After a year or so of searching, recently I experienced kind of the reverse of Proust’s “madeleine moment.” It wasn’t a taste that evoked the “essence of past.” Yet it seemed related. For the better part of a year I had been trying to recapture a taste from the past, a taste I hadn’t savored in a decade but that still lingered in my mind and in my taste buds. And I suppose in my heart.
Steve ate dinner with Auntie Harriet and Auntie Mary almost every night for nearly a decade in the Imperial Dynasty bar, where they sat around the round table located by the hallway. Auntie Harriet had been friends with, as well as a classmate of Steve’s father, Bill. She enjoyed entertaining Steve with memories of her childhood in China Alley. Auntie Mary tried to teach Steve Cantonese. She quizzed him often enough that he created a little black book so he could keep up with his lessons. Both of my aunties enjoyed introducing him to new Chinese foods, and he loved trying everything.
Sometime last year Steve and I were discussing some of the items served to the restaurant’s staff for the family meal. He said there was one dish he really missed, one that he ate with Auntie Mary and Auntie Harriet and knew that it was truly home style cooking. It was potato-ey, he said, but it wasn’t potatoes, although sometimes potatoes were added. Occasionally there were bits of meat folded into it, but most often not.
After I prodded his memory with a few questions, I remembered the dish. It was braised wu tao, taro root.
Taro root is a potato like tuber vegetable. In Hawaii it is used to make the infamous poi, and it is also one of the stars on a dim sum menu. The recipe for the dim sum steamed taro root cake (wu tao go) may be found in one of my early columns. There are more than one hundred varieties of taro root, but the two most utilized for cooking are dasheen and eddoe. Eddoe is a fairly small tuber, about the size of a large chicken egg or a duck egg. These smaller taro roots are preferred in many Chinese recipes.
So, I’ve spent some time during the last year trying to create the braised taro dish Steve remembered from the Imperial Dynasty kitchen. What I made time after time was close, but not the real deal. Maybe it needed to be made in one of the restaurant’s cast iron woks. Maybe Auntie Mary needed to serve it. I’m not sure. But, for sure, I do know is that I didn’t have access to the simmering stock that was always cooking on the back burner. Nor did I have access to nits and bits of prime rib and it’s just to flavor the taro root. Even if I had leftover prime rib of my own to use, it never quite made the mark.
A few months ago I finally had an epiphany. Was I really trying to recreate the Imperial Dynasty kitchen staff’s wu tao? Or was I trying to go back to the past, to a time and a place that is now gone.
Recently I saw a display of taro root at the grocery store. Something tugged at my memory and then at my heart. I loaded the taro root into my shopping cart along with a few other ingredients. One of the dishes that made a regular appearance of the Imperial Dynasty family meal was black bean pork spare ribs. I wanted to braise the taro root with spare ribs and make some kind of homage dish to two of our family meal favorites.
I knew, from previously cooking taro, that when cooked long enough the root will break down, like a potato. So I left most of the small taro roots whole, cut some in half, and diced two of them so that they would break down and help to thicken the sauce.
I made a stew with spare ribs and taro root. I ladled the stew into my bowl, closed my eyes and took my first bite. Was it reminiscent of the braised taro root Steve was missing? No. Was it tasty? Yes, mighty. Then I heard the tinkle of Auntie Harriet’s giggle. And for one brief shining moment, all was right in my world.