Growing up, Chinese food was something my family ate not infrequently, as even the pickiest of my siblings could agree to it. That said it wasn’t something we attempted to make ourselves (outside of the occasional bottled-sauce-stir-fry). At around the age of nine, I came across an article about the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) in one of my parents’ cooking magazines, and suggested that we recreate some of the dishes to mark the occasion. My parents obliged, so my dad and I set across town to visit a Chinese grocery store, where we would attempt to find several of the ingredients mentioned in the article.
Shopping in an ethnic store can feel not only intimidating, but also totally overwhelming. In my experience, these feelings tend to spring forth when our optimistic assumptions of being able to handle the task at hand are met with the spirit-dampening realization that we actually have no clue what we’re doing. For us, this happened when looking for the first item on our list: soy sauce. There we were thinking, “Soy sauce is soy sauce,” when in all actuality: 1) there are umpteen brands of the stuff; 2) every brand has multiple varieties – light, dark, mushroom-flavored, etc.; and 3) offerings hail from every corner of Asia – some with distinctive flavors/purposes. Nevertheless, we made our best guess, and forged ahead (to do the same with noodles, produce, and sweets).
Once at home, he and I sat in the kitchen preparing what we had collected on our adventure, haphazardly folding dumplings, and weighing how to satisfy everyone’s likes and dislikes. The meal – from my recollection – was nothing extraordinary, but the entire experience of creating it was. (Put simply, it was a shit show, but it was our shit show.) In fact, it remains one of my fondest memories of cooking with my dad. That being said, it convinced me that Chinese cuisine was a mystery best left to the local eat-in/take-out establishment.
(Fast-forward about ten years.)
My sophomore year of college was coming to a close, and I had no idea what I wanted in life. After considering a few options, I decided that one way to figure it out might be to adopt some new surroundings, and spend a year studying abroad. That’s how, in September of 2010, I found myself in Osnabrück – a medium-small city, located about 45 miles east of the Dutch border in the northwest corner of Germany.
Upon arrival, all international students were expected to visit the Ausländerbehörde (“foreigners’ registration office”) to receive their student visas. I liken this experience to that of visiting the DMV – you take a number, wait for what feels like an eternity in a sparsely-furnished room full of strangers until your number is called, and leave with the hope of never returning unless absolutely necessary. Halfway through my wait, a chair opened up next to the sizable delegation of Chinese students, and a few of us began to chat.
“Where are you from?”
“What do you study?”
“Do you know of any Chinese foods?”
“So what is your hometown’s most popular food? Burgers?”
At this point the conversation turned almost entirely to matters of food, and we sat there swapping descriptions of our native dishes until the wait was over. Little did I know that by the end of all this, I would make a new friend; one who would turn my culinary perspectives upside-down, and unlock the mysteries to a cuisine which had both excited and baffled me for so many years.
Li You was a spunky individual with a marked obsession for high-end fashion and leopard print. She hailed from Chongqing – the largest city in China, home to the famous Sichuan hot pot or huo guo – and had come to Germany to study the language, just as I had. Toward the end of our first encounter, we realized that we lived in the same dorm complex, so we exchanged numbers, and she graciously invited me to stop by for an authentic Chinese meal the following weekend.
On the day of our get-together, I made my way down to her building. Upon entering the kitchen I was greeted by strange new aromas, plates full of prepared ingredients, and an array of bottles arranged neatly by the stove. She gave me a quick run-down of what we’d be eating (all of which was unfamiliar to me), and – before I could inquire about any of it – began a fast-paced process of stir-frying ingredients in a searing hot pan, removing them, and then repeating with the next dish of perfectly sliced whatever-it-was. Almost at once the raw ingredients had been cooked and reorganized onto plates according to which dish they belonged to, and the smell of the kitchen had gone from strange to sultry; the scents of star anise, chilies, garlic, and ginger were intoxicating. At this point, I almost didn’t need to eat the food to know how I felt about it.
Twenty minutes later, I was seated at a table full of delicious foods, sampling all that she had made for me, and questioning everything. How could each food taste so distinctive, if they all contained virtually identical seasonings and sauces? How did she create such complex flavors in so little time? Why had I deprived myself of the opportunity to try again for so long? Thus began a year of near-constant culinary revelations.
Our friendship was cemented after that first afternoon, and for every meal she cooked thereafter, I was her sous chef. Chinese New Year, her first Hot Pot extravaganza, and lunch almost every Sunday afternoon – I was there for all of it, watching, tasting, and learning. Slowly, she shared with me the secrets to preparing authentic home-style Chinese food, such as: adding a pinch of sugar to dishes containing oyster sauce to balance out its assertiveness; using soy as you would any other seasoning, not as a salt substitute; boiling and draining meats before braising to ensure a clear broth. And over the course of our year together, the true beauty and simplicity of the Chinese kitchen were revealed; putting to rest the conclusions my nine-year-old self had come to so many years earlier.
Those who study foreign languages recognize dreaming in one’s second language as a breakthrough moment, signaling that your brain has adopted enough to utilize it in your subconscious. While I wasn’t dreaming about Chinese food, there came a time when I realized that folding dumplings had become as familiar to me as making my grandmother’s meatloaf recipe. If it weren’t for Li You, some of my happiest experiences may never have come to pass, I might not be who I am today, and I would definitely still fold crappy wontons (if I folded them at all).
I’d like to share with you one of the first recipes Li You taught me how to make: Hong Shao Niu Rou (红烧牛肉), also known as ‘Red-Cooked Beef’.