A Taste Unlike Any Other: Mom’s Zhajiangmian

Mother’s Day this year consisted of a three-way video call between my parents in Taiwan, my sisters in Southern California, and myself in the SF Bay Area. While this isn’t particularly uncommon for my family, given our long history of being spread out in different parts of the world, we were spread out by necessity this year, thanks to the coronavirus. I started writing this post last fall, before abandoning it for slightly less intimidating topics. But this year, as we were unable to celebrate with my mom or give her anything of value, I figured this was the next best way to honor the person who brought me into this world. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. This is for you.

“Your mom is a very strong woman.”

That’s what a random stranger told me, after she’d finished doing an impromptu palm reading for my mom as we sat on a bench in a busy shopping mall one afternoon. We’d decided to take a break after walking miles around the mall and it was then that the lady approached us, offering to tell us our fortunes.

This was at least 15 years ago, if not longer. While I don’t recall exact details of that exchange, the comment about my mom being a strong woman stuck with me. Although it was a little disconcerting at the time to be told this by a supposedly psychic lady, I can now confidently say as an adult that her statement is entirely true.

Growing up, there were so many things about my home life that I took for granted, not least of which was the fact that my mom was almost entirely responsible for providing for us on a daily basis. From home-cooked meals to chauffeuring us around to our various after school activities to being the mediator of fights and soother of angsty emotions, my mom did it all. With my dad busy with work and eventually, lots of international travel for his business projects, the chaos of domestic life fell largely on my mom to manage. And she did it all with competence, confidence, and fearlessness.

Some single-digit birthday I don’t recall. Unclear who thought frosting on my face would be cute, but I guess it makes a good photo op.

When I started cooking for myself in college, I’d regularly call my mom to ask her how to make certain dishes. She wasn’t the kind of home cook that made elaborate meals or spent hours in the kitchen unless she had to. But her cooking, which has always been comforting, nourishing, and understatedly delicious, was what I craved most once I left home.

One of my favorite dishes my mom makes is 炸醬麡 zhajiangmian, which literally means fried sauce noodles. It’s a classic northern Chinese dish that’s comforting and filling, despite the lackluster literal translation. Traditionally, the sauce is a thick, dark meat sauce that quickly stains the sides of your mouth (and your clothes if you’re not careful) with every bite. My mom’s version is lighter and more savory with a spicy kick, but it’s the version that I very much prefer over the traditional one. Topped with some freshly sliced cucumber or served with blanched vegetables on the side, my mom’s zhajiangmian was a signature in my family’s repertoire of meals.

The first time I made it was for a class video project in high school. The final result looked pretty good and tasted better than I expected, though it was definitely lacking certain notes of flavor that was usually present when my mom made it. A few years later when I started living the apartment life in college, I revisited this zhajiangmian recipe, determined to perfect the taste. It took a few more tries, but eventually the steps to making it became second nature to me. Although my fledgling cooking skills still occasionally let me down at times, this was the one dish I was confident enough to serve to other people.

In one memorable instance, I made it for my college roommates and a few of our friends, which included a guy I had a hopeless crush on.* When it came time for everyone to dig in, I discreetly watched him, trying to gauge his reaction. He took a bite and paused before asking, “Is this sauce from scratch?”

You can imagine how proud I was in that moment as I triumphantly declared that, yes, the sauce was from scratch, thank you very much.

*Sadly, despite my best efforts to woo him with my cooking, nothing ever did happen with that guy. His loss.


Around this time was also when I started having real, candid conversations with my mom about what her life had been like thus far. And it was then that I started realizing how much my idyllic childhood was a result of her endless sacrifice, compromise, and enduring sense of familial obligation and responsibility. Prior to getting married and starting a family, my mom had ambitions of becoming a college professor and had started down the path of achieving that goal. But life happened and before she knew it, she was a full-time mother of three kids, juggling everyone else’s needs and putting her own on the back burner.

Domesticity had never been a goal for her and in fact, had been something she couldn’t understand as a young woman. So to find herself in the very position she had once scorned must have been added insult to injury. “I actually really don’t like to cook,” she told me in one of those conversations, which shocked me and forever changed how I saw her cooking. Because to be able to produce that many meals per week, of that caliber, and remain vigilant about nutritional value, all while actively disliking the act of cooking?

That’s a true superhero feat right there. I can barely do this on a regular basis for a household of two people, let alone an entire family with growing kids, and I LIKE cooking.

Over the years, I’ve developed my cooking skills and have expanded my repertoire beyond just the dishes my mom taught me. She’s also good-naturedly said that my version of her zhajiangmian now tastes even better than hers. But honestly, taste isn’t really the important thing here. The important thing is what this dish symbolizes and represents. To me, her zhajiangmian is a delicious example of my mom’s love and dedication to her family. It’s also a shining demonstration of her creativity and ingenuity, because no one else makes zhajiangmian the way she does.

The most common version of the traditional recipe calls for a base of diced or minced pork sauteed in yellow soybean paste and sweet bean sauce. I’ve had this version before and while it’s delicious, it can feel quite heavy especially when mixed with thick, hand cut noodles. To cut down on the amount of meat involved and lighten the sauce up, my mom’s version calls for diced bean curd along with minced pork, simmered in a combination of sweet bean sauce, broad bean sauce, and spicy broad bean sauce. To bind the sauce together, she adds a beaten egg at the end to finish it off before ladling it atop some thin or medium-width wheat noodles.

Traditionalists might argue it’s not “real” or “authentic” enough, but that’s not really the point here. To me, every time I make it, it’s a reminder of everything my mom has done for us, often at her own sacrifice, and how I wouldn’t be here today without her.

Back when matching mommy and me outfits were all the rage.

As an aside, my mom’s zhajiangmian was the first dish I ever made for my boyfriend, early on in our dating journey when we were still figuring out if we were going to be a thing. He says that even before he tasted it, he was already committed to sealing the deal. However, I’d like to think that it tipped the scales in my favor because that same night, he told me he liked me (which is a rare confirmation of feelings in modern-day dating!) and gave me a proper kiss. Coincidence?

You can be the judge of that.

As my family all shelters in place in different geographic locations, I’m grateful that none of us are weathering this pandemic alone. I’m sure we all drive each other crazy from time to time (as evidenced by the sisterly fight that broke out over our Messenger video call on actual Mother’s Day in which my mother, once again, had to referee and mediate), but knowing that we all have someone nearby for immediate human contact is a huge blessing and privilege. When all this is over, I’m looking forward to having us all together again, perhaps enjoying a meal of our favorite zhajiangmian.

Christmas 2019, the last time we all got together as a family.