I haven’t tasted my mother’s red bean porridge in over two years. That’s what I’m thinking as I wander the aisles of my local Asian grocery store, my shopping cart full of tofu, vegetables, and sauces—ingredients from my childhood. My eyes spot colorful packages of dried vacuum-sealed red beans on a shelf.
I pick up a package, and I’m instantly taken back to a cold morning in Chicago when I walked into the kitchen and smelled a familiar fragrance emanating from the slow cooker, which had not been out on the counter when I went to bed the night before. In her typical fashion, my mother worked in the kitchen late at night while my siblings and I were fast asleep, making sure we had a comforting breakfast to wake up to in the morning.
I lifted the slow cooker lid that dripped with condensation and inhaled the aroma of red beans so commonly found in Chinese desserts, from mooncakes to jelly squares. The porridge was a foggy maroon color, dotted with bright red goji berries, jujubes, longan fruit, balls of glutinous rice, and other spherical odds and ends.
“Thank you, Mommy!” I said, as she doled out a bowl for me.
“I hope you appreciate everything I do for you,” she said, only half-joking.
“I do,” I told her.
And then I scarfed down the porridge with gusto, just in case my words weren’t enough to convey both my love and my appetite. Sweetened with rock sugar, the porridge still retained a slightly savory flavor from the beans and left a gritty texture on my tongue.
She had been making red bean porridge for as long as I can remember, perfecting the recipe over the years. When the whole family would get together on the weekends, she made it for breakfast. When we hosted potluck dinners for our Chinese friends, she served it for dessert. I remember the first time my husband met my family, he had a bowl of the porridge and made a passing remark about how much he loved it. Every time he visited my family since then, a fresh pot would be waiting.
My mom died two years ago from cancer, and among a long litany of regrets is the fact that I never wrote down an exact recipe.
I helped my mom make the porridge sometimes, when I was little. My job was the easy-but-fun task of making the sticky balls of glutinous rice. I’d add water to a mound of rice flour and roll the mass between my fingers until it formed a soft, white, fluffy ball. Standing beside my mother at the kitchen counter, I’d plop each ball into the muddy bean water, one by one. It was a methodical process that I enjoyed immensely, my fingers moving so mechanically that my mind could get lost in my mother’s words or in my own thoughts. It was this form of meditation that drew me to cooking in the first place.
I’ve seen my mother make this red bean porridge often enough to get a good sense of what goes in it. There are the dried red beans, obviously. Then goes in water. Then the seedless dried red dates, the lotus nuts, the dried longan fruit, the glutinous rice balls. Pop the lid on the slow cooker and wait for the magic to happen. But the exact measurements of things—the cups of water, the amount of sugar, the other ingredients she included that I can’t quite remember—all these things remain a vague mystery to me.
I started searching for the recipe wherever I might find it. In fact, in the years since her death I have gradually amassed a shelf full of Chinese cookbooks and bookmarked dozens of recipe blogs dedicated to seemingly authentic Chinese food, the kind of home-style dishes that don’t necessarily look Instagram-perfect but taste like childhood memories. From several recipes for hong dou tang (literally “red bean soup”), I was able to piece together some steps and ingredients I had been missing. It was from these recipes that I finally learned that those round-looking things I always used to secretly pick out of my bowl of porridge are called lotus nuts.
But despite finding some plausible-looking recipes, I have never tried to make the porridge myself, for fear that it won’t taste just like I remember, won’t have the same consistency. I realize that it’s not a very complicated recipe: If I put some red beans and water together in a slow cooker, something resembling porridge is bound to come out of it. That fear still lingers, though—the fear of shattering the possibility of recreating it as I remember, of destroying a perfectly preserved memory of taste.
That isn’t to say that I don’t cook my mother’s recipes at all. There are a handful of dishes that she taught me how to make, like cong you bing (onion pancakes) and eggplant stir-fry. Some of them taste just like she made them; some of them aren’t so successful yet. Her sweet and sour fish, for instance, is one dish I can never get quite right no matter how many times I’ve tried—the fish not crispy enough, the sauce not nearly as tangy and thick.
This porridge, though, has become sacred in a way, representing a lovely possibility that someday down the road I’ll gather enough courage to make it and that it will be so perfect that I can pretend for a moment my mother made it for me on a cold winter night.
But for now, I must accept the reality that some foods are meant to be eaten, and some foods are meant to live only in your mind.
I’m standing in the aisle at the grocery store. Carefully, I put the package of red beans back on the shelf. Next time, I think to myself. Tonight, I’m cooking my mother’s sweet and sour fish, and maybe this time, I’ll get the sauce just right.
Is there a recipe so special to you, you'd never attempt to recreate it? Tell us in the comments below.