May 21, 2009

Taiwanese Brunch- A Mother's Legacy

It's been difficult observing Mom deteriorate due to her advanced cancer, but despite the somber undertones, we managed to make this year's Mother's Day a true celebration. Unlike previous years, filled with fancy bouquets and humorous cards, this time it was a celebration of Mom's life and history as a first generation Taiwanese-American woman, a celebration through food.
She immigrated here when she was 31 in 1970, bringing with her all the traditions and recipes from her homeland. My older brother, Patrick (his American name), was 3 when she brought them both over to the "Promise Land" to meet Dad, who had already been here alone for a year, due to the immigration laws of that time. They settled here in Davis, and never left the area.

Growing up, Mom made some incredible food- dishes from Taiwan, which of course, I didn't fully appreciate at the time. A lot of the dishes were adapted and simplified, due to the scarcity of certain herbs and spices, but they always reflected the simplicity and depth of flavor of Taiwan cuisine.

The flavors of Taiwan are mainly influenced by Chinese cuisine, and some Japanese and Cantonese as well. Some typical ingredients include, sesame oil, ginger, fermented bean paste, and five spice. There are also a lot of seafood dishes, as well as vegetarian foods (influence of the Taiwanese Buddhists). A lot of dishes are soups and stews, and there are many varieties of pickles eaten.

Although neither of my parents are vegan (like me), they have really taken to my vegan cooking this past year, since I've been making them dinners to help out. Also, they feel an urgency to do all they can to extend Mom's life, and the food I make definitely fits in with the doctor's recommendations for a low sodium, high fiber diet. They've also been reading up on nutrition and healing for cancer, and have reduced their meat intake considerably- although Mom has terrible cravings for In & Out Burgers from time to time! Yes, she's been Americanized!

For Mom's Day, my brother and I made some of her favorite dishes (he made the ones with meat).

"Ma Yu Gey" Drunken Chicken- simmered in a ginger, sesame oil, and Chinese wine broth. Is known for being medicinal and often eaten when people are sick.

Here's my version that I made later with similar seasonings... "Drunken Veggies" LOL!

"Lo Neng" Stewed Eggs- Hard boiled eggs are peeled and simmered in a seasoned soy sauce broth until their whites have been darkened and flavored by the broth. I think this could easily be done with tofu, but the broth should not be too salty!

"Yin Tsai" Chinese Spinach- Simply stir fried with garlic and brown beech mushrooms. This vegetable is also called Edible Amaranth, and has hollow stems.

"Goh Tieh" Potstickers- wouldn't be a celebration for Mom without these! Typically made with ground pork, she actually likes my version with tofu and chives from her garden. You can find my recipe from last year here.

I forget the name for pickles, because my parents call them "pickles." Here are three different kinds. Most common are vegetables pickled in soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and various seasonings. I added caraway seeds to mine.

"Dan Ta" Egg Custard Tarts- I made these vegan with a tofu-coconut filling. The crust is typically made with a puff pastry dough, and originated in Hong Kong. There are now a Portuguese version that's more like a creme brulee, a Chinese version that's more eggy, and these look more like the Taiwanese version with a thinner, less flakey crust. These were really good, and I will post this recipe soon!

I almost forgot the most important thing... RICE (here is my half-eaten bowl). When people in Taiwan say "How are you?" -its literal translation means, "Have you eaten your rice today?"

Mom doesn't cook much anymore, but gives good directions!

"Don't burn the chicken, Pat!" (Just kidding)

Dad's elementary school picture in Taiwan

During the meal, as we have done during many prior meals, we started talking about how things were in the "old country." Both my parents came from large, poor families, living in rural Taiwan during the tail end of World War II. Mom, being the oldest of 7 sisters and 1 brother, often took care of her younger siblings, making sure they had enough to eat and hand-made clothes to wear. Dad remembered going to school without shoes, and trekking across large hills to buy rice and carry it home- stories one would think were exaggerated to keep us kids humble, but were actually true!

Mom was a Dance and P.E. major in college

It's amazing to look at my parents' old photos.

As time seems to grow shorter and shorter, I am feeling more and more indebted to Mom for passing her rich memories and culinary knowledge to me. Little did she know that I would be so involved with food as an adult- a lot to do with her, and her passion for good food. She was never one to discourage little hands helping in the kitchen, and even unrelentingly imparted cooking tips, which of course, my brother and I resisted in our rebellious, ungrateful teenage years. And, as I reflect on the fact that we didn't always get along, I feel the desire to lift that weight and bring all the good times to the foreground... It makes me smile and long for Mom in the kitchen, making some good Taiwanese food.


  1. This seriously sounds like the best mother's day ever... What a wonderful, heart-warming post! I especially love all of the family photos. :)

  2. What a beautiful post. I can't wait to check out your vegan Taiwanese recipes! One question though, the recipe you have linked for pot stickers has seitan as a filling, not tofu. Do you just substitute tofu instead of seitan (gluten) in your tofu version? Sounds lovely.


  3. What a lovely, lovely post. Your family is so beautiful.

  4. Wow. What an amazing family. All the food looks delicious. Way better than in and out burgers I'm sure.

  5. @seamaiden: Yes, I often don't follow a recipe and fill it with various things. Instead of seitan, I used x-tra firm tofu (frozen, thawed, and drained), chives, carrots, ginger, nutritional yeast, white pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil, and a little corn starch to help bind (or nut butters like almond or cashew work well too). I always taste it before filling just to make sure!

    Thank you all for the nice words!!

  6. This post is just so amazing. Thank you for sharing your family and your traditions.

  7. it's so great that you are carrying on the culinary traditions of your family, but you are also making it your own. it sounds like all this food truly came from the heart!

  8. what a beautifully written post! the photo of your mom in a dance pose is stunning.

    and you're so right on - sometimes, it's nice to put aside any bad times and focus on those special memories... this makes me think about how important a role food plays in our histories and memories.

    sending happy, healthy thoughts to you and your mom... and i can't wait for the tart recipe!!

  9. This is a very touching post. Thanks for sharing something so personal. Your mom is a beautiful woman as well as you are for taking care of her the way you do. What a wonderful Mother's Day you had. The food you made looks wonderul. I've never heard of beech mushrooms but that looked like a great dish to make.

  10. What a beautiful tribute to your mother. Sending positive, calming vibes her way.

    I just gave your blog an award. Check it out here:

  11. Gorgeous looking food! I love the old photos!

  12. such an inspiring and meaningful post. she is gorgeous - i'm so happy you shared a glimpse into your life and their theirs.

    i'm sure it is a mother's day she will cherish.

  13. ...I'm humbled by this beautiful post! And all the kind words that you have chosen to share with my beautiful wife! It's funny (ironic) that when "Sin" and I first got together some people thought we weren't "right" for each other!? I'm very out going and she, although very nice...was "a little quiet!" Okay...I'm loud and she's quiet")...but she just had this energy about her. If you weren't looking you may not notice it but somehow I was blessed with the ability to see it. That was 16 years ago, folks! I'm very blessed to have had this person in my life. I love you Sweety! Mom is very proud of you!!!

  14. Aw, this is a very nice touching blog post. What a wonderful Mother's day that you had held :)

  15. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy reading your posts!