With a recent home-cooked fiasco in mind, here is a selection of Chinese favorites enjoyed together by families across the country during Spring Festival that absolutely won’t ruin any relationships.
50-year-old Auntie Zhao immigrated to Beijing from Shaanxi with her family. These days, she has her hands full feeding her son, his wife and their grandchild.
Auntie Zhao’s specialty dish is called “hui guo rou,” or “twice-cooked pork” (回锅肉). When we first moved to Beijing, our living conditions were pretty awful, and so we could only afford to eat this dish during the Spring Festival. It was my favorite dish when I was a child, as well the favorite dish of my son and grandson. Whenever my mother made the dish, all of the neighbors would gather to have a taste.”
60-year-old Auntie Zhang is a native of Beijing, and although retired, must feed four mouths in her household. Everyday, Mrs. Zhang must get up at the crack of dawn to prepare meals for her son and his wife, who spend the day working. Sometimes she even stays up to provide late night snacks to her son when he works overtime.
Auntie Zhang’s specialty dish is green peppers with shredded potatoes (青椒土豆丝), red braised pork (红烧肉) and spring pancakes (春餅). “One time, we were out of food and only had leftovers,” Zhang explains. “I took some green peppers and potatoes, then stir-fried them together. Who knew such a simple dish would be such a great hit? ”
Master Li is 56 years old, and lives together with three other family members. Normally, meals are prepared by each family member for themselves, leaving only dinner and weekend meals to be prepared by Master Li and shared with the whole family.
Master Li’s specialty dish is red braised spare ribs (红烧排骨) and an onion-tomato mix accompanying a piece of tenderloin (洋葱西红柿配牛腩). “I have always loved eating delicious foods and so I began cooking at a very young age,” said Li. “When I was 20, I was already doing stir-fry, and could cook up a good set of spare ribs, too. I became even more motivated to cook after I married. Who says a man’s place isn’t in the kitchen? After I married, I loved to be the one in the kitchen cooking delicious food to give to family and friends.”
Auntie Zhang (of no relation to the previous one) has a daughter in school to care for. With so much time spent cooking meals for other family members, she often does not have time to eat her own lunch until after the rest of the family has left for work.
Zhang’s specialty dish is red braised pork (红烧肉), fried “nian gao” (年糕) and salads. “I started cooking in 1998, back when I first had a child. Back then I could feed him anything I wanted to, but now he is a little bit more demanding, so I have had to expand my repertoire by leaning recipes I’ve found on the internet or seen on TV. Although it is hard work, I have come to enjoy it, and it has become a welcomed part of my daily routine.”
Master Zhang (again, no relation) must care for a family of three, and because his family is often busy at work, he does not have much time to cook or eat meals with them. Only during weekends does his family have an opportunity to eat together. Zhang’s family also keeps its own tradition, setting aside a day every month to eat noodles covered in soybean paste.
Master Zhang’s dish of choice is the aforementioned noodles with soybean paste (炸酱面). “I grew up at a military base, and I would often run to a nearby hutong (胡同) to play, where I would smell the fragrance of zha jiang mian. Making zha jiang mian isn’t easy. You have to find the right balance in heat, choose the right ingredients, and only then will you be able to produce a dish that is both aesthetically pleasing and delicious.”
Auntie Li, who is 55 this year, has her hands full taking care of a household of four. Everyday she works to prepare breakfast and dinner, and on top of that she also has a grandchild to take care of. Often Li does not even touch her first meal until 2pm.
Li’s specialty dish is a tomato and tofu stew (西红柿炖豆腐) with a rice dish called “bao zi fan” (煲仔饭). “I’m a full-time mother, so cooking has probably become one of the most important aspects of my life,” said Li. “Although I am a northerner, I live for southern cuisine. I once traveled to Guangzhou for vacation, and tasted for the first time a bowl of “bao zi fan.” I realized immediately that not only was it delicious, but that it was easy enough for me to replicate. After I came back to Beijing, I taught myself the recipe, and it has only gotten better and better since.”
47-year-old Auntie Zhang cares for a family of three and has a son working in finance who works from 9-to-5 every week. He is often so busy that he has little time to finish breakfast before he must leave for work. Auntie Zhang herself has yet to retire, but still everyday she comes home and goes straight to preparing dinner for the family. It is only on weekends that she has a chance to prepare a delicious and hearty meal that the family can enjoy together.
Zhang’s specialty dish is the classic red braised pork (红烧肉), along with Chinese meat pies (餡餅), braised prawns (红焖大虾) and cucumbers with fired octopus (黄瓜炒鱿鱼). “I always feel like the food at restaurants is not the cleanest, so I insist on making my own food whenever possible. So long as I can provide health and delicious meals to my family, I am content.”
Mrs. Guo is retired, but still carries the responsibility of caring for a household of three. For Mrs. Guo, her greatest interest is in cooking food not just for her family, but also for her friends.
Guo’s favorites dish to make is beef curry (咖里牛肉). “Ever since I was little, I loved eating my father’s home-cooked curry, so after I had my own family I worked to recreate the dish I have cherished in my own memories for all these years. This memory has since become a hit with my own family.”
By Stanley Yu
[Images via Sina]