Today, for lunch, I prepared “guhlei”—a peasant dish from Nainai’s (my paternal grandma) provincial hometown. Nainai was a true feminist: Preoccupied with excelling in her studies to prove her worth to a society that severely undervalued girls, and perhaps, too, out of pure spiteful rebellion against conforming to gender roles, she never learned how to cook. Her palette was unrefined, and she preferred simple foods—steamed buns and rice congee—that were painfully plain and bland. When I used to visit her and Yeye (my paternal grandpa) at their apartment at Nongda, near Beijing Normal University, I often marveled at the sacrifice Yeye must have made, all those years. Unlike his wife, he was a fine cook, with a lively appreciation for flavor, who loved to eat.
I learned how to make “guhlei” only a couple of years ago, not from Nainai (shocking! I know…), but from Dad—who, incidentally, is also the primary chef in our family. (Mom, unlike Nainai, has an excellent palette and an infamous appetite :) but bore a schedule, for many years, that was not conducive to cooking daily meals.) When Dad first explained the concept and preparation to me, I was eyebrow-raisingly skeptical. The dish was too simple, with too few ingredients, using a cooking method I scorned at the time (I have since amended that attitude), and the most damning of all, it was a dish that Nainai actually liked, which could only mean that it was going to coat my taste buds in self-loathing.
As it turned out, I loved the dish. I loved the faintly yeasty fragrance as it steamed, and the soft indigo hue of the eggplant skin. The crunchy flour breading on the outside melded with the creamy eggplant within, all balanced by a restrained bouquet of toasted garlic. It was just simple enough. And what I loved most of all was the infinite possibilities from such humble beginnings. “Guhlei” wasn’t so much a dish as it was a method, providing the foundation upon which hundreds of dishes—simple or complex—could be constructed. Carrot “guhlei” with chili, ginger, and shallots; Chinese long bean “guhlei” with black vinegar and fermented beans; sweet potato “guhlei” with sriracha and pickled jalapeños…and let’s be honest, what doesn’t taste better with a peanut sauce?
Most everything I’ve learned that I attribute to Nainai, has come to me once removed. I left China when I was barely 4 years old; my memories of her so sheer and fleeting I could never be sure that they weren’t half-dreamt. Opportunities to visit her were few and far in between, and so we began exchanging letters, a communication that still brings me the most sentimental joy. As soon I was able to write “hanyu pinyin”—the romanization system for Chinese characters—I would slowly and dutifully respond to her frequent inquiries, often with Dad’s help.
When I was just a wee bit older, Nainai began laying the foundation for my education. She was a teacher, after all, and she was also terribly afraid that my schooling would fall behind that of Chinese children my age. So every year, she would obtain textbooks and their corresponding worksheets, and I would receive neatly tied bundles of that year’s mathematics and Chinese language curriculum in the post. The duty of parsing and assigning weekly homework to me then fell to my parents: weekends filled with math problem sets and pages upon pages of Chinese characters, copied over and over (and over) again.
I’d like to say that I skipped through my extra homework with glee—that I was happy and grateful. Instead, there was a dull, steady resentment that was only conquered by a vague, yet dutiful notion that I was doing this “for Nainai” and that it was “for my own good,” and above all, that I had “no choice.” Writing to her, too, became an obligation.
Upon entering middle school, the district talent coordinator administered a math test that skipped me 3 years ahead of my class, setting the tone for an incredibly personalized curriculum selection process that was progressive and flexible and generously accommodating. These days, I am ever aware how lucky I am that I speak (albeit rigidly) and read and write (at, like, 1st-grade level) Chinese. And I haven’t forgotten the anecdotes and advice in Nainai’s letters—words buoyant with encouragement and optimism.
I wish I had been mature enough to tell her, at a time when she would have understood, of this skeptic’s conversion.
Nainai passed away last week after years of steady decline. While I was prepared for her departure, this transparent layer of relief I feel does nothing to obscure the swells of sorrow rippling underneath. I miss her terribly.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 25 minutes
1 medium eggplant
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
- Dice eggplant into ½-inch x ½-inch cubes. It is important that the pieces are uniform in size to ensure even cooking.
- Dust the eggplant with the flour and toss to coat. NOTE: You may need more or less flour than indicated above. Ensure that each cube of eggplant it thoroughly and evenly coated with a layer of flour.
- Steam eggplant for 12 minutes. Whether you’re using bamboo or metal steamer trays, I highly recommend lining each tray with dry paper towels to prevent sticking. (Paper towels are the best for this. Can I just tell you how much I LOVE paper towels?! But I’ll save that for a future post…) Do not overcrowd the trays; if you can’t fit all the pieces in one layer, steam in batches.
- Sauté the minced garlic in vegetable oil and toss in the steamed eggplant. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and continue to sauté until the flour coating is golden brown. Serve hot.
* I’ve provided the most basic recipe here, but once you’ve mastered the method, the combinations of spices and sauces that can be applied are endless: throw some chili flakes in with nutmeg and cumin as you sauté; replace vegetable oil with sesame for added flavor; or create a scallion, soy, peanut butter dressing on the side. Have fun!
** You can make this recipe with almost any non-watery vegetable that has a bit of structure. I’ve made it with carrots and cauliflower, and I think it’s great with Chinese long beans. Sweet potatoes or squash might also be interesting. Note that the cooking time will vary with different vegetables, depending on the water content. Squashes and sweet potatoes will take just a minute or two more than eggplant. Firmer vegetables such as carrots or long beans will take 15-20 minutes.
*** I recommend using plain white paper towels as liners, unless you’re into psychedelic dishes stained with (albeit, non-toxic) dye.