My mother doesn't cook for us anymore.
Growing up, I always thought she enjoyed cooking because, well, she cooked every night. I have vivid and fond memories of her cooking: Our nightly meals were a couple of stir-fried vegetable dishes, one meat or seafood dish, and always steamed white rice. I also remember long weekend afternoons spent cooking more complicated or special foods. My memories are multisensory: the savory scent of stir-fried rice noodles, which in the '80s were fortified with bacon drippings; my throat tickled by the vapors of making homemade chili oil; the air, humid from boiling homemade dumplings; the visual snapshots of her chopping, cutting, rolling and stirring. I can still hear the crackling sounds of cold vegetables being fried in hot oil and remember the crunch of biting into a just-fried egg roll. And, of course, the flavors: I tasted umami long before learning the word. My mother never complained about cooking, and we rarely ate out, so I assumed cooking was a task she liked. In retrospect now, I wonder if she would have preferred going to the park with me and my brother, which is what we did with my father when she spent those hours cooking on those weekend afternoons.
She is still an excellent cook, and her food is the flavor of my memories. It wasn't until I had my first child and she came to help that I realized she didn't love cooking; in fact, she considered it a chore. She was still a great help -- changing diapers, holding my newborn, doing random chores around the house. But I was in survival mode, the most basic of survival modes, and the one thing I really needed and indeed expected, making dinner, didn't seem to be a priority to the new grandma. Indeed, it fell to the bottom of her list, with sweeping the house and yard work an easy 1 and 2. Truly, my floors have never been so clean, and the garden never so carefully cultivated. Not a weed was left unpicked. No pebble was out of place. Don't get me wrong. I can't fault her for that. All help was (and is) appreciated.
It was an epiphany, though, that many of those wonderful home-cooked meals were cooked out of a sense of obligation rather than pleasure. There are a few dishes my mother makes that I either cannot or will not learn how to cook as well as she does. The Mandarin expression "ma ma de wèi dào" or "Mama's flavor," is her humble excuse for how much better she cooks those dishes than I can, but I know she has a secret or two.
At the top of the list is the beef stew she braises to go over noodles in soup. This is the dish by which a Taiwanese home cook (or food stall) is judged. In Taipei, there is a whole section of town where unnamed stalls are known for their variations on this theme, and competition and loyalty are fierce. I have seen this obsession with beef stew noodle soup in other families, too. My honorary Auntie may not have always had the best relationship with her daughter, but she always made a large pot of her beef stew when her daughter came home from college to visit. Her daughter would slowly eat her way through it daily, usually without her mother's company, until it was time to go back to school. Like their mother-daughter tensions, the flavors in the braise would only intensify as the week went on.
Of all the beef stews I have had, no question my favorite is my mother's. It is the one thing I ask her to make when she visits, and the one thing I miss most about her cooking. I try to make it myself, but my little girls tell me, "It's not as good as Ah-Ma's." I have asked her to teach me before, and I have all the right ingredients -- stew beef, a tomato, a few carrots, some soy sauce, star anise, black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, an onion, dried red chilies and some sugar. But it never comes out right.
I have accepted that most of the cooking is done by me when my parents visit now. When I ask my mother why she doesn't seem to enjoy cooking as much anymore, she answers tangentially, "You are such a good cook, so now I don't have to." But she doesn't seem to understand that it is not flattery I am giving (or asking for) when I ask her to cook her beef noodle soup. There truly is nothing better to warm you, inside and out, on a cold winter's night.
It is also much more than a stew. It is a taste of my childhood. A mother myself now, sometimes I still want my mother.
Taiwanese Beef Stew Noodle Soup
3 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch chunks and lightly seasoned with salt and ground black pepper
1 tomato, halved
½ small onion, coarsely sliced
2 or 3 quarter-size slices of fresh ginger
6 whole black peppercorns
6 whole Sichuan peppercorns
6 whole cloves
1 to 6 dried red chilies, depending on your personal Scoville scale
6 whole star anise
1 cup soy sauce
½ cup sugar
peel of ½ orange or tangerine, or 1 clementine
2 large carrots, cut in 1-inch pieces
Chinese dried wheat noodles or Fresh Japanese udon
bok choy, yu choy, napa cabbage, or other Chinese greens
Suggested condiments: chili sauce, preserved Chinese vegetables (such as Sichuan pickles), cilantro sprigs, sliced green onion, fried shallots
- Brown the beef chunks in a few tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil over medium heat in a heavy cooking pan, about 5 minutes.
- After meat is browned, add in tomato and onion, and stir and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
- Add and stir in all whole spices, soy sauce and sugar.
- Add carrots and enough water to just cover the meat and vegetables.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low to simmer for 2 hours or more, stirring occasionally, until meat is fork-tender.
- Cook noodles until al dente and add cut greens for one minute.
- Drain noodles and greens. Reserve the cooking liquid.
- Serve noodles into soup bowls, and spoon beef stew and broth over the noodles. Add cooking liquid from noodles to make it soupier, if desired.
- Serve with chili sauce and preserved Chinese vegetables, if desired. Garnish with sliced green onions and cilantro sprigs.