Through numerous foodie adventures over the past year and change, I’ve fallen in love with many new foods. My mouth waters at the thought of salty garlicky bun cha in Hanoi and spicy succulent khao kha moo in Thailand and soft pungent French cheeses. And of course, who can forget my ultimate profession of love to the pierogis of Poland? But even with all the newly discovered favorites, when it comes to comfort food, there is still nothing, nothing, that warms my soul as much as my favorite childhood dishes.
I grew up on a hearty diet of home cooked traditional Chinese foods, first lovingly made by my grandma in Beijing and then by my mom in the States. Half a world removed from our family and culture, it was especially important to my mom to preserve the Chinese recipes she grew up on and raise her family on traditional values and food.
I remember that on weekend days, we’d make dumplings from scratch. We’d mix the filling, cut the dough into little balls, roll into rounds, and finally carefully wrap into dumplings. My mom taught me how to dampen and fold the edges in such a way that they won’t come apart during cooking. Each batch was a serious labor of love.
But of course, as time went on and our personal schedules got fuller, hand rolled dough got replaced by store bought wrappers and then got replaced altogether by store bought frozen dumplings. And of course, being across the globe, it was impossible to completely replicate the recipes for the more specialty dishes. But in order to bring a bit of Beijing into our American home, we learned to make do with tinned sauces and frozen wrappers.
And after I moved out on my own, Chinese dumpling houses became my go-to for any cravings. But no matter how hard I searched, I could not find anything even near par with my grandma’s noodles. While D happily slurped up his bowl, I’d sigh with disappointment. “This isn’t good,” I’d say. “You haven’t had my grandma’s.”
Who knew that I would actually take him to Beijing one day. That I would bring him to my grandma’s house, sit him down at the table, and say “this is my favorite dish. This is what I grew up on.” That I would giddily watch him take the first bite and witness his look of absolute delight as his taste buds made contact.
Today, I want to bring all of you with me too. I want to give you a (unfortunately, virtual only) taste of my favorite childhood dishes. So without further ado, come with me as I revisit my grandma’s kitchen!
Zhajiangmian (Beijing noodles)
This is a traditional Beijing noodle (it’s like the bolognese of Beijing) and it’s my absolute favorite dish in the world!
The black sauce is made of slightly sweet fermented soybean and is cooked with onion, garlic, and ground pork. The sauce on its own packs a punch and is rather salty, so don’t forget the most important part: the veggie mix-ins. The most popular ones are bean sprouts, cucumber slices, and shredded cabbage. These balance out the taste a bit and also add extra texture to the noodles.
And here’s an insider extra: if you’re a true Beijinger, you’d chow down the noodles in between bites of raw garlic. You’ll find that Beijingers love to accompany dough-type foods with raw garlic, whether it’s whole cloves or minced into a dipping sauce.
This is the one dish that I have never ever found a good replicate of in the States. I could not tell you how happy I was to finally eat my grandma”s version again.
You can think of this as a Chinese burrito! A good wrapper should be very soft and thin, but still a little chewy. My grandma makes the best ones! It’s really an art to get them that thin.
This meal is prepared with a huge spread of dishes. What’s served is usually up to personal taste and preference, but typically, there will always be a few staples: scrambled eggs with leek, stir fried tofu strips, vermicelli, and bean sprouts. For meat, we had roasted duck, chicken, and a couple different types of ham. The traditional spread is tianmianjiang, simliar to the same sweet black bean sauce used in the noodles above. Raw strips of spring onion provide a crunch and spice note. Delicious!
I’m not sure if there’s a better translation for this, because this is certainly not the fluffy buttermilk pancakes or the thin crepe-y pancakes you’re used to.
Chinese pancakes are made of rolled dough and pan fried in oil until just slightly crisped on the surface. Green onion pancakes are a popular breakfast choice and are one of my favorites, but I can never pass up its heartier cousin, the meat pancakes!
These meat pancakes actually take some skill to make as minced pork is sandwiched in between multiple layers of dough. It’s important to roll out each layer paper thin so the entire pancake is still soft and not too doughy. If you look closely and try to count the layers, there are an impressive 8 of them here! This is one of my grandma’s specialty dishes!
Again, as true Beijingers, we eat these pancakes dipped in black vinegar with raw minced garlic (and whole cloves on the side if you need more). Sensing a theme here?
You didn’t think I would leave dumplings off this list, did you? Zhajiangmian may be my favorite dish in the world, but dumplings are the one thing I could probably eat every single day for the rest of my life.
Traditionally, a family sends someone off on a journey with dumplings, so at the very end of our stay in Beijing, my grandma hosted our send-off meal with a large dumpling feast.
As per my request, she made dill and pork dumplings, my favorite filling combination ever. I don’t think dumplings need any more elaboration!
To accompany the dumplings, she made a few traditional Chinese home dishes: bittermelon with duck, tomato with egg, ginger battered fish, and sour cucumbers. The idea was that each dish would hit one flavor note: bitter, sweet, spicy, and sour.
It was the perfect way to end our time in Beijing, a home cooked meal of all my favorite dishes.
Eating at Grandma’s is like dining at the world’s coziest restaurant. I was so happy to be able to bring D there and have him eat the exact same dishes I grew up eating. There is perhaps no better intimacy than to show someone a slice of your childhood, and to share it with D, it truly made this trip special beyond words.
I hope you enjoyed this little peak into the dishes of my childhood. And now, tell me, what are you favorite childhood dishes?
This post is linked up to my friend Upasna’s blog-along. This month’s theme: Comfort Foods! If you’d like to join in on the blog-along, the theme is announced on the first Sunday of each month!