I’ll be completely honest; when I was a kid I wasn’t very fond of my grandmother’s cooking. It wasn’t because it didn’t taste great, as her food was often delicious. It was because I had associated her cooking with Taishan (台山), the more rural and historically impoverished area of Guangdong Province just south of Guangzhou (previously also known as Canton).
Her cooking was totally in contrast to what I had be socialized to think as “good Cantonese cooking.” It was less sophisticated than the culinary urbanity of Guangzhou and Hong Kong, which my mother’s side is more closely tied. At home, I mainly ate my mother and my 婆婆’s (po po, my mother’s mother) cooking which typified the comfort Cantonese and style of food in Hong Kong when they immigrated in the late 1970s. Russian ‘borscht’ (羅宋湯) and Cantonese style Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) were dishes I remember fondly and would have never made it to the dinner table at my paternal grandmother’s (嫲嫲) dining room table. My mother’s side often ate out as well, with many family dinners at fairly nice Cantonese restaurants where eating things like steamed crab that was then lightly stir fried with a ginger scallion sauce was fairly routine. Add that to watching TVB shows as a kid, which documented the plentiful abundance of good food in modern Hong Kong. Together, it’s fairly easy to see how I got the classist impression that modern Hong Kong food was good and dishes from historically poor rural villages were not up to snuff.
I’ve rethought these early assumptions over the last few years, especially as I do work around racial, gender, and sexual justice where economic inequity is a key element. Part of that shift in framing has been a growing sense of pride that my heritage is Taishanese. After all, they were bulk of the first wave of Chinese immigration, often in search of better opportunity in the Gold Mountain. Gold was not to be found, but they continued on, doing hard labor to build the transcontinental railroad and grow California’s agriculture industry. Throughout those years, they suffered immense discrimination with lynchings and even the only known legal immigration ban targeted at one nationality in the history of our nation. Because of their resilience and tenacity, including the maintenance of contact to family back in China, my grandparents, dad, aunts, and uncles were all able to immigrate in 1970.
So when she passed away a week and a half ago, part of my grieving process and life celebration was thinking about her resiliency and how that tied into her passion for family and food. My dad’s side had little money when they lived in Hong Kong and when they immigrated to the United States, so she would make lavish dinners with the little she had. She grew vegetables in the back yard like winter melon and water spinach, vegetables that in later years my mom took home and cooked them for my brother, sister, and me. Even with her advanced age over the last decade she would still roast a big chicken, steam a whole fish, julienne pieces of winter melon to stir fry with mung bean noodles and dried shrimp, stir fry a large Chinese vegetable medley, and cook soup for a Chinese New Years Eve dinner. And while all of that is super hard work, it was so she could spend time with family and make sure that her children and grandchildren were never hungry.
It’s in this way that I will always cherish my grandmother’s food. I will miss her 粽子 (Zong – glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf) that were so delicious and filled with many savory items that even one satisfied me as a hungry college student. I will miss her soups with pork, bean curd skins, and shiitake mushrooms that were so refreshing on a winter’s night. I will even miss such a simple and basic dish like julienned winter melon (or whatever more savory squash was growing) with mug bean noodles and dried small shrimp. While these dishes will never be highlighted in a travel book or article about modern Cantonese food trends, they will always be a source of comfort.
So just as I honored and thanked my 婆婆 (maternal grandmother), who passed away 10 years ago, for her many contributions to my lift, I honor and thank my 嫲嫲 (paternal grandmother) today. She blessed my life with fresh vegetables from her garden. She made sure that I never had to experience hunger or thirst. Most of all, she showed that it’s possible to have an abundance of food and family even if you don’t have very much in your bank account.