Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother. Like a lot of other first-generation Chinese Americans, I was largely raised by my grandparents as my parents worked long hours at the jobs they had traveled so far and worked so hard to obtain.
My grandmother was a small, but formidable figure with an iron will cast from hard circumstances. I called her nai-nai, the Mandarin term for a paternal grandmother. She often recounted stories of being educated by the Japanese in war-affected China, being sent to collect debts at a young age, and surviving seasons of poverty during intense military/political turmoil.
A main focus in her life was to educate her three sons and provide them with a better economic future, and in this point she succeeded greatly. When I was born, she immigrated from Taiwan to California to help my parents take care of me so they could focus on their careers.
She was undeterred in the things she wanted to do. Without a driver’s license or command of the English language, she figured out where to take English classes and took the bus there. Eventually she had a group of friends, mostly other Chinese grandmothers who had immigrated to help with their grandkids.
Nai-nai could be sharp-tongued and stern, but she showed her love faithfully in the day-to-day labor of her hands. Everyday without fail, I could hear the mincing and hacking sounds of her cleaver against the well-worn cutting board. I could hear clinking sounds of chopsticks mixing ingredients in little bowls and the sizzle of hot oil as the moisture of freshly smashed garlic hit the pan.
Dinnertime meant heaping a bowl full of steaming rice from the rice cooker and sitting down at the table laden with at least 3-4 different dishes. We always ate family style. There were garlicky sauteed snow-pea shoots, braised pork with woodear mushrooms and bamboo shoots, scrambled eggs with tomato, cold tofu with thousand-year-old-egg sprinkled with cilantro and oyster sauce, and whole fish smothered in scallions and (more) garlic.
We always had soup at the end of the meal, usually what Nai-nai called the “Big-Bone Soup.” Big-Bone Soup consisted of soup bones with a thin layer of meat simmered for hours and hours with daikon radish, shitaake mushrooms, and sometimes dates or goji berries (pre trendy superfood status) before being garnished at the end with copious amounts of cilantro. The broth was extremely nutritious and flavorful, and I loved slurping the marrow out of the bones at the end.
Some days, I would come home from school and Nai-nai would be at the dining room table busily wrapping seasoned pork filling with homemade dough to make jiao-xi, or Chinese dumplings. She would save and clean stacks of rectangular styrofoam platters from the grocery store so she could make a massive amount of the labor-intensive jiao-xi at once and freeze them for later. When she was finished setting aside the dumplings for freezing, she would set a giant pot of water to boiling and cook several batches for dinner that night.
I always smacked my lips on these days in anticipation of eating a whole lot of these steaming-hot dumplings for dinner with plenty of dipping sauce – soy sauce, dark vinegar, and sesame oil made spicy with large chunks of garlic soaking in the midst of it all. It was delightful and to date one of my most comforting food memories.
Nai-nai passed away last April after battling Alzheimer’s for several years. The service was on Good Friday, and although her earthly body was being laid to rest I was consoled by the fact that her spirit is forever risen – her whole and redeemed body and mind basking in the light of Jesus for eternity.
Until we meet again, I will always remember the spunky version of my grandmother taking the bus to her English lessons, watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy in her recliner, and cooking up a delicious storm.
This coming Saturday is Chinese New Year – a huge time for feasting and celebration for Chinese people. It was also the time we celebrated Nai-nai’s birthday each year; since she went by the lunar calendar I never quite put my finger on the exact date of her birthday. I can’t think of a more fitting dish to ring in the Chinese New Year than with these toothsome, tasty, jiao-zi.
My first attempt was a success – my novice dumplings were not the prettiest to look at, but they were delicious – tender, flavorful, soupy in the middle. Nick and I devoured two whole batches without batting an eye.
I wish I possessed the hindsight to ask Nai-nai for her recipe, but luckily there is the internet and I found a blog with fantastic step-by-step directions for making jiao-xi very similar to my grandmother’s. The instructions for dough are in this post; for filling in this post. Although the author mentions various ways to cook the dumplings, Nai-nai always boiled hers and that’s how we cooked ours – you can experiment with different ways to cook them.
To make the dipping sauce I mentioned above, just combine soy sauce accented with rice vinegar or black vinegar (chinkiang) and sesame oil. Coarsely chop fresh garlic and toss it in; the longer it sits the sharper and spicier the flavor will be.
Happy New Year, friends – may the Year of the Rooster be full of blessing and fortune for you and yours.