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Credit: Nan Cao
personal essay

My Mom and I Don’t Agree on Much, but We’ll Always Have Pepper Steak

updated Sep 4, 2020
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The combination of fermented black beans and garlic stung my nostrils as I dialed my mother’s number, conceding to an actual phone call rather than continuing to rapidly text her, the three dots taunting me with her impending (and very slow) reply. 

“Mom! How much cornstarch do I put on the steak before I toss it in the pan?” I asked, skipping the pleasantries. The correct balance of cornstarch with a hot pan popping oil next to me was more important than the hello or how are you. If only I could have extracted that information of her making it when I was a kid from my memory, but the smell of it wafting through our kitchen as my brother and I waited anxiously for it to be placed in front of us at the table was all I remembered. 

“Just enough to coat it,” she replied, with the same level of intensity and lack of cordiality that I had given her. “And you remembered to mash the beans, right? You do not want to bite into a whole one! I can still see the look on your face.” Her laughter instantly reminded me of the zing of saltiness that my 6-year-old palate wasn’t quite prepared for the first time I ever tasted her pepper steak, a recipe handed down to her from her own mother who had brought it with her when she arrived in this country from China as part of an arranged marriage with my grandfather. 

I giggled at the thought of my own grimace, then made up for my impoliteness by asking how she was holding up, her age and fragile health condition making her quarantine more dire than many — although since retiring from her work as a nurse, her life had basically resembled a stay-at-home order, barely leaving the house for anything but groceries and her daily walks. She couldn’t even visit with me and my kids, even though we live only an hour away.  

With years of strain on our relationship, stemming from disparate differences in beliefs about everything from religion to politics, we speak infrequently, and see each other even less frequently. We’ve moved away from arguing with each other, landing in an awkward place of distant birthday and holiday wishes with greeting cards and polite, impersonal text messages.

But with more time on my hands — the pressures of commuting to work and chauffeuring my four kids to their various activities every night and weekend lifted off my shoulders — I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen, doing something I’ve always meant to do: learn my mother’s Chinese family recipes. I’m not sure why it took a pandemic for me to finally attempt them, but when you’re not really talking to your mother, who is now the gatekeeper of the recipes that aren’t written down anywhere but in the corners of her mind, it’s not the easiest conversation to broach. 

The first message I sent was to ask for her shrimp and lobster sauce recipe, which I approached with trepidation, considering the last text to her was a Happy New Year wish three months prior. Much to my surprise, she replied with the full recipe, then called me to clarify a few items since the recipe lacked any actual measurements or heat requirements, as so many old family recipes that have been passed down often do. Her voice sounded different than it had in the past — excited and grateful — as if all along she had been hoping to find something, anything, that we could agree on. 

I called her from the Chinese grocer when I found fermented black beans in various forms — vacuum-sealed and jarred. “Jarred!” she exclaimed, with palpable glee. “I’ve never seen jarred before. That’s fantastic, honey … ” which they were, I told her knowingly, while cooking my second batch of the dish. She was pleased to know they didn’t need to be soaked. 

“And they keep much longer in the fridge!” I said happily. 

The sound of sending my photos of the pepper steak on my plate replaced the sound of it sizzling on my stove. With chopsticks in my one hand and my phone in the other, I waited anxiously for her reply, as I tasted some of the fondest parts of my childhood, my eyes widening watching the three dots bounce on my screen. And for a moment, I felt like I was at home again, my brother and I racing to clean our plates so we could be the first to grab seconds. 

Just a few months ago, I’d probably be dreading her impending text, ready with an eye roll and clenched-teeth reply. But now, I feel hopeful, that while we still can’t agree on much, we’re able to come together and be with each other in the kitchen, even though we’re physically apart, connected by our shared heritage and the joy of cooking. 

Get Kristen’s family recipe: Pepper Steak