Fongchong, then 12 years old, had been my daughter for a good nine months before I ever made dandan noodles for her—which is inexplicable, really, considering they are my favorite Chinese noodles.
“You knew how to make this and you never made it for me?” she asked, incredulous and exasperated, after she took her first bite.
I had been struggling to feed her all this time, trying so hard to please her by learning new dishes I thought she might like—Cantonese-style chaomian, glass noodles with shrimp, Singapore-style curry vermicelli. They were mostly a bust. It wasn’t that she doesn’t like noodles—for her as for most Chinese, noodles are the weekend to rice’s weekday, a frequent occurrence but still a treat. It’s more that she doesn’t like bland, and, granted, most of my efforts were bland (except the curry, but curry is on FC’s no-eat list).
But I hadn’t made her dandanmian because I rarely cooked the real Sichuan food I had always made for me and Craig for fear that her Cantonese palate would reject the numbingness of Sichuan pepper, the nuttiness of sesame paste and peanuts, the slight hint of sweetness (she can’t abide a sweet savory dish). I should have known better however. I knew from day one with her that she lived for spicy food and bold flavors in general, so I should have known she’d eat up the full range of Sichuan flavors.
In retrospect, I think the real reason I rarely cooked my Sichuan recipes for her in the early days was because I was protecting them. My mastery of a few, beloved Sichuan classics had been hard-won, and no one was going to tell me they weren’t delicious! Especially someone who knew what she was talking about. And chances are she would sniff, pick, critique, because she had already rejected so much of what I made for her.
It bothered but didn’t hurt me when she refused American food. I knew it was going to be a very long process adapting her 11-year-old, fully formed palate to incorporate Western tastes. After all, she’d never tasted any kind of food other than Chinese when she came to us. So I didn’t take those rejections personally.
But when she rejected my Chinese food—all the effort, enthusiasm and love I put into it—she was rejecting me. It was a cleaver to the heart.
I knew that was irrational, but it was all wrapped up in the guilt I felt about taking her from her culture, in trying to replace beloved bits of that culture, the bits she loved the best, food. So when she didn’t like something I made it wasn’t just a rejection of me, but of my efforts to bring China to her.
Couldn’t she see this was all I had? I don’t look Chinese, speak Chinese or act Chinese. The only thing I do is cook Chinese. I had put all my eggs in this basket, and it had to work. So every dish, especially every Sichuan dish, became a test of how I was doing as a mother. Dandan wasn’t just another noodle dish, it was a judgement on my motherhood!
Of course this was all in my head. Not hers. She just wanted some good noodles. And with dandanmian, she finally got some.
Her pleasure and praise was effusive. Ahh, I am a good mother.
For recipe and cooking notes: Chengdu Challenge #1: Dandan Noodles (Dandanmian)