This is the last part of the “stories” series. Of course, we are not over the topic of emotion and tradition. We will be talking about why we form these emotional connections from psychological and biological perspectives later.
Chinese Bolognese? Fried Sauce Noodles? Exploding Sauce Noodles (Zha Jiang Mian 炸醬麵): After not seeing my sister for half a year, I could not wait to pick her up from the Boston airport and serve her these homey noodles for dinner. Such a simple dish has so much meaning to me. The history of this dish, my personal memories and the ethnic connotations of the dish intertwine to create a space that places my family within the greater Taiwanese community and within Chinese history.
Before delving into the stories, what is in the “exploding” sauce? Dried tofu which is actually not dried but has had a lot of water pressed out of it, so it has a dense, chewy texture. Minced pork, every Chinese’s favorite type of meat, provides the fattiness. Sweet flour sauce (Tian Mian Jiang 甜麵醬), a thick black syrupy sauce commonly used in its uncooked form as a dressing for Peking Duck. It is made out of flour, salt and sugar. The more you cook it, the sweeter it becomes. Soy Bean Paste (豆瓣醬), an extremely salty, umami paste made from fermented soybeans. Unlike Miso, which is a paste made from both rice and soy, this Chinese version of Miso is more aggressive and does not offer much sweetness. Before all these ingredients are stir fried together, the sauce starts off with a sofrito of minced garlic and onions just like any bolognese sauce (If you’re thinking what I am thinking, you’re probably right: Once again, Marco Polo stole a few ideas here and there).
Outsiders and Insiders
Many cultures have ways of creating invisible lines between the outsiders and the insiders, the foreigners and the natives. Food is one way in which it happens, creating that line which still marks my parents as foreigners in Taiwan but my sister and I as fully-integrated individuals. Ethnic dishes have their quirky traditions that are only known to insiders. For example, Spaniards never eat Paella in the evening. Likewise, Zha Jiang Mian is a pretentious work of art that asks for strict adherence to its cultural oddities.
1) At the very end, the sauce is NEVER stir fried with the noodles. It is ladled on top of a bowl of piping hot high-gluten noodles that have a super chewy texture. Dressing the noodles any other way is sacrilegious.
2) You must pronounce the name of this dish correctly to be eligible to eat it. Knowing proper Mandarin does not help. The first character 炸 zha is always pronounced with the 4th tone … unless you’re eating this dish. Then the character is pronounced with the 2nd tone. My Malaysian Chinese parents continue to bastardize the pronunciation of zha jiang mian and forever they remain foreigners in Taiwan.
When my father was on his long business trips, my mom in Taiwan would not know where to take us for food if she did not cook. She was not the type to be adventurous, especially with two unruly children in a foreign land. My sister and I were so excited when one day we took a ten minute walk to a little dumpling store called 周胖子or Mr. Fatty Chou. Today, Taipei is littered with Mr. Fatty Chou stores. Their dumplings are fatty, as promised, bursting at the seams with juicy pork filling. Dumpling stores have a vibe similar to your local taqueria or deli: approachable, friendly and inexpensive.
My mother did not know what to order. Water-boiled dumplings 水餃 do not exist in Malaysia or in Southern Chinese Cantonese cooking. Wheat based food was anathema to my mother’s tropical diet which was full of rice and strong spices. She ordered what the next table had. Little did she know a little less than two decades later, I was doing the same thing but at an American deli in Princeton.
That day was one of the happiest days of my life, because the three of us shared umami filled dumplings and a big, hearty bowl of zha jiang mian with its soothing but foreign northern Chinese flavors: sweet and never tangy, salty and never spicy, thick and never light.
It didn’t matter that we were the only foreigners in the room, my mom was so proud of herself for taking her babies out that all her happiness spilled into the whole meal. Baby steps.
I have never had zha jiang mian from my mother’s kitchen in my life, but to me, zha jiang mian is homecooking. Sometimes, a food tradition adopts you. It shapes the memories you have with your family, regardless of where that food is prepared.
I always prefer my zha jiang noodles with contrasting strips of fresh cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts. My sister prefers minimalist flavor profiles, meat sauce and noodles, just like how she can stand John Mayer’s simple stylings while I chase down the next jazz piano virtuoso.
When my sister and I sat down for bowls of Zha Jiang Mian in my Cambridge apartment after her flight, I started to laugh. I remembered how I used to make chewing motions with my hands to remind my baby sister to move her jaws so she would not forget to chew her zha jiang mian.