My brother was the one who brought up the topic of genetics. He had sent a vial of saliva to get his DNA analyzed, which seemed to me a high-tech form of divination, revealing secrets from the past—maybe your ancestors aren’t who you think they are—and predicting the future (high blood pressure, diabetes, and a higher than average chance of cancer loom on the horizon). My brother’s results revealed that he had Okinawan markers on his maternal side. Which implied that I did, too. Mother’s family folklore never mentioned anything about Okinawans; I wondered if those Japanese islanders are genetically similar to the indigenous tribes who inhabited Taiwan before our Chinese ancestors crossed the straits from the Fujian province hundreds of years ago. There is an old saying in Taiwan: We have Chinese grandfathers, but no Chinese grandmothers. It’s a coy way of saying that the earliest Fujianese settlers were all men; to perpetuate their lineage, they fathered children with native women.
When it comes to genetics, I have been curious about is whether our taste buds are shaped by nature or nurture. The craving for familiar flavors has always been especially strong on my mother’s side of the family. I remember a particular car ride when I was about ten years old. My maternal grandparents had flown from Taipei to visit us in San Jose. We were driving around, trying to decide on a restaurant. My brother, my mom, my grandmother and I were squashed in the backseat of our Volvo.
“Zhong guo cai!” Wah Gong ordered from the front seat. Chinese food, it was. (In my mother’s family, the definitions of Chinese and Taiwanese were fluid, sometimes interchangeable.) Wah Ma, girlish even as a senior citizen, scrunched up her nose and stuck out her tongue at him from the backseat.
Long before the word ‘umami’ was introduced into the American lexicon, I recognized a certain earthy, complicated aroma to my mother’s cooking. Even when it was not expressly therapeutic, the line between food and medicine was blurred. Perhaps it came from those dried things – little silvery anchovies, goji berries shriveled like red raisins, desiccated twigs and such – stored in old mayonnaise and jelly jars in our pantry. Or maybe it was distilled out of the bones and tendons that filled the pots on my mother’s stove; no boneless cuts of meat, but gristly pig’s feet, inch-long pork ribs, or a whole Cornish hen. The broth was studded with the fanciful shapes of star anise and dotted with droplets of oil. The pots were too big to fit in the refrigerator, so they cooled on the stovetop overnight. In the morning, the liquid was congealed into a layer of opaque fat covering shiny gelled stock.
I was a little embarrassed by these strange smells and their witchy suggestions. Even as a teen in the late 1980s, I knew that storing vats of animal parts at room temperature wasn’t up to current health standards. But this was commonplace in Taiwanese American kitchens. In high school, I dated a boy from the Taiwanese youth group. He called home from my house one afternoon. With a flair for drama, he re-enacted the conversation with his mother:
“What’s for dinner?”
“And what else?”
His mother also kept a pot on the stove. Filled with brown liquid and redolent of soy sauce and five spice, she lowered cuts of beef into the sauce, where it would simmer all day. “But she never throws out the liquid!” he shuddered. No one ever told me why this was done, so I assumed it was out of frugality or just laziness. Later I read in a Chinese cookbook that the technique was called ‘master sauce’. Like sourdough starter, some (or all) of the old liquid is used every time meat is braised. The stock continues to gather flavor from the various bones and spices melting into it. An especially assiduous cook might strain the braising liquid through cheesecloth before storing it for the next time. Of course, the mixture is boiled each time, killing off any bacteria that might be lurking in the primordial ooze.
In this way, every pot of braised meat inherits the flavors of the pot before it. A slice of red-cooked beef might taste like one that was simmered last week, or last year. This master sauce could be perpetuated for generations—an irreplaceable family recipe. The DNA of meals past would be infused into each meal. You could literally eat what your grandmother ate.
Genetics is fascinating to me. Every culture seems to have the concepts of blessings and curses. Or as science might explain it, a sequence of amino acids that perpetuate characteristics from one generation to the next. Things un-seeable by the naked eye dictate the planes of our faces, the color of our skin, our propensity for certain diseases, and maybe even our personalities. Try as we might, sometimes we cannot change the path our genes have mapped for us.
When my younger son started kindergarten, I met the mother of a little girl named Hannah, who was mixed-race, Japanese and white. The mother, Satoko, told me she was actually Okinawan, from an island on the southern end of an archipelego south of Honshu, the main island of Japan. My ears vibrated upon hearing this tidbit. Okinawans are genetically slightly different from other Japanese. The island is twice as close to the northern tip of Taiwan as it is to Honshu. Satoko’s heart-shaped face and wide eyes would not have been out of place among my aunties.
Satoko homed in on me as we waited in the kindergarten yard to pick up our children. The tsunami had just destroyed parts of Japan. She hadn’t been able to get in touch with her relatives yet. “I would like to teach the kids how to make paper cranes,” she told me.
“What a great idea,” I smiled.
“Oh good! Then you can do the talking, since my accent is so heavy.”
That was how we ended up sitting at my kitchen table, sorting piles of colorful printed paper. We quickly moved past small talk, and Satoko began telling me her life story. In her twenties, she left her island to start a new life in America. “What I miss the most is Okinawan pork,” she reminisced, describing the process of cooking it. “You take a chunk of pork belly, stew it for a long time with soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar and ginger, until it’s tender and falls apart.”
“Oh, that sounds like a Taiwanese way of preparing pork! I could help you make it.”
“Actually, I physically can’t eat it,” she explained. “My gall bladder doesn’t work right. I can’t digest fat. It will make me really sick.”
The stories she told didn’t match her voice, which was high and excruciatingly polite. I already knew Satoko had worked an as accountant, but I learned that she was also a pilot. Before staying home to raise her daughter, she taught flight school at the local state college. She was married to a retired professor of music.
“Did you meet on campus?” I asked.
“Oh no, at a gig he was playing,” she winked.
Then the conversation took a turn that seemed too personal. “I’m leaving my husband,” she whispered.
“Really?” I exclaimed, incredulous. “But the three of you walk to school each morning. You look so happy.”
“There’s no spark left. We’re like roommates. I want to find a man I’m passionate about.” Seeing my stunned silence, Satoko added, “I’m 47. My mother died when she was my age, but I’m starting over!
Sometimes, I look at my own mother and wonder what I inherited from her. We are a similar size and shape, with long torsos and short legs. But I am dusky and muscular, while she is pale and soft. She loves sequins and conspicuous logos, and I gravitate towards deep colors and simple designs. I’m all about reading books and doing research for the simplest tasks, while she relies on common sense and lived experience. We may never see eye to eye. I blame my father.
“Grace looks just like her dad!” My mother-in-law whispered loudly from the other end of the table during our engagement dinner. Steve’s relatives nodded in agreement. It was no secret. I had heard this all my life. Sometimes in unkind ways.
“Too bad she doesn’t look like her mother,” some aunties tittered at a Taiwanese party. I can no longer remember where this gathering took place, or who was there. But those words still sting like a fresh paper cut.
It was my father who invited me to Taiwan for the first time as an adult. I hadn’t been to the island since I was a six years old. “Plane tickets are really cheap!” He gushed. Most people didn’t want to fly that fall. Just weeks earlier, hijacked jumbo jets crashed into the twin towers. America was still on edge. “There’s extra security everywhere,” my dad reassured us. “It’s never been safer.” My memories of the honking streets, the wet markets, and the humid countryside were fading like old snapshots. Li Gong, my father’s father, was in declining health. Steve and I both had paid vacation time and disposable income. We were hoping to start a family soon. This might be our last chance to travel internationally for a while.
We arrived in a city that bore only faint resemblance to the Taipei captured in the yellowing Kodachrome of our photo albums. Mother had instructed me to bring gifts for the relatives. “Candy or cosmetics,” she said. “They’ll be excited by anything from America.” The arrival of overseas relatives was Christmas morning for Taiwanese. When I was six, my mother and I went to Kmart to load up on Clairol hair dye, Revlon lipstick, and One A Day vitamins. My aunts squealed when we opened our light blue Samsonite, elbowing each other to get the best picks.
This time, my roll-along bag was laden with bags of mini Butterfingers and Clinique gift sets. Uncle Jeff, one of my dad’s younger brothers, picked us up in a Honda. He was the family’s sole driver, shuttling my relatives around so they were no longer reliant on reckless cab drivers and crowded buses.
The skyscrapers of Taipei loomed ahead of us as we pushed past the suburbs and into the city’s heart. My grandparents’ neighborhood had grown denser and shinier. Department stores and espresso bars had sprung up on Zhong Xiao East Road. Out of the car window, I spied the familiar signs of Starbucks, See’s Candies, and MAC cosmetics. My presents seemed mingy compared to the retailers all around us.
Even though we were in Taiwan with my father, and even though my parents had been divorced for nearly a decade, he was obliged to take us to visit Mother’s relatives. Wah Ma lived in an apartment in the outskirts of the city. One of my aunts—the wife of my mom’s brother—came to meet us in the lobby. My grandmother and my mother’s sister greeted us at the door. Wah Ma looked the same as she did over five years ago, when she last visited California. Her hair was still thick and overwhelmingly black, still styled in a round perm. Next to her was a version of my mother, with the same doe eyes and pointy chin, the familiar oval face compressed into a heart and framed by a short haircut. And yet, my aunt shrieked as she saw me, “Ta gen san jie yi mo yi yang!” She looks exactly like third sister!
This was new. I was used to people pointing out my resemblance to my father, not my mother. Maybe the hard edges of my features were wearing away, revealing that I might be more like my mother than I thought. Her family had a different ethos than my father’s side. The Hwang clan was solid in shape and identity. Their conversations revolved around facts and figures. During our car ride from the airport, Uncle Jeff told us which groceries were cheaper at Carrefour and which were a better deal at Costco. He sounded like my father, and his father before him.
The Chen side was more personal. They zeroed in on each other’s idiosyncrasies and ribbed each other mercilessly. While my father has five brothers and one sister, my mother has a mixed bunch of brothers and sisters. Emotions surface more easily. Only the women were present this day. Wah Ma surprised me with a fleshy embrace and clung to my hand. So this was what it felt like to be part of a sisterhood.
We sat on couches around a low table. My uncle’s wife brought out some plates of sliced fruit—guavas with pebbly white flesh and crispy wax apples—with the invitation, “Please, have some!”
I used a toothpick to skewer a slice of guava. The elder ladies watched me as I took a bite.
“Do you like it?” My aunt asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Ho chiah.” It tastes good.
“She likes it!” Wah Ma exclaimed.
“How about this one?” The other aunt offered.
I stabbed a slice of wax apple, as well. My grandmother and my aunts scanned my face. They were mah jong players, and I was terrified of them calling my bluff. “Ho chiah!” I exclaimed, with a little extra gusto. “I like them all.”
My aunt clutched my grandmother’s hand. “Ai yo! She likes to eat. What if she gets fat?”
Where did I go wrong? I thought I was supposed to compliment the food. But with my limited vocabulary, my words probably came out sounding something like “Me like food.” I was a human version of Cookie Monster shoveling sliced fruit into my mouth. Was this what it’s like to belong to a tribe of women? They show their love by feeding me, but they’ll also show their love by keeping me in line.
“She’s like number three sister, she won’t get fat.” Wah Ma reassured her. My aunt breathed a sigh of relief.
Back at the elementary school, my younger son finished kindergarten. Satoko got her divorce and found a full-time job as an accountant. We hardly saw each other anymore. At a PTA fundraiser, she introduced me to her “running partner”, a Japanese man with sculptural cheekbones. The fall of my son’s fourth grade year, I heard a sing-song voice calling my name at a school festival. I turned around to see a heart-shaped face and wide-set eyes.
“We got married!” Satoko cooed, showing off the diamond ring on her finger. Her running partner was now her husband.
“I’m so happy for you! Did you go on a honeymoon?”
“We’re going to France over Christmas break. It’ll be a both honeymoon and my fiftieth birthday celebration.”
I saw her again in early December, at her birthday party. Steve and I could only stay for one drink, because we had other events to go to. “See you next year!” I told her, with a quick hug.
One day between Christmas and New Year, I opened my laptop to check email. I found a message from Satoko’s ex-husband. The missive was long and bizarre, something about a flight from Paris, headaches, plane diverted to Greenland. By the time they arrived the hospital, Satoko was gone. Aneurysm. But one detail haunted me. Satoko’s ex drove her and her new husband to the airport. As they talked toward the terminal, Satoko ran back and gave Hannah one last hug. It was as if she knew she wasn’t coming back, the email read.
Did Satoko’s DNA predetermine her to die at a relatively young age, like her mother? At some level, she must have suspected it, living her middle age with urgency. Meanwhile, I chugged along, scattering my time and energy in different directions. What would my kids remember about me? Probably a harried woman in yoga pants, always checking emails.
I started cooking Taiwanese food more often. Braising meat in master sauce seemed like an easy way to start. My mother often cooked this way, but in a roundabout manner. Wanting us to have “American” dinners, she made pot roast about once a week. Tough and gray with a thin sauce, pot roast was my least favorite meal, something to be chewed and chewed and chewed, and finally choked down. The next day, my mother would have to fashion another dinner out of the (ample) leftovers. She doctored the stew with soy sauce, ginger, some chunks of rock sugar, and a scattering of star anise. The mixture would simmer on the stove, until the meat took on a mahogany shade and spices mellowed out the beefy taste. The roast could be sliced and served over noodles and blanched spinach, and the cooking liquid would be ladled over it all, creating the noodle soup, niu rou mien. Slices could be tucked into pillowy white mantou, or simply served cold like the first course of a Chinese banquet. Even when my mother tried new recipes, she fell back on familiar flavors.
Now that I was a mom, I often made dinner in the slow cooker—which simmered tough cuts all day until the connective tissue melted away and the meat could be shredded with a fork. Master sauce of shoyu, mi jiu, sugar and garlic flavored everything. Not content to do things the easy way, I took all five of the traditional aromatics—whole star anise, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, cloves with their stems still on, and Sichuan peppercorns—and tied them in a scrap of cheesecloth to flavor the liquid. In it went briskets, shanks, or cubes of stew meat. Chicken legs, pork shoulder, or pressed tofu could be cooked this way, too. The kids seem to tolerate this project of mine.
“What’s in the slow cooker?” My son asks.
“Soy sauce chicken.”
They eat the dinner without complaint, but without any particular excitement, either. I strain the cooking liquid and save it in an unmarked glass jar in my refrigerator. It looks like a science experiment. In some ways, it is.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a journalist and essayist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is writing a memoir about food as a means of communication in her immigrant family. Follow her work at gracehwanglynch.com.