The Stir-Fried Tomatoes and Eggs My Chinese Mother Made
Over the past two years of writing this column about immigrants and their food, I’ve cooked with a Filipina nurse who used scalpels to debone chicken; a Senegalese family that eats out of the same dish to emphasize everyone’s responsibility to one another; a Mexican Popsicle maker who tried to heal the ache of her divorce by sharing literal sweetness. There was a Slovakian pierogi master whose last act before leaving for the United States was opening the barn doors to set her animals free; a Polish vegetarian who learned to make bigos, a meatfest of a stew, just so she could share her mother’s recipe; and a Palestinian family that lives the American dream by hosting a Thanksgiving every night.
As a writer, I wrote this column feeling honored to be entrusted with their stories. And as the child of Chinese immigrants, I wrote this column looking up to my subjects — as I do to my own parents — for carrying the burden of living between two worlds. For finding their footing while having to bridge where they’re from with where they are.
I’ve been thinking about this because this is my last column for the magazine — another dream project beckons, which I hope you’ll hear more about soon — but also because of tomatoes and eggs.
A few weeks ago, I felt a sudden, irresistible craving for Chinese stir-fried tomatoes and eggs. A dish of savory, sweet-tart tomato sauce folded around soft-scrambled eggs, it hits every pleasure center in the brain and makes it easy to scarf down a lot of rice, fast. When I worked in Chinatown, it was a staple of every $4 buffet in the neighborhood. A version of it with beef was my younger brother’s favorite food when we were growing up, and by “favorite food,” I mean it was basically the only thing he would eat for the first eight years of his life. (So much so that once, for some reason clear only to jerk older brothers, I squirted ketchup into his apple juice to make fun of him. We fought, he won, I drank the juice.)
It’s the kind of dish that people say is the first thing they learned to cook, that fed them when they left home, that inspires sudden and irresistible cravings. But when my hunger struck, I had no idea how to make it. I looked in my Chinese cookbooks, but it appeared in exactly none of them. Calling up my mother to ask her, I knew, would be like asking her to describe how to tie shoelaces: almost impossible to articulate, buried so deep in her muscle memory. In Chinese cooking, this dish is like air, present and invisible.
I knew that I wasn’t going to figure out a recipe for it, because I realized that my not knowing how to make this dish was akin to my Cantonese getting rusty, to not knowing when Chinese New Year is every year. It’s because I’m not an immigrant, only a son of immigrants, and so I know only the frayed facsimile of the world that my parents grew up in. Being part of a culture without living in it is like being in a long-distance relationship. You can make it work with grand displays of affection and splendid visits, but you don’t get to have coffee together on a Sunday morning — the little things, the stuff daily life is built on. I knew that if I were to have this recipe, it would have to come to me through my people or not at all.
So I went online and found recipe after recipe, with an eye toward cobbling together my own. I read the cookbook author Genevieve Ko’s version and took from it the idea of just lightly cooking the eggs before finishing them in the tomatoes. I read Chichi Wang’s version, on Serious Eats, and lifted her brilliant use of fragrant rice wine in the eggs and ketchup in the sauce. I read dozens of blog posts, mostly relating the same story over and over again — a story of nostalgia, of Mom’s cooking, of home. I read the comments, also telling the same: Thank you, thank you, I’ve missed this dish, thank you, thank you. And after all this reading, I started to realize what I was really seeing: people, just like me, missing a knowledge that they felt should be in their bones, coming to someone else’s recipes to connect them to where they came from while being rooted in where they are.
所以我上网一个接一个地找，同时也留心拼凑自己的版本。我看到了烹饪书作者吉纳维芙·柯(Genevieve Ko)的做法，从中学到在把鸡蛋倒入番茄里之前，只需轻轻翻炒一下鸡蛋。我还看了希希·王(Chichi Wang)在“严肃饮食”(Serious Eats)网站上的版本，也从里面学到了一些很棒的点子，比如在鸡蛋中加入米酒，在酱汁中加入番茄酱。我读了几十篇博客文章，它们大多数都是在一遍遍讲述着同样的故事——一个怀乡的故事，想念母亲做的饭，想家。我读了下面的评论，也是一样的调调：谢谢你，谢谢你，我很怀念这道菜，谢谢，谢谢。读完所有这些后，我开始意识到自己究竟看到了什么：我看到了和我一样的人，他们想念一种自觉应该深入自身骨髓的知识，于是找到别人的菜谱，以便在植根于如今所在之地的同时，将自己和自己的来处建立起连接。