In Cantonese opera, men and women spar over love, money, and politics. A similar drama unfolded in my grandparents’ home, but the topic that triggered it was cooking. My grandfather liked to brag about his mastery in cooking. While sitting cross-legged on a single-seat sofa, with a cigarette between his fingers, he cried, “Your grandmother doesn’t know a thing!” Then he let out a chuckle.
My grandmother uttered a feeble “humph,” but she was no docile sheep of a woman as many in her generation were expected to be. One day, when I asked her to teach me how to make ngoh hiong, a Hokkien meat roll that was the mainstay of our dwindling family dinners, she took the opportunity to show her husband of 60 years who called the shots in the family. To demonstrate how she would marinate the ground pork, she got my 86-year-old grandfather walking up and down the kitchen to fetch her ingredients. When he looked uncertainty, she belittled him mercilessly. “Of course you have to wash the bean curd! Where is the oil? What are you looking for? The bean curd skin is right here!”
My grandfather spewed a couple of Hokkien vulgarities—he could cook himself and was the master of vegetable stew and pig’s stomach pepper soup. But he was accommodating, so my grandmother marinated the meat, texturized it with chopped water chestnuts and shallots, and rolled it in bean curd skin. Seven minutes later, the meat roll emerged from the steamer in one piece. Was this a metaphor for their marriage?
For as long as I could remember, my traditional Chinese grandparents held hands as often as they snapped at each other. He grabbed her hand when I needed a photograph for my school project, they held hands as they fumbled home from their cataract procedures, and she squeezed his hand when he took his last breath.
The meat roll that my grandmother made needed as much handholding as her marriage. She steamed the meat roll before she fried it, so that the filling wouldn’t fall apart in the hot oil. Before that, she added mashed bean curd to the meat to keep it from becoming dry, as ground meats can do when fried.
My grandparents couldn’t agree on much, including how to finish the roll. She preferred to dip it in raw egg before frying, to give the bean curd skin a caramelized and fragrant finish. He thought the fried bean curd would be perfectly toasty and savory on its own. He won, because she accommodated him, but she always complained that something was missing in the flavor.
After my grandfather passed away two years ago, my grandmother reversed to her own cooking methods. But the feeling of something was missing lingered.
Ngoh hiong (Hokkien meat rolls)
(makes 10 meat rolls)
3/4 pound minced pork meat
1/3 pound prawns, shelled, deveined and chopped
1/3 pound firm bean curd, mashed
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 shallots, chopped
4 water chestnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 egg yolks (set aside egg white for later use)
10 pieces bean curd skin, 12 inches by 8 inches
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1. In a mixing bowl, combine pork, prawns, bean curd, garlic, shallots, water chestnuts, five spice powder, salt, pepper, sesame oil, soy sauce, cornstarch and egg yolks.
2. Place the bean curd skin on the counter and use a damp cloth to wipe away excess salt on the skin. Smear a thin layer of egg white on the skin.
3. Lay 3 tablespoons of meat filling 1 inch above the bottom length of the bean curd skin. Roll it over once, fold in both ends of the skin and then continue to roll until you come to the end. Seal the edge with egg white.
4. Steam the meat rolls over high heat for 7 minutes. Leave a space between the rolls so that they do not stick. Remove the meat rolls from the steamer and set aside to cool. Cut the meat rolls into 1-inch length.
5. In a skillet over medium heat, add the oil. Fry the meat rolls for 3 minutes or until golden browned.
*Written for Sheryl Julian’s food writing class at Boston University, where I am pursuing a MLA in Gastronomy.