When I was a child, every now and then in the evening after dinner I would find my parents slicing and dicing garlic, ginger, vegetables, and meats—a sure sign they were getting ready to cook a Chinese meal the very next night. If they were slicing and dicing a lot, they were preparing for company and would prepare six or more dishes plus soup. If not so much, it was for a family occasion. But always my anticipation grew.
Living in China changed the food my parents ate and how they cooked it. Although we ate meat, we never had potatoes with it, only rice. And we never had spaghetti or pasta of any kind, only rice. The vegetables my parents fixed were always stir-fried in a skillet until they were just tender but still with a crispy crunch.
One dish that was always part of a Chinese meal was a type of beef stew—but oh so different from American beef stews. Because it had to simmer for a while, they always started that one first. Soon the kitchen would fill with the distinctive licorice aroma of star anise, the pungent earthiness of fermented black beans, the sweet mellow hint of carrots, and the robust meatiness of beef simmering in the dark tangy funk of soy sauce, fresh ginger, and garlic. They soaked tree lichens (mu-er) to soften them before adding to the simmering pot to give a crunch. If they were having company, they would finish it off by adding a whole hard-boiled egg or two—shelled, of course—in the last twenty minutes. When I fix this dish today, my memories take over and I’m a kid again, holding my chopsticks awkwardly, ready to dive into the bowl I know will be put before me very soon.
This dish is one of my favorites from my parents’ repertoire collected during their fourteen years in Chengdu, China. I have no recipes or names for any of them, only the lists of ingredients my father gave me.
I have never seen this beef and carrot dish in any Chinese restaurant here in the U.S. or in China. But I once walked into a restaurant in Beijing just off Tiananmen Square and was immediately immersed in the redolent olfactory complexity of star anise, fermented black beans, ginger, and garlic. I saw nothing in the menu photographs that looked like the carrot and beef dish my father fixed and I didn’t have a name or the language skills then to describe the dish. But as always I was transported back to my eight-year-old self, my mouth watering from the aroma of Chinese food.