My Family Recipe

When "I Love You" Was Too Much, My Grandmother Said It With Pork Stir-Fry

August  7, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Some of my earliest memories are of my mother in the kitchen, cooking for our family of four. Fish steamed in a wok with soy sauce, ginger, and green onions; chicken wings deep-fried in a wok with lots and lots of garlic; tomatoes and egg cooked in—you guessed it—a wok, served over rice. I would watch her from the island, mesmerized as she took control of the kitchen, quietly cooking, sometimes singing to herself, adding a pinch of this and a dash of that.

While my parents gave my brother and me a loving home—these home-cooked meals around a dining table, a roof over our heads, embraces and kisses when we needed them—my mother couldn’t say the same about her own upbringing. Women of my grandmother's generation didn’t tend to express love, or give affection outwardly in the way that I did growing up, and in the way that movies and television shows in America portrayed it.

When I asked my mom if she had a special family recipe she could remember her mother making for her, she couldn’t think of anything specific at first. Because by the time it was safe—or at least safe enough for her to be in the kitchen—she was the one in charge of feeding her three younger siblings, and suddenly she became the sole cook of the family.

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Top Comment:
“I changed the recipes teaspoon units to tablespoons for more sauce and flavor, I used only 1/4 cup extra water to thin sauce, But used 2 1/2 cups bean sprouts. The 1/2 inch pieces were inconspicuous when cooked so a handful of whole beansprouts made a nice garnish along with green onion cut diagonally. ”
— Mr. V.
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They lived in Diamond Hill, in Kowloon, considered one of the poorest neighborhoods in Hong Kong. Despite its opulent name, the area didn’t contain any diamonds, and "Diamond Hill" was simply a mistranslation of the Cantonese “鑽石,” or “to drill for rocks.” Every hour that was available to my grandparents (including my grandmother) was spent at the factories making money. Eventually, my mom did think of one dish her mother had cooked her growing up: stir-fried minced pork with soy bean sprouts. A humble dish of that time, for sure, yet one of the things I love to eat most today.

My grandmother's stir-fried minced pork. Photo by Jenny Huang

One time in Hong Kong, when I was 5 years old, before my family and I were headed to the airport back to California, my grandmother cooked all of my favorite things, including this pork stir-fry. Simple and humble but packed with flavor and texture, it’s best served atop rice. The pork, marinated in soy sauce, a bit of sugar, and cornstarch, balances the texture of the soy bean sprouts, which, when cooked, soften and absorb whatever flavors you toss them with, rendering the dish not-too-salty but deeply flavorful. Cooked over an open flame in an old iron wok that has seen its fair share of years, this dish holds the dinners of before and of the dinners to come.

In my grandmother’s living room around a round laminate table, we all sat on colorful plastic stools and fold-out chairs, eating that stir-fry, among other delicious bites. The TV played quietly, and when there was a lull in conversation, it would be because something interesting was playing out on screen. But otherwise, surrounded by my uncles, aunts, and cousins, we’d sip and slurp all the dishes—modest in their ingredients but filling in every way that counts.

On television, love is shown with physical affection and verbal affirmations. TV Grandmas have doting voices, dole out freshly baked Tollhouse cookies, and pinch your cheeks too hard. In those early years, I didn’t see those white grandmas reflected in my own: sinewy, hard lives led, nary an “I love you” or “I missed you.”

But during that dinner, it dawned on me: I didn't realize my grandmother missed me until she made me this dish and said, pushing it toward me, “I know you don’t get to eat this often.”

Maybe food was her way of showing love; in the least, it was meaningful that she spent the time to make it for me, with me and my family in mind. It may have taken decades and an ocean to get to this realization, but it was through cooking—something my mother rarely saw her do when she was younger—that my grandmother, I realized, spoke the loudest.

I didn't realize my grandmother missed me until she made me this dish and said, pushing it toward me, “I know you don’t get to eat this often.”

At the airport, hours later, my grandparents would be waiting with us in the boarding area. There’s a photo of my grandfather and me, and you can tell that he had just stopped crying. He always had big under-eye pouches, puffy enough that I remember pushing them softly until he would bat me away, smiling as he did so. But this time, the puffiness would be due to another goodbye he couldn’t bear to give: Off we were, his family, to America again. My grandmother, on the other hand, would be stoic, waving goodbye as we boarded the plane.


We talk about the generations fighting for the American Dream, but what about the generations after? I wake up some days with a dull ache in my stomach and know it’s a longing for these rare moments of unity after my family’s diaspora. When I sit on the subway and hear young people my age speak with a Hong Kong affectation, I feel pangs for a home that maybe isn’t really my own.

But in these moments, I think that what I’m really longing for is the embrace of family outside of my immediate one in America—of my sense of home and place back in the motherland, with the laminate table, the aunts and uncles and cousins, and my grandmother’s ambrosial stir-fried pork.

Do you have a family recipe that's meaningful to you? Please tell us about it in the comments below.

4 Comments

Mr. V. August 14, 2018
Wonderful recipe although I made some adjustments. I changed the recipes teaspoon units to tablespoons for more sauce and flavor, I used only 1/4 cup extra water to thin sauce, But used 2 1/2 cups bean sprouts. The 1/2 inch pieces were inconspicuous when cooked so a handful of whole beansprouts made a nice garnish along with green onion cut diagonally.
 
gt9 August 10, 2018
When do you add the oyster sauce
 
Eric K. August 12, 2018
You can add it when you add the soy sauce. The recipe has been updated: https://food52.com/recipes/77537-stir-fried-minced-pork-soy-bean-sprouts
 
Eric K. August 8, 2018
Thank you so much, Vivian, for sharing this Family Recipe with us. I've heard this narrative before with all my Chinese friends: the stoic mother, or grandmother. Whereas in Korean culture, it's the women who are warm, and the men who don't show emotion. I wonder how many generations it'll take for these gender roles to dissipate?