From the simplest of things…

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.

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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.


Eggplant Guhlei

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

  1. Dice eggplant into ½-inch x ½-inch cubes. It is important that the pieces are uniform in size to ensure even cooking.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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(Garlic) Dragon Dance

Yesterday was Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, the holiday of all Chinese holidays. It is so significant, that every year 2 billion-plus passengers journey home from all crevices of the globe to reunite with their families—the largest human migration in the world. Like moths to the flame, we seek the satiation of love gathered around the dinner table: the blissful process of communal preparation followed by shared glutting. New Year’s Eve dinner is the most luscious meal of the lunar calendar, strewn with glistening plates of every color, aroma, technique and texture. And amid this splendor: the happy, humble dumpling …

The dumpling, or “jiaozi” (餃子), is not only a traditional component of Chinese New Year, it also epitomizes my deepest sentiments for the enigmatic bond between food and family. It is the only dish I insist upon when I’m homeward bound, which—incidentally—hasn’t coincided with the New Year since I graduated college in *year: I’m Asian, so whatever*

I made no exception this past Christmas. There is an ease in which we take on the division of labor in the kitchen (always the same) that then entwines synergistically toward meal’s fruition:  Dad prepares the mise en place, mincing the ginger and Chinese cabbage so finely as to shame the fanciest food-processor; Mom mixes the ground pork filling with brash familiarity, a dash here— and a sprinkle there— of simple seasoning; Taotao (my little bro nearly 14 years my junior) and I form and crimp spoonfuls of pork & etc. into floured and pliable wrappers, cut and rolled simultaneously by Dad. Taotao’s technique has vastly improved since last year; so, too, his courage and confidence. I can sense him trying to match my pace:

1. Dust off excess flour from wrapper
2. Drop in spoonful of pork
3. Seal wrapper into half-moon pouch
4. Crimp edge
5. Line up and repeat

His tray fills at a happy pace: rows of evenly crimped wrappers with full, round bellies of pork filling. He is proud of his finished creations in a way that I have not seen until now. When the last of the filling is scraped from the bowl, the trays of little soldiers—all lined up in rows—are ready for boiling :)

Dad mans the pot. He agilely wields the bamboo skimmer, swooping down to rescue the dumplings just as they float to the surface, bobbing buoyantly. I always imagine him wearing a cape … maybe a mask, too.

A steaming plate requires only condiments as compliments to a complete and well-balanced meal. In my house, we each compose our dipping sauces to taste: Taotao and Mom are purists with Chinese black vinegar; I enhance mine with artistic swirls of sesame oil and chili oil; Dad likes his hot as hell. (His true calling should have been Wilbur Scoville’s most enthusiastic test subject.) But in my house, there is also a Golden Garlic Rule (file it away under Guo Family Rules): If one person should eat raw garlic, ALL must eat raw garlic. This is the Law. And so we all reached for our cloves, crunching down on the acrid, spicy crispness that marries so well with the fragrance wrappers and soft, meaty filling. We have made our pact—like sailors clinging to a shared life raft—simultaneously sinking together and mutually staying afloat.

As eating slowed, conversation quickened, and Mom and I found ourselves engaged in a debate over unemployment compensation reform. Our diametrically opposed ideologies coupled with our stubborn convictions (indeed, I am the apple; she, the tree), as usual, hindered any compromise. And as words became increasingly more heated, two garlicky dragons—one sprouting from each breathy furnace—levitated above the kitchen table, advancing and rebutting in swift and seamless dance. With Dad ref-ing occasionally, bemused from the sidelines, this is our field of action. Here, at our kitchen table, we gather to summarize our day, to share our thoughts, to engage our minds, and to fight our battles … oh yes, and to eat delicious food. Taotao, reticent to enter the fray, continued chopstick-ing dumplings into his bowl until Mom pushed him to contribute to the discussion. His garlic dragon, at first wispy and transparent, took shape. Gaining strength, it steadily rose as he proffered a perspective situated squarely between Mom and I. His dragon bridged the compromise we could not make. I could not help beaming with joy and pride.

Soon the meal concluded, the issue of government reform tabled for a future dinner, and we cleared the dishes and packed the leftovers. As we each wandered off to our individual activities, the dragons also dissipated, absorbed by the kitchen aromas.

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Mom called me Wednesday morning, from under three feet of Wisconsin snowfall, to wish me 新年快乐 ! and to confirm that the Guo family (minus one) would be making dumplings that evening to be consumed with, I have no doubt, many cloves of raw garlic.

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