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Tōngzhōu 通州, CHINA — I get off the subway at Li Yuan station in Tōngzhōu 通州, hungry.
Near the station, we enter the gate to a cluster of six-floor apartments. Someone is practicing the drums a few stories above and the neighborhood echoes my childhood when the boy across the street practiced on his set from his second story bedroom. There is no restaurant around so the scent in the air of something cooking reveals once again, signs of home.
I climb half a flight of stairs to the home of the Wang family. Wang Shifu opens the door and invites us into a large room with small tables and stools pushed against the side of one wall. Disney paper cutouts adorn the plastered walls and in one corner a television and framed family photos. The Wang family runs a daycare servicing more than 30 children whose parents pay 300RMB a month per child. With two parents working and unable to fix family lunches, the Wang’s are a home-cooked meal away from home.
In the kitchen, Wang Ayi has prepped a dōng guā (冬瓜, winter melon), peeled and hollowed. The top cut off and saved to use as a lid. Using ground pork, ginger, garlic, and salt she makes meatballs and places them inside the gourd. Replacing the top, she sets the melon right side up into a pressure cooker and steams it for 30 minutes while she prepares the other family favorites.
My eyes are drawn to a large apothecary jar filled with pickled garlic. I love pickled garlic.
She turns to the cutting board where she thinly slices pork kidney and soaks the pieces in cold water for 15 minutes. Using a mandolin, she julienne slices half a cucumber then chops a few cloves of garlic finely. After draining the kidney of the cold water, she transfers the pieces to a pot of water, adds salt and boils it for ten minutes, removes it from the heat and drains it again, rinsing under cold water. In a plate, she layers the kidney, julienne sliced cucumber, sprinkles garlic, then douses the trio with vinegar and touch of sesame oil.
She swiftly moves to her last dish, another unexpected family favorite, kǔguā (苦瓜, bitter melon). Thinly sliced then seeded, she blanches the crescent pieces then tosses them in a little chili oil with salt, sugar, and lastly sesame oil.
The winter melon is soft and placed carefully onto a dish. Wang Ayi slices the melon open in petal shapes and a few meatballs roll out. Watching each slice unfold beautifully, I feel like I’m a kid watching a magician except the magic trick is edible. I can’t wait to try this at home!
Lele, her nine year old daughter whose name means happiness, has returned home and shyly says hello in English she has been studying for the past two months. Tin bowls the daycare uses to feed the children are placed about the table and as we sit down to eat, I am curious if Lele will love the two dishes I could never claim as favorites when I was her age. I offer her the bitter melon and pork kidney first, gauging her reaction. She accepts and remarks she eats these dishes often.
The winter melon with meatballs and fried fish were as delicious as I had expected. The bitter melon, though bitter was complimented by the sweet sugar. Bitter melon, considered a medicine food, is very nutritious and filled with vitamin C thus more a favorite for mother’s to serve than for kids to eat. I surprised myself when I tried the pork kidney! As a child I gagged at the taste of giblets. This kidney cleaned very well and mostly flavored by its accompanying ingredients. Had I eaten this as a kid, I might not have minded it just like Lele.
After a fresh fruit finish of sweet and in season Apricots with chilled honeydew slices, the beast in my stomach was satiated. I’m curious to learn if some of today’s favorites might become yours so I’m posting those recipes here. I’m tempted to test the bitter melon on my husband and see if his taste buds still cry “Mercy!”