Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Secret Ingredient

A year before I was born, my family left Taiwan and immigrated to a small city in the middle of nowhere. We were now more than eleven thousand kilometres away from our country of origin, and in a place where access to Taiwanese cuisine was severely limited. It seemed certain that I was (my sister also) doomed to never have the chance to grow to love the food that is a part of everyday life in Taiwan. Indeed, it was also certain that I would have the chance to visit the country as I was growing up, but there was always the likelihood that I would develop a preference for a burger and fries over Taiwanese food and never take the opportunity to properly indulge in authentic Taiwanese cuisine.
Things could have turned out the way I just described, a natural transition when you move to a new country with new cultures, but it seemed that placing eleven thousand kilometres of land and ocean in between was still not enough to completely change the diet preference of my parents. I suppose I should give some credit to my father since he is one who is still unaccustomed to Western food after living for 23 years outside Asia. But the real reason why I have an appreciation for Taiwanese food is my mother, and what she brought with her when she left Taiwan behind.

One of the most familiar images that I have of my mother is that of her with a bag of flour, a metal mixing bowl and water sitting on the floor and kneading dough. This image comes up again and again throughout the memories that I carry of my life at home, so often that I cannot remember when the first memory of this image was imprinted in my mind. The first time I ever tasted many of the pastries, treats and dishes that I now regularly eat when visiting Taiwan was those made by my mother’s hands. Here is a list, which is not complete, and is not limited to Taiwanese cuisine:
饅頭 (Steamed roll)
肉包 (Steamed bun with meat)
肉圓 (Meatballs with glutinous rice skin)
肉粽 (Glutinous rice dumplings in bamboo leaves)
豆漿 (Soy Milk)
漿 (Rice Milk)
韮菜盒子(Chives dumplings)
蔥油餅 (Spring Onion pancake)
鹹湯圓 (Glutinous rice balls with savoury filling)
甜湯圓 (Glutinous rice balls in sweet soup)
豆沙包 (Red Bean Paste Buns)
水餃 (Dumplings)
餛飩 (Wontons)
碗粿 (Cake in Bowl? I have no idea)
年糕 (Sweet Chinese New Year’s Cake)
蘿蔔糕 (Turnip Cake)
紅龜粿 (Red Turtle Cakes [turtles are not part of the ingredients])
麻糬 (Mochi)
蚵仔煎/蝦仁煎  (Oyster omelette/Shrimp omelette)
蚵仔麵線 (Oysters with thin noodles)
牛肉麵 (Beef Noodle Soup)
Hands with more than 20 years of experience
My mother does not use recipes to make any of the above things, instead she has a kind of intrinsic sense, an ability to accurately guess the ingredients and ratio of ingredients that she needs. Many of the items above are similar and employ similar methods to make, but she was able to reproduce them just from having eaten them before and from the memory of the way her own mother went about making them. The dedication to her family is the driving force behind my mother’s craft, a task that she occupies herself with every day and wherever she goes, the stock of these pastries and treats in the freezer is always regularly replenished.
The finished product of what was being made in the previous photo: Flaky Red Bean Moon Cakes - a recent addition to my mother's repertoire 
The time my mother spends on making these foods is usually quite long, even though over the years, she has refined her techniques and repeated those same practised movements hundreds of times, she is slow by nature and in a way she is a perfectionist. Every time we venture out to eat in restaurants or buy food from vendors, it is only when we return home and eat a home-cooked meal that I realise what it is that makes her food unique. My mother’s care and the time she dedicates is the secret ingredient, and this brings out a flavour that is difficult to describe in words. It’s the feeling when you are eating food with trust and certainty because you know exactly what is in the food you are eating, the kind of mind-set that allows the meal to be so much more: it’s the taste of reassurance and the taste of love and care.
As kids, my sister and I would often join in and help our mother with what she would be making on a particular day, but especially dumplings as these involve various steps in its production. Now, more than ten years on after I started helping my mother, I live alone in Australia, and occasionally make these things myself, everything from scratch, the dough and the filling. This gives me a sense of satisfaction, knowing that I have a skill that allows me to add something else to my daily recipe book (which is very limited), and I am glad that I was able to learn this from my mother.
Top: Dumplings Bottom: Spring Onion Pancakes
What I learnt from my mother
A lot of people may enjoy spending their time making these pastries and treats and I have never asked my mother whether she enjoys what she does, but I can imagine the sort of answer she will give me, a snarky remark something along the lines of: “all this effort is for others, and most of what I make doesn’t make it into my own mouth, if you guys weren’t around why would I waste my time making these things?” She loves and is dedicated to our family, but will not directly use sweet sayings or warm phrases to prove that, and this kind of remark is her trademark, her way of telling us she cares. Regardless of what her answer may be, I know this is her contribution to our family, the use of her skills to keep us well fed and healthy, and for that I will be forever grateful.