Reconsidering the recipe trope “Mom doesn’t measure”. – Advice Eating

It’s the third time my mom has overseen my attempt to replicate Grandma’s braised pork belly and lotus root.

First and second generation Immigrant Kids can probably guess what the initial process was like getting Mom’s recipe. At this point, it has become a trope, repeated in cookbooks written by chefs emulating family recipes. I’ve even mentioned it in articles I’ve written from time to time.

Mom doesn’t use measuring cups or spoons. And if she does, the spoon she uses to measure is the same one I use to eat ice cream. Larger things are measured in handfuls or that one metal bowl. Nothing is timed. Their philosophy: You know when it’s ready when you taste it.

It’s a frustrating time.

I’m frustrated by the lack of simple steps. She is frustrated because asking how many tablespoons she used would be tantamount to asking her to break down the molecular structure of soy sauce.

Somehow we’ll get through.

When it comes to learning how my mom cooks, I’ve decided to ditch the notes. The only way to really understand her method is to just have her next to me and do it through repetition.

“Write as much as you need, but you have to watch what I do,” Mama said.

Grandma died almost 25 years ago and of course she never wrote down a recipe, including this dish with such a good fermented tofu sauce that when I was a kid I always cleaned up three bowls of rice.

The dish packs a punch: jiggly, skinned pork belly chunks that are cooked to the point that the meat tears off in fine, silky threads.

Tender chunks of lotus root that still retain a hint of watery crunch.

It all simmered for an hour in a sauce made from nam yue, a red fermented tofu stuffed with so much umami Parmesan tastes like rice cake.

It’s softened with small irregular clumps of dissolved rock candy (less sweet than the granulated kind) and added to a base of fried garlic and shallots (or onions this time, since the supermarket shallots didn’t meet the requirements).

It’s a Cantonese dish not often found in the city’s restaurants, but there’s a stir-fry version of it (#19) on the special lunch menu at Ming’s Noodle Cafe in Scarborough (3447 Kennedy Rd.).

When Mom first showed me how to make it, I made this big production by putting everything she had chopped up and poured into a bowl and then into a measuring cup or spoon. I wrote down the time it took to roast the pork belly as well as the flavors. It was like getting it published (not today, sorry readers).

Put down the spatula, chopsticks are the best tool, Mom says as she moves in with the wooden chopsticks that are my age.

I remember writing angrily to keep up with her, but when I wrote “Sauté” I missed that she uses wooden chopsticks instead of a spatula because it breaks up the clumps of tofu and rock candy better, in order to prepare the sauce.

The tan shade I wrote to look out for when roasting the pork belly skin was never the same in reality.

I ended up asking my mom what she meant when I wrote “add more broth” in one of the steps.

“I thought that should simplify the process,” she said. “Just watch what I do next time.”

Since then, I’ve learned that even the most detailed notes cannot replace the tastes, smells, sights, feelings, and even the sounds of the process that are recorded every time Mom watches the cooking.

The price of lotus root has gone up $2 a pound in the last two weeks, Mom says, so this will probably have to be a special occasion meal for the foreseeable future.

Listening to Mom suck her teeth or push me aside to take on the task I’m doing wrong is more effective than any recipe footnote.

Of course, written recipes are important when learning to cook. They’re also important for maintaining consistency in a restaurant or food company, and I don’t fucking dare bake anything just by looking at the quantities.

But when it comes to cooking like my mother and capturing the spirit of the dish, I’ve come to realize that I have to do it on her terms. More importantly, I need to get over the idea that the recipe not up to the standards I’m used to, but it isn’t. For one thing, in Grandma’s day, ingredients were measured in taels and catties, not ounces and milligrams.

If Mom uses the ice cream scoop to measure, I’ll do the same.

"How much broth and sugar do you need" says mom while pouring chicken broth from an already opened tetra pack from the fridge.  I'm pretty sure it's about a cup and a half.

There is still a method and technique that has been perfected over time and yes, using a rice bowl to measure chicken broth is still measuring. It’s just not like I’ve been conditioned to believe it’s the right and only way, and cooking with her has upset me.

Being able to reproduce the flavors is one way to ensure my family’s cuisine lives on for another generation, but I realized that replicating the quirks and nuances of the process is also part of it.

Sure, standardizing her recipes to a modern format is useful (for whom I have no idea because I don’t write a cookbook), but if I replace her rice bowls with measuring cups and her chopsticks with a spatula, I lose part of her in the process.

I’m already learning how to choose the ideal lotus root (heavy for its size and free of blemishes or black spots) and the brand of red fermented tofu paste mom prefers (the Double Happiness brand, which comes in a brown clay jar).

I might as well respect the whole process and do everything the way she does, rather than trying to impose methods and measurements that didn’t exist for her to begin with.

“And then you blame me if it doesn’t taste good because you screwed up the conversion,” Mom said, laughing.

Not every cherished recipe has to be written down so that it lives on. It pays for me to spend time in the kitchen with Mom, joking and all, until I get the dish right. Though my memory doesn’t last as long as a notebook, the time I spent with her in the kitchen made the food taste better than any recipe I could have ever written down.


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