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A Taste — and Glimpse– of the Past on Mother’s Day

A sentimental taste.


My Mom unknowingly left me a gift this Mother’s Day.

Although she passed away six years ago, I still think about her often, especially on this day.

So, it was with great pleasure that I recently re-discovered a manila envelope on my bookshelf — one that used to be tucked into my mother’s own bookshelf. I pulled out the contents to find old-school plastic sleeves and cardboard folders stuffed with pages that had been photocopied or torn out of magazines. All were of recipes. A few were mine — baking recipes that had caught my eye when I was a teenager in the throes of my addiction to baking, which I’d do every chance I could on weekends after racing to finish my homework.

Most of the recipes, though, were her keepsakes. I started to leaf through them, one by one. There were mimeographed pages from a Chinese cookbook, with the Chinese characters for things like lotus seeds, salted duck eggs, and “longan pulp.” Although my Mom was fluent in Cantonese, I remember hearing her lament on more than one occasion that she could no longer distinguish the written Chinese characters like she once could.

There was a 1985 recipe for “Perfect Pot Roast.” Yet I don’t ever remember her making that homespun Americana dish. Was it a dish she meant to get to one day?

There was a yellowed booklet of “55 Cake Recipes” of “tested recipes from Ann Pillsbury’s Famous Kitchen Especially Created for Sno Sheen Cake Flour.” Published in 1952. Its pages held such wonders as “Wishing Ring Cake” and “White Magic Cake.” It made me remember the times I’d look on in awe whenever my Mom baked an angel food cake, and balanced the lighter-than-air creation on the neck of a soda bottle to cool.

There was a hand-written recipe on binder paper in my Mom’s recognizably neat penmanship for “Bacardi Rum Cake. That find made made me chuckle, since my Mom was a total teetotaler and I can’t even remember a bottle of rum ever being in our house. Or maybe she just had it hidden away?

There also were a couple iterations of the Chinese dim sum dessert, almond gelatin. One version made with Knox gelatin; another made with agar agar (a seaweed gelatin used in Japanese and Chinese cooking). I remember the unmistakable fragrance of the almond extract as my Mom stirred it into the steaming hot, milky mixture, which then got poured into a glass pan to cool and set up the the fridge. As a kid, it seemed like forever before it was ready to eat. When it finally was, my Mom would use a paring knife to slice through the white, dense Jell-O-like mass to create cubes or diamond shapes that she’d ladle into Chinese soup bowls. Then, she’d open up a can of fruit cocktail or mandarin oranges to top it with. Other times, I’d just sneak into the fridge and pull out a cube of the almond gelatin with my fingers to enjoy its cold, wiggly sweetness just like that.

And on it went, until I spied it: one of her own recipes for something she’d make often when I was growing up. I can’t even remember the last time I had her “Tofu with Ground Pork.” It’s been that long. Too long.

So, of course, I had to make it. I piled the other recipes back into their folders, save for the “Tofu with Ground Pork One.” Then, I pulled out my wok and got to work.

I can see why my Mom made this regularly on weekdays. It comes together in a flash. And it’s economical to boot. A smidge of ground pork goes a long way in this dish. With garlic, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce and chicken broth, it serves to flavor custardy cubes of soft tofu. Green peas — most likely frozen ones in my Mom’s day, but fresh is even better at this time of year — add a delicacy and sweetness to this soulful, savory dish.

I spooned it over fluffy steamed rice, enjoying the familiar flavors that made me feel as if I were back in my parents’ home again.

I said a silent thank-you to my Mom, too, for turning the tables by giving me an unconventional Mother’s Day gift — a cherished taste of days long past that still resonates profoundly.

My Mom’s Tofu with Ground Pork

(Serves 2-3)

1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil

1/4 pound ground pork

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

3 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

About 5 ounces of peas, fresh or frozen ones allowed to defrost

1 box of soft tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water

In a wok or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add oil. Stir-fry pork, garlic, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce and peas until pork is cooked through. Add tofu, chicken broth and cornstarch mixture. Stir gently until sauce thickens. Serve with steamed rice, if you like.

From Carolyn Jung

More: My Mom’s Chicken Rice

And: My Mom’s Prawns with Pork and Black Bean Sauce

And: My Mom’s One and Only Tomato Beef Chow Mein