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Growing up, I had very little appreciation for intensely Chinese flavors. I didn’t like the earthy flavor of shiitake mushrooms, my nose wrinkled at Taiwanese stinky tofu, and traditional herbal medicines were truly medicine.

I only enjoyed the more common flavors. When I was four and younger, my family often went to Panda Express for lunch on days we went to the mall. I liked chow mein there, as well as the frozen packaged bao tzi that my parents bought from the Asian supermarket (where I also had abhorred visiting).

My Asian American heritage wasn’t something I actively shied away from, but it also wasn’t something that I embraced with open arms. I accepted it reluctantly, kind of like I imagine my parents accepted that their daughter was destined to be a Chinese school drop out at the tender age of five. (This was something I joked about often when I finally went back to learn Chinese in my last year of college.)

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

Over the weekend, Candle Boy and I decided to visit China Live, a small marketplace in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown that housed a restaurant, cafe, and storefront that carried special, Asian products.

The market carried a wide variety of teas, spices, and sauces — as well as cookware commonly used in Asian cooking, like giant woks and ceramic steamers that were surprisingly light for their size. Among the kitchenware were also books dedicated to capturing Chinese culture from art and calligraphy to cooking, and even within these collections were local, high quality, SF trinkets.

I had high expectations for the marketplace, so the actual small size was somewhat underwhelming. Our dining experience at the restaurant though, made the trip definitely worthwhile.

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

We began dinner with a pot of “8 Treasure” tea, which consists of chrysanthemum, green tea, jujube, licorice, longan, raisin, rose, and rock sugar. Aside from the raisin, all of these ingredients — including the green tea and the licorice — would have caused me to put my cup down after one sip when I was younger. Until I reached high school, I never drank the tea that was offered us at any Asian restaurant because the taste didn’t sit right with me.

Now,  I relish in any opportunity I have to try new, legitimate Asian teas, and drink (and collect) tea on a regular basis of my own accord. When I went back to Taiwan a couple years ago, I even asked my mom to order different teas when possible, so I could sample a wide variety before I returned to the States and access to these teas would be nearly impossible.

The “8 Treasure” tea was refreshing, but not in the bright, open way you might expect a fruity tea from America to be. In contrast, the “8 Treasure” tea woke you up from the inside out, offering a warm mix of flavors that was complex, but light; equal parts floral, nutty, and fruity.

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

For food, we ordered Taiwanese Lou Rou over rice, and a wild cauliflower dish served in a claypot. I confess, while I usually try to order dishes I can’t make at home, I caved when I saw the Lou Rou on the menu. I am a sucker for it — especially my mom’s home cooked recipe.

Funnily enough though, the flavor of the lou rou at China Live didn’t evoke memories of Chinese/Taiwanese restaurants, nor home. The almost-sour flavor actually reminded me most of the tea eggs sold at 7-Eleven storefronts across Taiwan.

The wild cauliflower dish came with some pork and a light watery sauce, nothing at all like the sticky, cornstarch-thickened sauces that so often pool around breaded meat sold at Chinese restaurants in America. The sauce that pooled at the base of the claypot was dark, but it was still thin and almost of the same consistency as water. In other words, it felt legitimate and not phoned to fulfill a need.

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

My favorite part of the meal was dessert (surprise, surprise). Candle Boy and I decided to go all out and order a plate of five Chinese date and nut cookies. We also rationalized that this would go best with the second pot of tea we’d ordered after finishing the first.

The cookies flavors were walnut, almond, peanut butter, matcha, and date. None of them were flavored the “American” way (even if the texture was more dense than I would have preferred).

All of these cookies were flavored with distinctly Asian flavors. The almond, the peanut butter, the date! were all very traditional Chinese/Taiwanese flavors. While the American counterparts to these flavors are all dense and full-bodied, the flavors in these cookies were light and uniquely Asian. 

The almond was subtly sweetened. The peanut butter was gentle and less cloying than what you might expect from a bottle of Jif. The date was just a little bit bitter, but simultaneously sweet in an understated sort of way — just as I, and my mom, both expected of Chinese date flavors. (I blame her for starting me on my date-loving craze).

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Photo by Courtney Cheng

Finding a taste of these flavors in the heart of what I consider a very touristy Chinatown was a huge treat. I consider it a luxury to travel back to Taiwan to find some of these flavors and dishes in their place of origin.

So until I have the means to go back, it shall be a joy and a privilege enough to revisit and return to these old flavors in my local neighborhood. I am grateful that I can find a small — regardless of how small this might be — piece of my family’s home, so far away from home.

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