This is Buddy. He was my dog. But now he belongs to my grandparents. He lived with Grandma and Grandpa when my family was on vacation one week and liked it so much he decided to stay forever. We cannot blame him. Buddy sleeps in an air-conditioned bedroom, does morning stretches with Grandpa in the backyard, and goes on walks around the neighborhood twice a day. It’s a nice life. In the late afternoon, he patiently sits next to my Grandma as she cooks dinner…both because he enjoys keeping her company, and because he knows she’ll pass him extra munchies…though both of them will surely deny it if you ask ;)
And then, when we visit for dinner every weekend, Buddy is always the center of attention – he lives in the best of both worlds.
Saturday and Sunday evenings in Hawai’i are blissful. Mornings at the KCC Farmer’s Market and/or Marukai, pancake breakfasts, and slow afternoons at Ala Moana. Around 5:00pm we all pile into the car and head for Grandma’s.
We never know what Grandma has in store for dinner. But we can be sure that it will be delicious. Come to think of it, she’s never made anything that I do not, not only like, but looooove. Yes. So much love.
Most of the cooking is done outdoors in a big wok…the scent of her cooking is intoxicating. Everyone in the family has favourites they hope she will make that evening.
For dad, it’s always summer rolls, whereas my cousin is borderline obsessive over her golden spring rolls.
But I always cross my fingers and hope it’s jai. I could eat jai everyday of my life, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert. I would forever give up bread pudding for a daily dose of jai (and a steaming bowl of white rice).
The lovely thing about jai is that there are no set rules or formulas as to what may constitute jai (aside from the obvious exclusion of meat). Along the lines of “blah, blah my mom makes the best chocolate chip cookies in the world…my dad’s roast pig is killer…” I am biased. My grandma’s jai is the best on the planet.
There’s a total of 16 different ingredients in the dish, including bean curd in three forms, long rice, four types of mushrooms, and three kinds of veggies, moss hair, and other ingredients for which I love to eat but do not know the proper English name.
Grandma makes jai in a huge batch – so that there’s enough for me to take home and have for breakfast/lunch/dinner for the next few days. Everyone else in the family likes jai well enough, but no one can understand my infatuation, “it’s just peasant food,” my grandma would say (in Chinese :). But there’s something so inherently satisfying about a big bowl of jai, hot from the wok. The tangle of clear long rice with black moss and big chunks of tofu steamed, fried, baked…so many forms, and then greens for both a sweet crunch and as aesthetic appeal. We eat this all over bowls of rice, perhaps a dash of shoyu and it is ridiculous, so crazy, to even imagine how something could possibly taste this good.
Jai is just one of the few reasons why I could be perfectly content with never dining out if my grandma made dinner every night.
Family dinners are much fun, and I say this with nary a hit of sarcasm. We sit at a long oval table, with my Grandma and Grandpa on either end, Mom, Dad, Sister and I on one side, and my Uncle, Older Cousin, and Younger Cousin on the other side. Dinner topics range from the serious to the hilarious. Sometimes it’s one big conversation, and other times we have three separate conversations going around the dinner table.
My seat is the closest to Grandma’s, and that how it has and always will be. From the other side of the table I often hear Grandpa warning me not too eat too much, “If you eat too much and you’ll get chubby – no one wants to marry a chubby girl!” He says this in Chinese with a deep chuckle, half-joking and half-serious. Such situations can often get confusing. Sometimes I’ll joke right back, put down my chopsticks, and say, “okay Grandpa, I’m full. I’m going on a diet for the rest of my life.” Then he’ll look at me to see if I’m joking, and if I have my poker face on right, he’ll go, “nononono, Grandma cooked all this wonderful food – you must eat it!”
So in a matter of minutes, I’m told to both to eat more and more, but no, wait, don’t eat because you will get too chubby, and god forbid you don’t get married and end up fat lonely lady. You must agree it is terribly confusing conversation, no? :) But such is the norm, I know they are only concerned and looking out for my best interests.
I’m too sure if it goes for all Asian families, or just mind. One is rarely rewarded for doing something right, and frequently reprimanded for doing something wrong, or not as well as they could have done. This always bothered me a tad growing up – who doesn’t want to be congratulated or rewarded for doing something well? But now, I better understand their perspectives…I think it comes with age and experience (however much or little I have). At the very least, I feel as if this type of parenting keeps you constantly on your toes and striving for more.
I find the best thing to do is listen to my stomach (and then maybe eat a little more than that ;).
If we ever arrive to for dinner on the early side, there never fails to be a plethora of (edible) surprises awaiting us…little pre-dinner snacks. My grandpa encourages us to eat these snacks, but the minute we start, he’ll say something like, “don’t get too full yah?” Hehe. Last week the snacks came in the form of freshly steamed joong made by grandma’s friend…
…they were of the sweet sort, a nice surprise because we typically eat only the savoury ones. The sticky mochi, (still warm from the steamer!) were stuffed with pounded red beans. We assembled little dishes of sugar to dip the warm joong, adding a little crunch, crunch to every bite.
Twice a year, on Chinese New Years Eve, and the American Christmas Eve, Grandma prepares a shark’s fin soup. It’s a highly coveted dish among the family, and the only she’s best known for, a bounty of the best shark’s fin she can locate and freshly picked crab meat. But because of both cost and labour, it’s only made twice a year. Rules are rules, and rules are not meant to be broken. But. Exceptions can be made. Such was the case when I visited last month. It felt a bit strange to be eating (you don’t drink shark’s fin soup) mid-summer, as my body is accustomed to the soup on those two specific dates. But I cannot say I was anything but grateful that she prepared such a luxurious treat just for my visit.
Out of all my relatives, not including my immediate family, it doesn’t take more than a second to say that Grandma is that one I’m closest with. She raised me for many years while mom and dad were working, dressing me up in white dresses and red mary janes. We’ve traveled to Asia, Paris, Germany and London together, in addition to a straight decade of yearly trips to Disneyland. And even today, we’re on the phone at least three nights a week.
My sister and younger cousin are the pickiest eaters of us all. Both the youngest of the family, they are quite spoiled and very food specific. My sister does not like veggies with her pho, my cousin isn’t fond of egg yolks, while my sister loooves egg yolks, especially when they come in boiled in sweet pork broth. Oh man, this one dish my grandma makes, oh man, oh man, it’s ridiculous…
Big chunks of pork still on the bone, boiled in its own juices with shoyu and ginger, sweet red peppers and at least a dozen eggs. The end result is what I fondly note as easy meat. Meat that falls and slips and slides so tender and sweet in the mouth. Meat that demands no chewing, but asks only for your blissful attention. Simmered, and simmered for hours on end and served with, what else? Rice of course!
A relatively new dish of Grandma’s, which she only started cooking a few years ago, is Melon Shrimp. Or at least that’s what I call it…I do not believe it has a real name. I also cannot remember the type of melon for the life of me, am I failing you? I’m terribly sorry. I only wish you could have been there at dinner with us.
Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful dish, the chopped melons cooked soft in a shrimp broth with shrimp paste (hence the colour), and lots and lots of garlic. The shrimp, which are separately fried, and added in at the last minute, and viola, Melon Shrimp!
I love soupy dishes, and ones that require an abundance of rice. Dinners at Grandma’s are made complete with big bowls overflowing steamed white goodness out of her reliable cooker (over 15 years old!). There’s always a steady supply of rice in the cooker, though sometimes we manage to nearly clean it out. An example of such an occasion is when steamed salted fish is at the dinner table. It’s both extremely salty and extremely spicy with a ton of ginger – all perfect candidates for pairing with rice.
The most dangerous part of this dish is that no matter how many times you burn your mouth from the actual heat, or experience the other type of burn from one too many chili peppers, or ginger…or even find it overly salty…you will return for another bite. Over and over again. Because it is simply that addictive – hot salted fish steamed in sweet juices, thin sliced ginger and chilis covering the entire surface…oh, blissful!
Dessert? Always. Grandma has a few specialties she repeats over and over again, and I could never imagine tiring of her sweets. A few years back she used to make a pounded taro and water chestnut dessert, fried – hands down the best treat ever. And then I went away to college, and when I came back for Christmas she didn’t make it that time, or the next spring, or summer. It was not until a few months ago that I learned she had stopped making that particular dessert because the taro pounding was too painful for her wrists.
The thing about my grandma is that she will never let anyone help with dinner – from the food shopping, to the prep, the actual cooking, and even the dishwashing, she does it all herself. Dinner each Saturday and Sunday is for exactly nine people, and she does it all alone from beginning to end.
If you try to help with dinner, she will get mad. I can imagine it would be almost insulting from her point of view. From experience, we’ve learned, it is best to simply keep her company while she cooks, much like Buddy, and enjoy the food. If Grandma needs your help, she will ask for it.
We eat dessert at the dining table, usually an hour after dinner has finished, then tumble to the family room for what ever movie my younger cousin has rented for the night. Sometimes we’ll have a second dessert, which will doubtlessly be ice cream. Either Häagen-Dazs Coffee or Green Tea, Roselani’s Hawaiian Vanilla Bean or the ultimate crowd pleaser, Kona Mud Pie…but if we’re in a really good mood, someone will make a short drive to Bubbies for mochi ice cream! Light down, ice cream bowls out, and the movie starts. 9pm eventually turns to 10, then 11, and before you know it, the night is gone and we must head home.