The week before she died, [my mother] called me, full of pride, full of life: “Auntie Lin cooked red bean soup for Joy Luck. I’m going to cook black sesame-seed soup.” “Don’t show off,” I said. “It’s not showoff.” She said the two soups were almost the same, chabudwo. Or maybe she said butong, not the same thing at all. It was one of those Chinese expressions that means the better half of mixed intentions. I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place.
The problem of translation, the problem of being wedged between two different cultures, the problem of processing an unexpected death, the problem of that colon after the word life. I teach punctuation just as I teach The Joy Luck Club, and one of the purposes is as a gate between the general (life) and the specific (cooking black sesame soup or a red bean soup). Cooking and eating are examples of enjoying life. Of course, they are.
Both red bean soup and black sesame soup are eaten as dessert soups, or tang shu. Tang shu is a concept that doesn’t translate very easily into most American foodscapes. Melted ice cream is about as close as I’ve come to a dessert soup over the course of my American upbringing. I’ve eaten many a kidney bean in my life, but I’ve eaten them as a savory dish. Which doesn’t translate very well into Chinese foodscapes. As my erstwhile Chinese roommate said, when she saw that savory red bean recipe, “Red beans are such a big part of Chinese dessert (if that’s a thing), I will always naturally associate them with sweet.”
So here is my sweet red bean soup recipe- simple and not really mine at all.
Red Bean Soup
- 2 cups of Chinese red beans, also known as azuki beans
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 8 cups of water
- a handful of dried mandarin peels*
Bring the beans, sugar, water and mandarin peels to a boil. Lower the temperature and simmer until tender, about 3 hours. Pour milk over it before you eat. Chinese cereal, as Winnie would say.
*You can buy dried tangerine peels online, but it seemed easier and less wasteful to save and dry my own in sunlight. I used the peels from 3 mandarins. Also, this step is optional.