table in the early 90s. It sat in the middle of their house, a shag-carpeted bungalow in Niagara Falls, Ontario where they'd moved after leaving Taipei in 1974.
That table held everything: stacks of McDonald's napkins, musty Chinese newspapers, Puo's wealth of oversized sunglasses, and, if my sister Nika and I were there, an array of home-cooked food. Jiaozi filled with pork and shrimp. Sugary Chinese pancakes. Aromatic tea eggs. Pink pickled radishes.
Their house was my island of Chineseness in an otherwise Anglicised childhood. It was the only place where I heard Mandarin shouted at full-volume and the only time I ever saw a treasured pet turtle fed from a plastic spoon (bizarre, sure, but he's still alive today). In the Canadian suburbs with a British father and a Chinese mother, I spoke English at home.
But at Puo and Gong's, I broke out what rusty Mandarin I'd learned from two years of dreaded Saturday Chinese school. I watched Gong quietly cook dishes from his native Beijing and discovered that Puo, who'd grown up wealthy in Nanjing, had never actually learned to cook. She added sugar to everything.
Now, decades later, both Puo and Gong have died. I live in Berlin, tripping over Deutsch conjugations, often the only person of colour in a room. Since moving here, I've realised how much I miss the feeling of Mandarin in my mouth and the sound of Chinese music, with Puo half-shouting at me to sing along. I long for Gong's cooking and the sugary radishes they always kept in the fridge.
So, I've begun rebuilding my childish Chinese. I put Teresa Teng songs on repeat until I memorise them. And I learn to cook the dishes I miss most.
Puo's pancakes seem impossible. Nika, my mom, and I all fail to figure out the recipe, despite it being just flour, water, and sugar mixed with chopsticks and cooked in the wok. But when I toss in more sugar than usual, they almost taste right: spongy, sweet pancakes that I eat rolled up in two bites.
Next, I attempt to make rich, marbled tea eggs. When I was eleven, my parents bought me a set of white Calvin Klein pyjamas, and it was over a bowl of Gong's tea eggs that I destroyed them. Peeling a slippery egg over the dark soy and black tea marinade was, I learned, a terrible idea. With this in mind, I make the marinade carefully, adding one-too-many star anises, and plunge the cracked boiled eggs into the salty depths without splashing.
Turning to the pickled radishes, I look up the dish online but find nothing. I ask Chinese friends and am met with confusion. I FaceTime Nika and Mom, asking if they know the recipe, but we all remember it differently. Nika says there's no vinegar, Mom says there's no water, I say there's both. We all agree that if Puo was cooking, it was mostly sugar.
There's no one else we can ask. My grandparents had been part of the Kuomintang government that fled to Taiwan in the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, losing contact with our family on the mainland. Gong, an air force colonel whose job it was to fly Taiwan's leader Chiang Kai-shek, never spoke about the past much.
So, it's up to Mom, Nika, and I to keep this idiosyncratic radish pickle recipe alive. I add soy sauce, rice vinegar, water, sugar, and sesame oil to the radishes. They taste balanced, the pink crunch of the radish erupting into spice.
For dinner, I'd planned to make jiaozi dumplings—a staple in my home—but Nika asks if I remember Gong's he zi.
"They were the size of a plate," she says and instantly the memory takes shape: enormous pan-fried dumplings filled with noodles, chives, and eggs. I decide to make them, Googling recipes for jiu cai he zi or "chive box dumplings." I text Mom for the sauce recipe to go with them: rice wine, light soy, white pepper, sugar.
"Those were Gong's specialty," she says, and I can sense her missing him.
Cooking the he zi slows me down and asks me to pay attention to every fold in their dough. When I fry them, they take up the entire wok. I break one open, and it sends steam into my tiny apartment. Everything smells of pungent chives, so I open the window.
But the taste of them is something I want to hold: oiled, crisp edges, a salty pillow of dough, the earthy warmth of chives in the filling. I eat them with my hands, greedily lingering over each messy bite, and I can almost hear Puo in the background, telling me off. But I know Gong would smile, nod his head, and watch me eat with quiet joy.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.