I swear. Ever since we hired our āyí (Mandarin for “housekeeper” or “auntie”) last July, my life has basically become a modern-day Mary Poppins.
Every time Mao Mao knocks on the door, our ears perk up like bunnies. For the last 10 months, she’s seldom showed up empty handed. She can be caught baring gifts ranging from freshly pickled veg to homemade bāozi. Naturally, she’s an animal lover, so she’s even keen on bringing over treats for my pup to tear into.
Now, it doesn’t stop at food. She one day learned that my boyfriend has a collection of 1’s, which he refers to as The Ones Project, piling up in an old shoebox. Mao Mao loved the idea so much that she decided to contribute by giving him 1’s for change after every time we paid her for the effortlessly amazing work she does around out quaint little home.
You can practically hear her whistle while she dances around sweeping our floor.
In order to return the many good deeds she’s done, we’ve sometimes given her baked goods or cute little accessories. But we couldn’t keep playing this game of give and take much longer – we needed to share a meal.
We were introduced to Mao Mao through our friend’s mom, so she suggested we head over to her place to indulge in what was clearly going to be an awesome home-cooked meal. With a 30-year friendship under their belts, we knew we were going to eat the same traditional foods that these Chinese families grew up eating together. Needless to say, I was pumped.
Upon our arrival, we were smacked in the face with the strong aromas of five spice, pan-fried fish, and greeted with a big hug from Mao Mao, who seemed to be on the receiving end of our usual anticipation.
Here’s our friends mom nervously giggling while preparing bāozi.
After being introduced to the cutest dad I’ve ever met, we were asked to sit down and get comfortable. Was I comfortable? I don’t know. Ask my maternity pants that I wear specifically for Thanksgiving. It was about to go down.
My friend owns a bar, so she brought home a bottle of Chinese whiskey for us to sip on. Bottoms up!
While we sat around with our friend’s old man practicing our Mandarin and encouraging each other to drink, the cold dishes arrived.
This is lotus root dressed in sesame oil, vinegar, and soy sauce. Simple. Crunchy. Addicting. I fell in love with this dish so hard that I tried my own variation at home, which of course was lacking the motherly love this one had.
A wide range of the pickled vegetables in the north of China are inspired by the North Korean pickling method. This is another root vegetable I’ve never been able to identify rubbed in rice vinegar, chili oil, and some sugar.
This is a variation of the spicy root vegetable above with heat that hits you after you’ve chewed and swallowed. This one will make you sweat. The boyfriend preferred this style compared to the one above, as it lacks the intense acidity due to being quick-pickled.
I eat these mushrooms weekly and I have no idea what they’re called in English. Their meaty texture will please the vegetarian palate with ease. Here, they’re prepared Dōngbêi (north east China) style by being coated lightly in potato starch, fried, coated once more, and then fried again to make a perfectly crisp and light side. I’m a sucker for a good crunch.
This pressure-cooked beef and carrot dish will make you wanna slap your momma. Just kidding. But really, it was incredibly tender and the carrots made me want to say zàijiàn to potatoes forever. There were hints of five spice and cinnamon, which are common spices used for cooking beef or pork at home, but not so much at restaurants.
Alas, the bāozi arrived and I was hating myself for not saving more room to eat ’em up. I tried to be a lady and explain that I was stuffed, but gave in after about two seconds. Good thing I did, because these beef and bell pepper bāozi were even better than the last time I ate them.
It sure was hard to say goodbye to such an awesome group of family and friends. Out of all the wonderful homes I’ve been invited into to share a meal, this was by far my favorite.