Red braised pork, and bridging the generational gap.
Adapted from: hong shao rou, the classic Chinese recipe.
Being a Chinese immigrant, and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, occupies a considerable amount of real estate in my brain. The emotions that cohabit with this sense of identity aren’t clean or tidy, but the opposite: jagged forms on which other unrelated experiences seem to catch constantly. Often, I find myself wondering how others decorate their mental houses, what it’s like to not move through the world like this, and whether that feels empty or freeing. Knowing that there are no satisfactory answers has not stopped me from asking.
It’s all twisty because it feels like forever orbiting a sense of provenance without ever getting the chance to land. I am Chinese as a result of being born in China and having Chinese parents, but I am also not Chinese at all. I am Canadian but I’ll always be Chinese first, except in China. I am an outsider who has no other frame of reference. Even being told “go back to where you come from” sends me into an ontological spiral. Where would that be?
Family is supposed to a tethering concept, I think, but in my life (and the generation of immigrants who forged their identities on this continent) it is the framing through which my alienation becomes clear. It’s an emotional rift eroded by so many factors—differences in language, in culture, in values—that it’s become a canyon. (If you’re reading this right now, you know more about me, and what I value, than my parents do. That is just a reality I have to contend with.) At times, the chasm between us has felt like it defied the span of any reconciliatory bridge. But nevertheless, I try.
Food, you might have guessed, has been the way in.
A few years ago, my sister and I were home for the holidays and decided we were going to cook all of the celebratory meals. My parents are bad at receiving gifts, but they love acts of service. I’d bought a cookbook focused on recipes from the province of Hunan, where our family is from, and we cooked out of it the whole time. They loved it. It was the first time in a long time that I felt that sense of connection to them, a feeling of innate belonging. Something that we could point to and say, “We shared this.”
The punchline to all of this, of course, is that book is written by a white woman, an English writer and cook by the name of Fushia Dunlop who specializes in Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine. She is more Chinese than I ever will be, and I owe her for making these recipes—which are imbibed with sentimentality and childhood nostalgia—accessible to me. I have complicated feelings about all of this, too. There is a lesson in here somewhere, waiting to be excavated.
This Chinese New Year, I decided to cook these recipes again. In the wake of all of the incidents of violence against Asian elders, I feel the imperative to reconnect with my Chinese-ness, and rediscover what it feels like to be part of a culture and proud of it. So I picked the recipes that felt closest to home—hong shao rou, spicy vinegary eggplant, smacked cucumbers—and celebrated the only way I knew how. That night, over Zoom, I showed my parents what I’d cooked. It is, to this day, the only surefire way to solicit their pride.
Chairman Mao’s Red Braised Pork, from Fushia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province.
Mao Zedong was born in Hunan and red-braised pork was purportedly one of his favourite things to eat. As a result, it’s an iconic dish in Hunan, but you’ll find versions of this across mainland China. It is a simple preparation with exponential flavour reward, yielding a melt-in-your-mouth texture that my mom still dreams about. It involves caramelizing pork belly chunks in sugar (something it has in common with Jamaican oxtail!) and simmering it in a bath of spices (star anise, cassia/cinnamon, dried chiles) until the meat is fall-apart soft. Serve over simple white rice. Don’t expect leftovers.
What do you cook to feel closer to your parents? I would love to know.
Until next time, and a belated happy lunar new year to those who celebrate it,