Most of the dishes in China are regional. Like bread to the westerners here, rice is only for Chinese in the southern regions. For people living in the northern regions, steamed buns, noodles, different varieties of pancakes (饼）made of flour are the main stocks on the dinner table.
The scallion pancake is the one that both my kids love. They would order it every time a restaurant serves it when we were back in China visiting. They begged me to learn. So, here I am, learning how to make the scallion pancake.
After a few practices, I am getting better and better. The scallion pancake I made started to have many layers, crispy on the outside and soft inside. “Yummy”, my kids cried out.
But, only taste wise. Shape-wise, my pancakes are not perfectly round shaped, I can’t marry myself off, according to grandma Liu’s standards!
Grandma Liu was not my real grandma. She was a live-in housekeeper my dad hired to help my mom out. In Chinese culture, you call the elderly grandma or grandpa to show your respect.
Only in the past 30 years or so, many young girls from country villages have rushed to the big cities to seek the domestic helper’s job. When I was little, this job was mostly taken by elder women only. Some of them have a sad life story behind them, grandma Liu was one of them.
Grandma Liu was abandoned by her biological parents but was very lucky to be adopted by a very nice couple. Her dad pampered her with love and home-made toys. I would think grandma Liu had a happy childhood even though she had a rough start. Her luck ended soon after she got married. Not long after she had her son, her husband passed away. Grandma Liu was widowed in her late twenties. She never got married again.
Grandma Liu raised her son all by herself. As an illiterate woman, this was not an easy task. When she came to work for my family, her son was in his thirties.
We all loved grandma Liu dearly. She had earned our respects by being smart, happy and working hard. In those days, some basic foods such as oil, meat, egg, sugar, flour or rice in China were rationed. While we never experienced hunger, good quality foods were scarce. The government-owned grocery stores were empty most of the time and people stayed in a long line to buy fresh vegetables, fish, or anything that were not rationed.
We sometimes were eating cabbage for days because this was the only vegetable the store sold. And most of the time, they were not fresh at all. One of Grandma Liu’s unbelievable skills was that she could make the poor quality vegetables we ate for days tasted great! She would cut them into different shapes, cook them in different ways. Somehow, through her magic hands, the boring dishes were delicious to eat. That was when I started to stand by the stove watching her cooking. And that was when she started to tell me stories of her life.
We were living in a northern region then. Naturally, grandma Liu made foods from flour the most. Her cooking was like doing an art. The pancakes, dumpling wrappers were all the same thickness, perfectly round shaped. Grandma Liu said:”you have to practice hard to make the perfect shapes, make sure your kitchen is clean when you are done. Otherwise, you can’t get married, no decent men want a wife who can’t make perfect round shaped pancake. ”
Grandma Liu’s another trick that amazed my mom was she could make our very old clothes looked like perfectly ironed one without ironing them. She would carefully fold the clothes when they were about 95% dry. She put them on top of a wooden chair, then, she just sat on them, having a break herself. After a little while, the “ironing” was done and grandma Liu just got up, started doing another house chore. My mom tried a few times, she sat very still but never got the same “ironing” results.
Life was very harsh on grandma Liu. I saw her adult son coming to visit her a few times. Every time, he took money from grandma Liu. After he left, the easy smile grandma Liu always carried with her would be gone for a long while. Sometimes, I saw her staring in the distance for a long time, almost like she was kept in a horrible spell that she could not break through.
Later, when I was older, my mom told me that grandma Liu’s son was a lazy guy. At that time, most young people got married around 20, he was not married in his thirties and even worse, he was in a relationship with a married woman. He could easily get fired by just that. He squandered money he earned and always asked his mother for more money.
When my family got a chance to move to Beijing, grandma Liu was not working for us anymore but she would come to visit us sometimes. Before we moved away, my parents wanted to ask grandma Liu an important question. At that time, only very high-rank officials had a phone, mostly in their office, not their home. Grandma Liu could not read so my parents could not write to her. They went to see grandma Liu, telling her we were moving and asked her if she would like to move with us as a family member. My parents promised her that when she was too old to work, my parents would take care of her as their own parent. Grandma Liu was silent for a long while, then she told my parents that she couldn’t leave her son behind.
We never saw grandma Liu again.
Years later, we talked about grandma Liu, wondering how she was. We all hoped that at her end of life, her son had changed to be a responsible adult and treated her well. But sadly, in our hearts, we all knew this was a far reached hope.
I wish grandma Liu would know what a warm memory she had left with our family, and what an impact she had on me. Whenever I can’t make a perfectly round shaped pancake, I would remember what she said to me with a smile: you can’t marry yourself off with an ugly looking pancake.