I have one more month in Los Angeles until my journey to China begins — where I will be foraging for recipes for the next two years. The impermanence of my time back home is making me proactively nostalgic for all the things I’m going to miss: the stillness of suburban Los Angeles, palm trees, the perpetually blue sky. Most of all, my mom’s Taiwanese home cooking.
When it comes to cobbling together a dish, Mother has a minimalistic style that’s hard to find outside of her kitchen. She cooks with the flavors of Taiwan in mind but dulls it down with less salt, less oil and less sugar.
“Restaurant food is too unhealthy,” she’s convinced. And whenever she sees me toying with a complicated recipe with too many sauces and too many measurements, she’ll shake her head and tell me that cooking shouldn’t be that difficult.
“Taste it for the flavor!” she’ll instruct. “If it’s not enough, add more.”
I like to think that I’ve inherited some of my casualness toward life from her. Because when it comes to planning for my upcoming trip, I’ve been remarkably Zen about it all. (Though despite her calm approach toward cooking, my mother gets extremely stressed and detailed when it comes to trip planning. But that’s beside the point.)
I have a one-way ticket to Taiwan and about a month’s worth of accommodations planned out. I’m starting off with three weeks in Taiwan, where I will be taking cooking classes and writing articles. Then, right after Christmas, I have a ticket for Shanghai and intentions to eventually end up in Hangzhou by February.
Gear-wise, I have a large backpack and a daypack from Cotopaxi. I’ll be lugging around a small bag of clothes, a fleece jacket, a rain jacket, running shoes, sandals, a sleeping bag liner that will work both as a blanket and a mosquito deterrent, a pocketknife, basic toiletries and, most importantly — a notebook, a pen, my camera and a laptop.
And that’s it. Travel is remarkably simple as a single person with very few needs.
Itinerary-wise, I’m structuring it around interesting people and restaurants. I’m meeting with friends and friends of friends. I’ve reached out to restaurants and cooking schools. So far, I have plans to gather recipes for pineapple cake and beef noodle soup from Taiwan. My schedule is rather loose right now — purposefully so. I know that the best stories are the ones I haven’t yet found. And I’ll find them when I’m on the ground, in the midst of conversations with strangers.
Similar to my mom’s approach to cooking, I don’t like elaborate and over-planned lists. There is no set itinerary or complicated schedule. My goal is to find interesting people and their recipes. In life I’ve learned the most fascinating people are the ones that don’t necessarily have a website, contact information or even a set schedule.
Story hunting is not easy, but it’s also not as difficult as everyone might think.
“That’s it?” I said when I watched my mom put together her "drunken chicken." It took her less than 10 minutes to throw all the ingredients in. The entire dish took 35 minutes.
She’s been making drunken chicken for more than two decades and I had always thought her chicken had some sort of elaborate seasoning combination. It’s inspired by Taiwan’s "three cup chicken," which traditionally calls for one part soy sauce, one part rice wine and one part sesame oil. None of the above ingredients are in my mom’s version, but the results are similar: it’s sweet and savory, it’s earthy and ideal over a bowl of piping fresh white rice. And there was always an ingredient I could never pinpoint. It was malty and woody and extremely subtle.
Turned out to be a can of Budweiser.
Here’s the recipe:
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