Long Reads

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

March 20, 2017
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.

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.

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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.

We built our own culinary micro-region, consisting of whatever points of connection we found in the food we enjoyed eating together.

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.

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Top Comment:
“YUM I love red bean paste! I discovered it in high school when my Filipino friend would save me some red bean filled cakes. He couldn't believe how much I loved it. Now I get it in my dim sums. Thanks for sharing this! The rugelach looks amazing. What a great idea!”
— Moshee
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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.

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

12 Comments

A A. March 25, 2017
My dad's aunts used to make steamed buns filled with red bean paste.
 
Monette P. March 23, 2017
Love red bean paste! I also love what we call in the Philippines, Hopia, which is a bean cake enclosed in a flaky pastry. I miss them as I do the mooncakes we used to get as presents during the Chinese New Year!
 
JW March 22, 2017
Beautifully written. Incidentally, a Japanese-designed sandwich maker has become hugely popular in Taiwan in the last couple of years -- If you would like to recreate the childhood snack with a little Taiwanese connection thrown in. Below are the links. <br /><br />https://www.amazon.com/recolte-PRESS-MAKER-Quilt-RPS-1/dp/B015IQUZC8<br /><br />http://24h.pchome.com.tw/prod/DMAG17-A9006LTA8
 
scott.finkelstein.5 March 21, 2017
It's interesting to compare cultural attitudes toward bean pastes and mohn (poppy paste), as the former seems to be much more esteemed despite the two having very similar flavor profiles.
 
grace March 21, 2017
Your article made me cry, for many reasons, missing the red bean paste, the moon cakes, mom's cooking, and my own reflections of coming from Taiwan and studying in Kaohsiung.
 
monkeymom March 21, 2017
Your illustrations are magical!
 
Moshee March 21, 2017
YUM I love red bean paste! I discovered it in high school when my Filipino friend would save me some red bean filled cakes. He couldn't believe how much I loved it. Now I get it in my dim sums. Thanks for sharing this! The rugelach looks amazing. What a great idea!
 
Panfusine March 21, 2017
beautiful piece, I think your story shares a fond common thread not just from the Taiwanese diaspora, but for 1st gen citizens from all over Asia in General (including the Indian sub continent), and our kids are all the more richer palate wise for it. its a fascinating experience integrating and assimilating traditions from the 'mother country' into the new land we 'married' into , and personall, my culinary base has only expanded because of this.<br />
 
XenaB March 21, 2017
Those red bean twists look beautiful. Do you have a recipe to share? Thanks
 
Author Comment
loribailey March 21, 2017
Thank you, and yes! I'll be sure to put it up soon :)
 
Stephanie March 20, 2017
I love this! I My parents are both Taiwanese immigrants, but growing up in New Jersey, Italian food gradually started to mix more and more with our traditional Taiwanese dinners.
 
HalfPint March 20, 2017
Great article. I've got a little half-Asian munchkin and I'm gonna try my darnedest to give her all the wonderful things from her mom's Asian culture, whether she likes it or not ;)