Cover image by Jason Goh from Pixabay
Miriam Gauntlett is a recent graduate from the University of Cambridge, currently living and working in London. she is a member of the NUS Women’s Campaign committee and is interested in the intersection between science & society, particularly the ways that technology enables different forms of state violence. She spends her spare time reading, climbing, thinking about found families, and dreaming of her next outdoor adventure.
Like everyone, I have four biological grandparents. One is English, two are Australian and one, my grandmother on my mother’s side, is Chinese. This means I am technically ‘one quarter’ Chinese, although of course mixed race identity is far more complex than that, and I would feel strange claiming it for many reasons: I don’t look Chinese, I don’t speak the language besides a few words here and there, and I have never met any of my Chinese family besides my grandmother; put simply, I don’t have much Chinese cultural knowledge at all. And yet, my grandmother gave birth to my mother, and my mother gave birth to me. My grandmother, who I call ‘Paw-paw’ (a slight adaptation of 外婆, the Chinese word for maternal grandmother) cared for and tended to me when I was a baby. I am connected to her, and she is connected to China. It would feel wrong to me to deny that relationship entirely, and I would never want to. The link is there: and food is undoubtedly something that strengthens and deepens that connection.
Whenever I visited my grandparents as a child, there were several culinary traditions we never missed out on. For example, the whole family would always go out for lunch to ‘the Chinese restaurant’ (to my child’s mind, the only Chinese restaurant in Manchester, so I never asked the name), sitting on a table with a magical spinning centre so that everyone could share in the dishes that would be brought out: a shiny roasted duck, sweet fried pork, steamed shrimp and chive dumplings, fluffy bao, battered salt-and-pepper squid, and more. I loved it — the joy of eating with chopsticks, the endless refills of sweet jasmine tea, staring into tanks of live lobsters on my way to the bathroom, and of course the trips we took to the supermarket downstairs afterwards, with shelves piled high with weird and wonderful condiments and ingredients.
But as wonderful as our trips to the Chinese restaurant were, I have come to realise that the real magic was the rest of the food we ate during those visits, dishes that my grandmother would lovingly labour over for hours and hours in the kitchen, eschewing any offers we made to help. She cooked dish after dish of delicious food: filleted monkfish fried in delicate batter, with shaved cucumber and sesame oil salad; deep-fried garlic chicken with green beans braised in soy sauce; whole roasted seabass with soy sauce and spring onions, my grandmother gently forking out the soft cheek of the fish and popping it into her mouth; pork mince folded into little wontons that looked like an old woman in a bonnet, served in a delicate soup; and a dish we called ‘Paw-paw Meat’. All of this accompanied by piles of steamed rice, chilli fermented bamboo, greens stir-fried with garlic, black bean sauce.
My mum is a great cook, but she could never quite match my grandmother’s magical creations, which were special treats for our trips to Manchester—apart from Paw-paw Meat. My grandmother would always send us home with suitcases stuffed with Tupperwares to be frozen and brought out near-weekly for dinner.
Food is my grandmother’s love language: cooking all those wholesome and delicious meals was a way to show how much she cared for us. The meals she cooked were ones that tasted good to her, that reminded her of her home country, so many thousands of miles away; and so those dishes will always be comforting and flavoursome to me, too.
Before writing this piece, I couldn’t have written down a recipe for Paw-paw Meat, although I would recognise the look and taste of it in an instant, and so I called my grandmother to ask her how to cook it. She was so happy I had asked, and enjoyed reminiscing about her cooking for my family and me: “I loved making lots and lots of food for you!” she told me. Age has made her a bit forgetful and confused at times, but she managed to give me the main steps for the dish. I won’t lie to you: it’s not my absolute favourite meal, and it probably won’t win any prizes for beauty, but it is comfort food. Simple, prepared with love, warm and nourishing. A homely and familiar taste, the kind of meal you just can’t buy.
‘Pawpaw Meat’ recipe: serves 4
This is probably my favourite version of Pawpaw meat, but can be adapted to taste: add different varieties of mushrooms, or remove them and add other vegetables. My grandmother would often make this with cabbage or other leafy greens.
- 500g extra lean pork mince (5% fat)
- 2 tsp cornflour
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp (or more) sherry or cooking wine
- 4 spring onions
- a thumb sized piece of ginger
- 2 garlic cloves
- rapeseed or vegetable oil
- wood ear mushrooms (washed and soaked)
- If using, prepare the wood ear mushrooms by soaking them.
- Slice the spring onions and ginger, and mince the garlic. Set aside.
- Sieve the cornflour onto the mince and mix with chopsticks.
- Add soy sauce to the meat and stir it well until it has a very soft consistency (“like houmous,” according to Pawpaw).
- Add the sherry or wine, using your own judgement whether more needs to be added to make the mix softer!
- In a large wok or non-stick frying pan, add the rapeseed oil and heat it (get the oil very hot!)
- Place the mince mixture into the pan and stir it very well to make sure it cooks consistently.
- Once the meat has browned nicely, add the spring onion, wood ear mushrooms, ginger slices and garlic, stirring continuously.
- Serve with plenty of steamed white rice, fermented bamboo shoots and stir-fried pea shoots with garlic.