My mother-in-law wanted a grandchild so badly, she went to melodramatic lengths to convince me of the urgency to reproduce immediately. She talked to me about it daily, giving various reasons for why sooner was better, many of which were reasonable. But one day, she made a ridiculous statement.
“I can help you now,” she said, “But if you wait too long, I might go blind.”
“Why would you go blind?” I asked, really irritated by this ongoing barrage, which had started literally the day after our wedding. “Anything could happen to anyone, but what makes you think that you will go blind?”
“It could happen,” she retreated (temporarily), “And if it does, I won’t be able to help you take care of my grandchild.”
A few years later, I gave birth/gave her what she wanted, and she couldn’t wait to help. It was a crash course in Traditional Chinese Medicine beliefs around childbirth, and again we butted heads. This immediate postpartum period is known as “confinement,” and I did not want to be confined. My mother-in-law was shocked that I was so ignorant of the beliefs that had been passed down through generations of mothers in her family.
“You’re not going to take a shower or wash your hair for a month, right?”
I felt dirty and exhausted, and there was nothing more I craved than a hot shower and unmatted hair. “What do you mean?”
“If you take a shower, you will lose all of your heat, and you will be sick. And then you won’t be able to take care of my grandchild.”
Sometimes, it’s better to do than to say. Despite our little tiffs, I was appreciative of the meals she cooked for me. She made Chinese soups and stews, all of which were convenient for me to eat whenever I got the chance in between feedings and diaper changes.
She expressed her love through pig feet, of all things. Trotters. She was wise to cut them up small enough that I thought it was a more palatable part of hog, perhaps shoulder. Stewed in a salty-sweet braise of soy sauce, sugar, and Chinese black vinegar, these pig parts were paired with the flavor and texture contrasts of papaya and boiled peanuts. I loved the velvety texture of the pork fat and the silky braise spooned over steamed rice. Only years later did I come across in some reading that the combination of trotters and peanuts is a traditional Chinese recipe to promote breastmilk supply. My mother-in-law fooled me for my own good, and of course for the benefit of her grandchild.
The papaya is an interesting non-traditional addition to this stew. I think it came from the circuitous route of my mother-in-law’s life from her early years in China and Hong Kong to her married life in Trinidad, where she raised her children with a backyard filled with trees bearing papayas, mangoes, bananas and starfruit.
This is the best kind of family recipe– one that carries on cultural and family traditions, but also the individual stamp of each successive generation. In my version of this traditional Chinese stew, I am keeping in my mother-in-law’s papaya for taste and family history. For my own contribution, I am substituting more familiar pork shoulder for the trotters. But if you have a need to boost breast milk production, don’t argue with my mother-in-law or thousands of years of traditional Chinese medical knowledge– go with the trotters.
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Chinese Braised Pork with Peanuts and Papaya
2 lbs pork shoulder, skin on, cut into 3/4″ cubes
12 oz raw shelled peanuts
2 Tbsp oil for frying
3 inches of unpeeled fresh ginger, cut into three pieces
6 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
1/4 cup Chinese rock sugar (may substitute regular sugar)
1 cup Chinese black vinegar
1 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine)
8 cups water, plus more to boil peanuts
papaya, cut into 3/4″ cubes
Accompaniment: steamed white rice
1. Pour peanuts into a heavy stock pot and add enough water to cover by a few inches. Cover and boil for 30 minutes, until slightly soft. Drain, rinse, and set aside.
2. Pour a few tablespoons of oil into the pot, and fry ginger and garlic until aromatic.
3. Add pork to the pot, and fry for a few minutes until the meat changes color.
4. Add peanuts and stir and fry for another minute.
5. Add all remaining ingredients except papaya and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.
6. After one hour, add papaya and simmer again for at least another hour, ideally two, until pork and peanuts are very tender.
7. Serve over steamed rice.
© 2011 Linda Shiue
- The Asia Issue: Bites: Exotic Tastes in China, Vietnam, Singapore and Japan (travel.nytimes.com)
- republished April 7, 2011 in Asia Magazine