(by Lin Gothoni)
My mother is from Szechuan, China, arguably one of the spiciest kitchens in the world.
When she moved to Germany in the early 1980s to further pursue her career as a violinist, she felt excited and fascinated to be in a new place, but also found herself suddenly immersed in a completely different world. Being amongst only few Asian women in Bavaria at the time, her cultural background was considered exotic.
There weren’t many Chinese restaurants around, so when she missed home, she would find comfort in home-cooked meals. She is a great cook; she learned from my grandmother, and would cook for me every day when I was growing up. Even though I was born and raised in Germany, my stomach was fully Chinese.
My mom would often be at rehearsal when I came home from school, but I always knew that a delicious pot of her cooking would greet me when I walked in the door. She certainly had signature dishes, although she never followed any recipes, and sometimes I’d be in for a surprise. After all, as artists, improvisation is a big part of our way of life. She told me that many spices such as ginger were hard to find back then, and not used nearly as regularly as they were back home in China. Since she wasn’t able to acquire all the original ingredients, her cooking style became infused with local traditions. She would start experimenting with a mix of German and Chinese food. Instead of the traditional choice of rice, she might use potatoes. Or instead of minced meat, she might chop up a German sausage. She would also cut back on chili since most people weren’t accustomed to eat such spicy food.
When she was on tour with the orchestra, they often went out to eat together after work, and she sometimes brought me along. Traveling the world and working with many international people allowed us to try many different foods, and certainly brought other cultural influences into our kitchen as well. My mother had many international friends, and I remember in particular a Yugoslavian colleague who would make something known as a bombica (pronounced bom-bi-zah). It was a praline-like round chocolate ball that would just crumble and melt in your mouth, and oh my, was it delicious. This colleague knew the power of her special dessert and unfortunately never revealed her recipe, but I am determined to this day to hunt it down.
My mom did try to teach me her tricks in the kitchen, but I had other things on my mind, only half-listening when she was talking me through her process. When I was 18, my mother moved to Amsterdam. I moved to Berlin, and out from under her deliciously steaming roof. I felt pretty far away from her. Living alone in a studio apartment didn’t offer me much motivation to cook, especially when studying and exploring a new city. I would mostly dine at restaurants or get something simple like pasta and ready-made pesto from the grocery store, but I already heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, “You can’t eat that every day. Make some Mapo Tofu. It’s easy. Or fish soup. So easy.”
Three years passed. My mother and I were both leading very busy lives. We only saw each other one or two times a year. One night I really missed her. Bored of pasta and delivery food, I woke up the next morning with the urge to do something different. My friends knew that I was half-Chinese, but they had never gotten to see or experience any part of that from me. Food is such a big part of the Chinese culture, and I had been disconnected from it. So I decided to invite some friends over and cook for them. I wanted to embrace this part of me that I had neglected for so long.
I always admired my mother, and remembered how all her colleagues and friends would compliment her cooking. And there is something pleasant about knowing how to cook and care for others. So, I entered the grocery store and browsed the shelves for inspiration. Apparently my subconscious had been listening after all. Her voice popped into my head, telling me which ingredients to buy. I decided to make a glass noodle salad, a dish she used to make when we had a larger group of guests over.
When I stood in the kitchen, I even remembered how she told me to cut the vegetables into little diagonal slices, how meticulous she was about shapes when chopping, the order of what was to be done first, and when the seasonings and sauce came into play. I heard her voice clearly in my head, instructing me throughout the whole process. And “like-mother-like-daughter,” I improvised some bits and added my own little flair.
It turned out great. And the best part was that I had made it myself. I was certainly proud and shared photos with my mother over WhatsApp. I think she was very happy to see that a part of our "non-traditional-tradition" had been passed forward. My friends were happy too.
I found joy in cooking after that and started to cook for myself more. Taking the time and care to do something, whether for myself or for others, turned out to be a kind of daily meditation. But even so, food never really tastes the same when you prepare it yourself; there is something about the love that goes into a mother’s dish that cannot be replicated. In Germany there is a saying: “Die Liebe geht durch den Magen.” Love goes through the belly. And I certainly know that’s true.
Cold and Hot Glass Noodle Salad
2 medium carrots
2 medium cucumbers
5 oz. glass noodles
1/2 t. crushed chili pepper
1/2 t. Sichuan red pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 green onion finely chopped
3 T. canola or sunflower oil
1 cooked chicken breast, shredded
1 t. salt
1 t. finely chopped fresh ginger
1 T. sesame oil
3 T. soy sauce
1 T. Chinese vinegar
Cut carrots and cucumber horizontally into quarters, then cut each quarter
into vertical thin strips. Set aside separately from each other.
Bring a pot of water to boil and cook carrots for 1 minute.
Add noodles, and cook for 1 minute.
Remove from heat and let carrots and noodles soak in the hot water for another 2 - 3 minutes.
Drain noodles and carrots into a colander and rinse with cold water.
Place in a bowl with reserved cucumber, chili pepper, Sichuan red pepper, garlic, and green onion.
Heat a skillet over high heat until hot.
Carefully add canola or sunflower oil to the skillet.
When the oil in the pan is hot, remove the skillet from heat and carefully pour the hot oil over the noodles and spices.
Toss with shredded chicken, salt, ginger, sesame oil, sesame oil, and Chinese vinegar.
Serve cold, or gently fry in a pan.
Optional variations: fried eggs, sauteed sugar snap peas, snow peas, broccoli, baby corn, shrimp, or crushed peanuts.