Family memories through food – stuffed rice noodle rolls

When Chris and I went down to Chinatown today, I picked up some he fen (long, flat sheets of steamed rice noodle), cha siu (Cantonese-style barbecue roast pork), three pounds of longan, two pounds of rambutan, and four different types of Chinese greens, among a dozen or so other delicious things. When I saw the he fen at 46 Mott, I immediately had a craving for my grandma’s rice noodle rolls, so I decided I was going to make it once we got home. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy the jarred pickled cucumbers, but I figured no one would notice or care about that other than me (Chris wouldn’t mind, and Pookster still has no clue yet).

Somehow, I got reminded of the fact that growing up, my family bought cha siu a bit differently than a lot of other Chinese families. When my grandma or mom would buy a pound or two of cha siu from their favorite Cantonese butcher and have them hack it up for them, it was not so that we’d eat it just like that with rice. They would actually incorporate cha siu into a dish they were making, whether it was my grandma’s famous stuffed rice noodle rolls (stuffed with cha siu, egg strips, minced cilantro, and pickled cucumber), stir fried into fried rice or noodles, or tucked into bao. I never recall eating the cha siu straight out of the container they’d bring home; it was always used as an ingredient or short cut to make whatever dish they were planning to make.

I didn’t realize this until college, when I started going through Boston Chinatown, and I noticed that cha siu fan, or cha siu on top of rice, was a common Chinese male worker’s lunch. It was always advertised in small hole-in-the-walls, and apparently, other families ate cha siu like this, too. When I asked an ex-boyfriend then what “cha siu fan” was, he looked at me like I was the biggest idiot and asked slowly, “what is cha siu?” to which I answered. And then he pressed, “And what is ‘fan’?” and I responded. And he then said, “So… cha siu fan is cha siu with rice.” He proceeded to question whether I even knew how to speak any Chinese or grew up eating any Chinese food. This was after I explained how cha siu was used in my house, as an ingredient rather than a main course. That didn’t really go over well because this guy was a myopic sociopath, but needless to say, this relationship was a total mistake and didn’t last long.

These rice noodle rolls are a happy memory from my childhood. Despite having a lot of issues with my parents to this day, the few happy memories we do have altogether have always been around food.

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