This fall, a book called the "Asian Grandmothers Cookbook" was released. I love the idea of this cookbook. Most people I know (and even ones I don't) admire, appreciate or yearn for the cooking of their grandmothers. Grandmothers seem to be synonymous with good cooking. Maybe it was because many of them came from a time, place or culture where cooking was a necessity to survive, when there were fewer other distractions, where it was just a natural part of life.
I am somewhat ashamed to say I never really learned to cook those things my grandmother made so often and that became some of my favorite foods. There are so many — Chinese spareribs, sticky rice, congee (jook), zung (triangle-shaped sticky rice) and dumplings (ha gow). She made great chow fun. But when she'd bring the fresh snowy white noodles home from the market, sometimes she would drizzle maple syrup on some of the cold, plain noodles and eat them simply like that. And she made me — the only other one in my family — a convert for this curious combination.
It was partly for lack of discipline that I never picked up her cooking techniques. But also partly because I was more focused on enjoying that time with her and talking to her than on committing the cooking steps to memory. She tried to coach me, but I lacked the ability to learn by osmosis. Only with steady practice and constant observation would I have had a chance at becoming even half as good a cook as she was. Given that my days were often too full of other distractions, nothing likely would've gotten me up to par.
My grandmother wasn't the type to shoo me out of the kitchen. If I came and wanted to help, she'd usually find something for me to do. She showed me how to de-vein raw shrimp — using her fingernail to pry open the backside and gently pulling the vein out. If I was just passing through the kitchen and took a peek, she'd let me taste the filling for her dumplings and ask me if it needed more salt. Or she would spoon out meat falling off the bones from the soup boiling on the stove. When it came time to make dumplings, I loved to help her flatten out the rounds of dough with what I only later found out was a tortilla press. To me, it had always been a "ha gow" maker. As a small child, when I tired of that, she'd hand over a ball of dough for me to play with — homemade playdough. She tried to show me how to fold the dumplings closed but my clumsy fingers couldn't reproduce anything nearly as pretty as her tireless, nimble ones could. We would freeze them and enjoy the dumplings for months on end.
My grandmother, probably like many, didn't follow recipes; she just always knew the right amount of everything to put in. But I do wish I had a collection of how-to's from my grandmother so that I could continue to have all of the foods of hers that I loved so much. But, without actual recipes, I don't think there could have been a good enough one. And in its own way, there's comfort in that — I can keep myself from ruining those dishes by making what would surely only be bad imitations!