When two becomes one
When I went abroad for the first time in my life at age 15, I traveled with Po-Po to Taipei, Taiwan. My parents were still illegal U.S. inhabitants at the time, which meant they couldn’t go in and out of the country without serious repercussions. Po-Po thought it’d be fun to make me her travel partner and I fixated on the thought of non-stop boba milk tea and Hello Kitty consumption.
Taiwan is a tiny island that lies on the Tropic of Cancer. It’s humid and occasionally smells of hot garbage. It’s also one of my favorite places to visit because the food is out-of-control delicious and encompasses diverse regional Chinese cooking. Not sure if I have to thank Chiang Kai Shek or Mao for that—but the mass exodus of Mainland Chinese people pre-Cultural Revolution resulted in a new—and not always welcomed—Taiwanese culture and cuisine.
Po-Po and I started our Taiwan mornings with hot bowls of soy milk and deep fried crullers. Lunchtime was a foodie’s wet dream—a plethora of street vendors’ snacks followed by home-cooked specialities at a family friend’s apartment. Dinner was a grand spectacle of a meal—courses upon courses of perfection on plates. After dinner, as is the Taiwanese standard, we’d end up at a night market to indulge in yet another round of eats.
On that trip, I was introduced to one of my favorite Taiwanese/Chinese hybrid dishes: 牛 肉 捲 餅 or Niu Rou Juan Bing—braised beef rolled up in a scallion pancake, served with herbs and a sweet soy-based sauce. It’s what I call the “Chinese Burrito,” usually served at beef noodle soup joints. It was love at first bite. There are so many versions of this dish so naturally, I decided to recreate it by borrowing some of Po-Po’s signature recipes.
I started serving my version during dinners with friends at my old apartment in Park Slope. As I frantically tried to prep my main courses, I would distract my early arrivals with this as a snack. I was surprised by the reception this humble burrito would receive. Po-Po's recommendation for the beef’s braising liquid with scallion pancake recipe did not disappoint. Then to top it all off with Po-Po's homemade hot sauce—which gets overnighted to me from California by my mom once a year—I can see why it’s constantly an instant crowd pleaser.
Even though Po-Po never made this exact dish at home, it has her name written all over it. It’s both Taiwanese and Chinese and full of flavor. That’s the essence of Po-Po’s home-cooking.