Love in the Form of Taiwanese Dinner
Emerging Writer Series
Twice a month, or more, I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, an essay from Felicia Chang. Felicia is a writer from La Habra Heights, California. She is a second generation Taiwanese American, born to parents from Taipei and Yuanlin. Her work often explores the liminal space that comes with the immigrant experience. Felicia runs a weekly newsletter for short form nonfiction through her Substack, Two Pages Double Spaced. She recently graduated from Yale with a degree in Computing and the Arts. When she is not writing, Felicia is exploring new reading experiences in the form of experimental text editors and interactive poetry.
In my father’s household, dinner is the most important meal of the day. It’s also his only meal of the day, since he discovered intermittent fasting a few years ago. Dinner must be eaten with family, whenever possible, in order to stave off depression – my father’s favorite factoid, repeated with pride when his two children join him at the dinner table. Each time we eat together, my father ends dinner with a question: “明天要吃什麼?” What are we going to eat tomorrow?
My father is the cook in our house and a “rising star” in a Taiwanese cooking group on Facebook with more than 25,000 members. They share photos of dishes they’re proud of, accompanied by a long, story-like description of how they cooked it. Every post collects a long trail of cooking banter and advice in the comments section. Most of the members are women; father notes that he’s one of the few men in the group — a rare instance in which his gender has rendered him a minority. The group welcomes him regardless and address him as “大哥,” or big brother.
Admittedly, my father wasn’t always “大哥.” Like most women in the group, my mother was the cook in our home. My father used to only appear in the kitchen for steak or barbecue.
Things changed when my mother fell sick with cancer. My parents, finally empty nesters at this time, were unable to enjoy the life they imagined. While my mother was bedridden with chemo-induced nausea, my father took to the spatula. At dinnertime, my father would send my brother and me a selfie they’d taken before their meal to alleviate our worry. My brother and I were both away for college, believing that things would be fine in the end. The cancer never relented, and my mother passed away six months after her diagnosis. My father continued cooking. Two years and many dinners later, he discovered the Taiwanese cooking group where he became “大哥.”
I first learned about my father’s newfound cooking fury when the pandemic brought me back home and left me there for longer than I anticipated. I watched him make increasingly complicated dishes day by day, revamping old recipes and experimenting with new ones. My father wasn’t cooking with the pressure of obligation. He was cooking with a tortoise-like deliberation.
These days, the foremost question of what we’re going to eat for dinner is directed at me. I answer this question by running through a mental list of home-cooked classics: braised pork, pork meatballs, pork belly, ginseng chicken soup, beef stew, beef bing. Despite my own vegetarian bent, dinner at home requires a meat dish – a result of my father’s belief in the importance of protein, doubly affirmed by the popularity of keto and his non-negotiable love for meat. The accompanying vegetable dish is typically stir-fried radish leaves or stir-fried kale.
Sometimes, the dinner we choose is not on the list of home-cooked classics. It’s instead a stray craving or spark of inspiration. A childhood memory. My father describes a dish called 柚子雞 or grapefruit chicken, which my grandmother made on Taiwanese farmland by burning rice stalks. My father notes that we could make grapefruit chicken in the oven instead.
Today we’ll be eating scallion pancakes, a stray craving of mine. Scallion pancake is a flour-based dish, which my father typically avoids. Cooking with flour requires a mechanical precision. My father prefers artful estimation. But it’s been discussed and decided. Today’s dinner is scallion pancakes.
When approaching an unknown dish, the first step is to research. My father starts with recall: my mother used to make scallion pancakes. But her pancakes were never circles, rather a collection of overlapping ovals. I liked ovals, but my father wants a circle.
My father consults an old friend who runs a restaurant making baos back in Taiwan. He gives my father a few pieces of advice that mirror that of a Taiwanese ama, who shares her technique in a YouTube video. Her pancake is orthodox, a perfect circle with ruffling layers of dough and a crunchy outer shell.
The second step is to replicate. My father follows the ama’s instructions closely, pausing the video at short increments. A scallion pancake begins to form. But a proof of concept isn’t finished until 9 P.M., far past our usual dinner time. For my father, speed is never the goal. The goal is always to make a good meal, even if it takes hours. He explains that he could never be a chef even if he wanted to. He’s too slow.
But the pancake is a near-perfect circle. And it tastes right too: crunchy on the outside; soft, fragrant, and salty on the inside. Still, improvements can be made. We agree that the pancake could be even saltier – during cooking I’d warned my father against adding too much salt, remembering that my mother’s scallion pancakes tended to collect salt in small pockets.
We pair our scallion pancakes with 白菜白肉湯 or cabbage and pork soup. Except the cabbage here is sauerkraut, which my father picked up at the German supermarket, Aldi. My father delights in his sauerkraut shortcut. My mother loved to ferment cabbage. I don’t think my father’s ever tried. My brother looks horrified when he realizes the salty, tart condiment he adds to his hotdogs is now featured in soup. And yet, we all agree that the sour soup pairs well with the tapered scallion pancake.
The third step is to internalize. We’ll eat scallion pancakes with the same soup tomorrow.
Dinner begins with prayer and selfies. Praying before dinner is a routine my mother introduced and my father continues in her stead. My father isn’t exactly religious, so his prayers are addressed to both Jesus and Jenny. My father can’t confirm whether Jesus is listening, but he knows my mother is. After prayer, my father snaps pictures of our food for the Taiwanese cooking group and then one of himself, my brother and me, for us. Even on days when I don’t feel like being in the selfie, I muster a smile anyway. The selfie is ours to keep, a testament to the fact that dinner has indeed been eaten with family.
Some dinner routines are constantly evolving. For a brief time, my father insists on nightly kale smoothies as a necessary health regimen. The kale smoothies are then replaced with soup come winter. Today, my father adds a new selfie pose where the three of us bump fists in mid-air.
At dinner, my father tells us that his title in the Facebook group has been upgraded to “visual storyteller.” The careful photos he takes of each step in his cooking process have paid off. When my brother and I are at home, my father includes us in his process. I help him take pictures of his recipes, noting that I’ll be using them as reference for my own cooking in the future. My father films a TikTok-esque video of my brother landing skateboard tricks while shaking a bento box. Sometimes, my brother and I give dinner reviews, where we comment with faux intelligence on the notes of apple in a Japanese curry or the rich flavor of a beef bing. After dinner, my father stays at the table, writing down instructions and inspiration for each recipe.
One morning, my father recounts to me a comment written by one of his newfound cooking friends on one of his recent posts. “As Asian parents, this is how we show our kids we love them.” She talks fondly of her mother, who always made the dishes her children wanted to eat. Now she regrets never having known what her mother liked to eat. But she too only makes the dishes her children request.
I tell myself that I’d like to return the question one day and cook for my father, though I hope that day won’t come for a while. I haven’t adopted my father’s patience for cooking or his generosity with salt.
I can no longer ask my mother what she wants to eat, but my father knows all of her favorite dishes. Sometimes, my father will tell me about my mother’s cravings during her battle with cancer. 白菜白肉湯 or cabbage and pork soup was one of them. I’m surprised to learn that my mother had cravings. By the time I was able to visit home, my mother could barely swallow food. There are certain dishes that pull my father into a past I will never fully comprehend.
But his new, unexpected friends understand what food means to him. They share the same desire to perfect the food they eat and to remember the memories those recipes bring. They’re also immigrants, scattered across Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. Their dishes fuse Taiwanese food with flavors and ingredients unique to their countries of residence, but the recipes are always written in Traditional Chinese, their shared language.
He and other “visual storytellers” or “rising stars” occasionally host Zoom meet-ups, and my father is reminded of what it’s like for someone to understand your jokes or turns of phrase. Neither my brother nor I can speak Taiwanese, a dialect of Mandarin. We can barely speak Mandarin as it is. With his friends, my father speaks in the language of his old home. Though, like us, they probably won’t return to Taiwan for a while. But at least at dinnertime, they’re home again.
Nowadays, a picture of my mother hangs on a vase in the kitchen. Sometimes, my father will turn to her and ask her a question — perhaps about a recipe or, more critically, what to do next. He’ll imagine her response and we’ll eat the dishes she used to love. My parents didn’t have a perfect relationship, but they had recipes to tie them together. My father isn’t a perfect father, but he pours out his love for us in the form of Taiwanese dinner. At his table, we’re home too.