My parents recently came to visit me in California, and one of the things I asked them to do was to cook ten of my favorite childhood Chinese dishes while I videotaped the process. I have always wanted to write down the “how to’s” of these family food traditions, but recipes are just not the way we cook in our family. It’s all about using the senses – how something is supposed to look, smell, and feel at various stages of the cooking process. The final taste is something embedded in the memory, and you know right away if you’ve gotten it right or not.
Tonight I decided to try cooking one of those dishes myself, without my parents’ supervision, without their years of experience to guide me – only the videotaped clips of their hands doing this work several weeks ago. The dish was skin-on braised pork shank, Chinese style. We call this “big brown meat” in my family, and we used to eat it every Thanksgiving in addition to American-style turkey and all the trimmings. Now it’s mostly just a memory since we gather at my brother’s house for every holiday and only rarely eat home-cooked Chinese meals together anymore.
I was confident going into this that I would produce something at least as good as what my non-Chinese sister-in-law had served at her first Christmas after marrying my brother. Hers was a valiant attempt at imitating the dish, but it was “not quite” what my mother had made year in and year out of our childhood. I remember smiling politely and saying, “It’s WONderful!” like any dutiful (and smart) sister-in-law invited to the first holiday meal of her newly married brother. But secretly I knew it was missing something.
Tonight I was full of boldness as I placed the truncated cone-shaped hunk of meat into the hot pan for searing, then turning it to ensure that all sides were browned before beginning to assemble the braising sauce ingredients. Confidence remained strong during the key seasoning steps that followed. In went the onions, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, the rock candy (the trickiest ingredient to get right, my mother says, because if you go overboard, there’s no easy rescue. Sometimes even adding more salt won’t help, she warns), and the various shades of soy sauce and wine to bathe the seasonings. Everything looked fine. A quick taste of the sauce didn’t really help, since I had never tasted the sauce at this stage of the cooking – only at the end. And unfortunately, there is no smell recording on my videotape.
So I waited. I wondered how long the meat would have to cook. I figured an hour would be about enough time. Somehow that number – for no rational reason – stuck in my head as the right answer. A little over an hour later, after basting, and turning the meat several times during the simmering process, I proudly took the meat out. It looked beautiful. It must be done! I started slicing into it, and discovered the meat was white. The outside was the right color – brown – but the meat itself was white. As I sliced into it, the texture was firm, like a porkchop. The knife sawed back and forth, slicing with resistance and yielding geometrically intact layers. Something seemed odd about the appearance of the meat, but I wasn’t convinced yet.
Then I tasted it. I almost had to let the piece of meat fall back out of my mouth and into my bowl. It was not quite “inedible”, but close. Had I added too much water? Had I put in too many mushrooms? Had I not added enough salt? I went through the entire list of ingredients again in my head, refusing to believe that I had missed something so fundamental as to produce a result this bad. Most humiliating of all, this tasted worse than what my sister-in-law, who did not grow up eating this dish, or any other Chinese dish for that matter, had made on her first try.
I felt defeated. Disappointed in my own ineptitude. Disgusted by what I had just tasted.
But I looked at the meat, and thought about it. It was white, not brown. It had cooked for an hour, but no one told me that an hour was the right amount of time. I had just assumed it, and had taken the meat out when an hour had passed. And something about the way the knife was going through that meat also didn’t seem right.
So I put the whole shank back in the braising sauce. There was a corner cut out of it, so it would no longer look picture-perfect coming out, but I had to know if cooking it longer would change anything. My instincts said not to add any more liquid to the braising mixture, but just to trust the process, which I had prematurely cut short.
I was in a bad mood now, thinking I had been proven an amateur at my own family’s signature holiday dish. How could I not know how to do something I had seen and tasted so many times before?
One hour later, as I was sitting at my computer distracting myself from my self-pity with meaningless email work, I was suddenly stopped mid-sentence by a whiff of an unmistakable aroma from my childhood. Only it wasn’t in my imagination, but actually coming from my kitchen. From the pot that had produced the white meat one hour before – flavorless and almost tough to swallow – came the familiar smell of “big brown meat” from dozens of childhood Thanksgivings past.
When I lifted the lid of the pot, I saw the deep dark brown of the meat and the thick, now gelatinous sauce. When I touched it with a spoon, the meat yielded to the lightest touch. Finally, sitting on a plate ready to be cut, I found that a knife was nearly unnecessary. The meat, now dark brown and not white, even on the inside, pulled away in strands. Instead of looking like porkchop meat, its consistency was more like the pulled pork of a southern barbeque sandwich. It was no longer possible to “slice” across it with a knife, but I had to use a fork to gently coax pieces to fall away from the bone and fat. The character of the shank meat had completely changed in that one extra hour of cooking. The aroma had completely changed. The color had deepened to its full brownness.
Now I only had to taste it. The flavors in my mouth confirmed what I had already known from that first whiff of the familiar aroma from childhood – I had gotten it!
My opinion of my own cooking skills skyrocketed. From momentarily believing I was more incompetent than a newlywed boiling water for the first time, I was now able to restore faith in my culinary instincts, instilled at birth and honed over a lifetime. Finally I was worthy of being a Chu!
Of course, the only difference was time. The real truth is that I was on the right track the entire time, and neither my lowest nor highest opinion of myself was entirely correct. I didn’t get the sauce “perfect”. My mom probably would have added a little more rock candy (but not too much more). I probably did put in a few too many mushrooms. But it was not a disaster. I did not prove my inferiority by producing white meat at first instead of “big brown meat”. In fact, by tasting, evaluating, and recognizing the how bad that meat was on the first try, and then deciding to put it back in the same pot for another hour, I was demonstrating the necessary attitude of a learner. I was willing to admit to failure, and then immediately try again. I probably spent too much time being disappointed in my own abilities. But I didn’t throw the meat out, and I was willing to trust the mysteries of the cooking process for a little while longer.
I was lucky this time because time was all I needed. I didn’t need to adjust course too drastically. But witnessing the dramatic changes in that meat, just from the simple passage of time, really taught me about the value of a process. Sometimes we don’t understand a process, so we don’t know to trust it. When we encounter a roadblock, we don’t know what’s ahead, so we wonder why we should keep going. Wouldn’t it be best just to choose another road? To start again from the beginning? Well, sometimes it is, but sometimes, time is all you need. Time and a little trust. And if you’re willing to trust the process, you may actually stick around long enough for the full flavors of your creations to unfold.