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How I've Come to Embrace the Taiwanese Dessert My Friends Once Deemed Weird

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Photo by Lori Bailey

As soon as Mother pulled the sandwich-maker off the top shelf, we kids knew what to do.

We’d untie a bag of gloriously soft, unnaturally perfect white sandwich bread. Then, with a generous hand, we'd spread the slices with sweet red bean paste, scooped from a can bought at the local Chinese grocery. We’d press the pieces together, then enclose them between the hot metal plates with their triangular indentations.

Minutes felt like ages before my mother would finally lift the lid to reveal deeply golden sandwiches, edges pressed at crispy brown seams, pinched into neat triangular halves. The first bite released a gush of red bean filling, hot enough to scorch my mouth—but I'd devour it anyway.

Red Bean Paste (for Mooncakes)
Red Bean Paste (for Mooncakes)

I'm still learning from these early snapshots of my mother, a Taiwanese immigrant, experimenting in an American kitchen. Born and raised in Kaohsiung, she spent thirty years submersed in the colorful sensory palette of the Beautiful Island.

Then she immigrated to the United States, married a farm boy from Tennessee, and a blank white page opened before her. What did it mean to be American, raise an American family? What place, if any, did Taiwan have in a small Southeastern town? I grew up in a period of discovery, of confusion and loss, and of reconstruction.

The culture of Taiwan—a blend of predominantly Chinese, Japanese, and native influences—collided with the American Southeast in our home, and our table was the fault line. Turnip greens and cornbread shared space with fiery mapo tofu; spaghetti sometimes made its way to our mouths on forks, sometimes on chopsticks. Mom's fried eggrolls held legendary status at Sunday church potlucks, an exotic raft amidst a sea of green bean casseroles and ambrosia. We built our own culinary micro-region, consisting of whatever points of connection we found in the food we enjoyed eating together. And there, in that common ground, was adzuki: red bean.

Photo by Lori Bailey

Even my father liked the stuff, so Mom felt no qualms about keeping the sweet paste as a mainstay. But, like so many immigrants, she also wanted to acclimate to her new environment. She, and her children, were going to be Americans. So red bean found its way into our “toasties” (or so some say they're called, though we didn’t bother naming them) and into crescent rolls, the kind in the tubes that explode when you open them.

As a kid, I didn't think much about being half-Taiwanese. It was an intrinsic part of daily life, an occasional perk when relatives came from overseas with suitcases full of presents and snacks. Growing up, though, has a way of challenging identity. As ”American” as my mother had tried to raise me, I still found that my pencil paused over the "Race" bubble on standardized tests: Asian or Caucasian?

Photo by Lori Bailey

There was a moon cake incident in high school, when I let some classmates sample the traditional red bean-filled delicacies I'd brought with my lunch. They chewed, cautiously, and delivered their verdict: "weird," "interesting," "beany," "tastes like bacon." I'd so badly wanted them to understand it, to celebrate it—and, transitively, me.

Only recently have I finally began to put the pieces together: my mother's background, my experiences growing up, and what it all means today.

Red Bean Ice Cream

Red Bean Ice Cream by cynthia | two red bowls

Traditional Cantonese Mooncakes

Traditional Cantonese Mooncakes by cynthia | two red bowls

I'm beginning to see that discovering what it means to be mixed race is like those toasted red bean sandwiches my mom would make: an adventure in fusion. Somewhere, in the balance between Taiwanese and American, there's a combination of ingredients that's true to who I am. I'm grateful to my mother for her bravery, for introducing me to such a vibrant heritage, and for laying the foundation for a life where I have the freedom to create.

My own red bean repertoire these days consists of a mix of traditional foods and cross-cultural experiments, like red bean rugelach.

But if I have a serious adzuki hankering that must be satisfied, some homemade red bean paste (sweetened just the way I like it) spread on toasted white bread from the local Asian bakery does the trick. I may not have that old sandwich maker, but I have the inspiration from my mother to guide me.

Photo by Lori Bailey

Tags: Heirloom Recipes