The Upside-Down Dinners of My Taiwanese-American Family

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Matt Gross)

My family and I live in Brooklyn, where we are, in many ways, utterly stereotypical yuppie eaters. I shop at farmers markets, our local butcher, and Whole Foods. Coffee and cereal and toast are in our breakfast rotation, while dinner, my main duty, might be simple steaks or braised chicken thighs.

The exception is that we cook, most of all, Chinese food: a sweet and luscious braised ground pork from Taiwan, a quick stir-fry of pork and dried tofu, steamed egg with soy sauce, and always leafy greens with garlic.

In Taipei, where my wife, Jean, grew up, where her family still resides, and where we’ve been visiting for a month or two every summer the last few years, the family dinner table looks a little different.

There, at the in-laws’ house — five narrow, boxy stories, home to Jean’s parents, her brother, his wife, and their daughter and son, each a year older than my kids— almost everything is out of our hands. That’s largely because Jean’s family has a live-in cook, A-Di, a young woman from Indonesia who joined the household three or four years ago.

It is A-Di’s job to shop for and cook lunch and dinner six days a week, and she does that job very well. A typical meal might include super-crunchy deep-fried pork chops, braised cabbage with funky dried shrimp, hot-and-sour soup, a fried or steamed whole fish, and, if no one feels like rice today, thin stir-fried noodles with vegetables and bits of meat.

When I arrive each year, things change slightly. Yes, my family and I are integrated into the family routine, but I am also suddenly the representative of all non-Taiwanese cooking. Every once in a while, I get called upon to make Western dishes, which is fine — I like cooking those things, and feeling useful in a place where, really, I’m not all that useful — but it also feels weird, because we don’t eat like that at home where there are three kinds of kimchi in the fridge, I just ordered ground chilies to make a new batch of Sichuan red oil, and I actually know what to do with all those mysterious greens you’re confused by at H Mart.

That way of eating is totally normal for us, but in my experience it’s very weird for America, weird even for Brooklyn. When I talk to friends about what they cook — friends who, more often than not, work in food and/or travel — I hear very little of what my family eats. I feel kind of out of place, in fact, and when we’re off to Taiwan, it kind of inverts that — we remain weird eaters, but in a backwards way, and suddenly representative of America as a whole.

It’s a challenging position to be in: I’m the only foreigner in the house, so whatever I make is How Americans Eat. If it comes out wrong, or if the local ingredients taste weird, I risk damaging not just my image as a cook but the international culinary image of my country.

Luckily, I’ve chosen wisely so far.

The first dish I showed A-Di was ragù bolognese, with a mirepoix base, a mix of ground pork and ground beef, and whole milk in addition to tomatoes and white wine. Certain sacrifices had to be made: fresh thyme and sage are not easily located in Taipei, so dried “Italian herbs” get substituted. But once A-Di had learned to make it, she made it regularly — if not, as far as I know, identically to mine — and my wife’s family gobbled it up.

This year, I demonstrated an easy no-knead bread, which came out well, if a little under-baked. Still, as I stood there folding the dough into a boule, I worried that A-Di might have trouble reproducing it. In taking notes on my technique, she’d written not “yeast” but “baking powder,” and in English, not Chinese.

I tried, in my limited Mandarin, to explain, but she looked confused, especially because neither of us knew how to write (or read) the proper character. Finally, I pointed to the enormous sack of yeast I’d bought at the local Carrefour, and noted how little she’d need to use for each loaf, and we both chuckled at how long it would last.

And maybe this making bread in Taipei and eating stir-fry in Brooklyn is not so weird after all. Maybe this is the new normal? As everyone intermarries, you’d think, food traditions from across the globe are getting smashed together. What matters, in the end, is not where the dishes come from, or where we eat them, but the fact that we eat them together. They represent not our origins or our tastes but the flavor of our family.