Veggie-packed light "pad thai"

pad_thai2I'm not sure when it was exactly that I stopped hating--or at least strongly disliking--Chinese food. Whenever that was, I went straight to loving it. I think there was a moment, staring at my 15-year old reflection aboard a train careening through the Chinese countryside; something clicked about the majesty, mystique, and complex contradictions that belonged to that culture, when I realized it was shameful that I'd allowed myself to be ashamed of my mixed heritage. Even as a baby, it seems I had some kind of innate aversion to being half Chinese. My mom recounts how, when she would try to speak to me in Cantonese, the 12-toned cacophony caused such distress I shrieked my lungs out. In the then homogenous town that was home through 4th grade, kids would wear pins that said "kiss me, I'm Italian". I regularly got teased with "ching chongs", and fingers stretching faces to create slanted eyes. I pretty much cried every day for a couple of years. It pains me to think how much that must have hurt my mom, who worked her butt off getting into the schools and striving to introduce beauty and diversity and respect for worlds far away.

When my sisters and I were given the gift of joining our parents on a state goodwill mission to China, three weeks provided an education worth a lifetime, no matter how much hard info we would retain from the journey. Treated to a talent show by a primary school, I was moved near to tears by the talent and the passion exploding on stage. Suddenly "Chinese" meant real people, not just an adjective I tried to avoid.

By the time I traveled to Taiwan to spend a year teaching English in between college and grad school, my taste buds had matured, and I truly loved Asian food. It was then I discovered another side of being half Chinese. To the Taiwanese, I was not Chinese. I was very clearly American, maybe even Latino. Unlike American Chinese who looked fully the part, there was no expectation that I should already speak Mandarin. When my Chinese friends learned my mom was from Hong Kong, they were shocked.

That year my family flew into Taipei after Christmas to visit, and I planned a lunch including Chinese and other ex-pat friends. I'd thought I'd done a pretty good job of preparing Asian dishes; but as we were eating, I overheard some of my Chinese friends asking one another whether or not they'd ever had Western food before. Since then, I've jumped at the opportunity to identify food as "fusion". I never make Chinese food, only fusion. I don't authentically know how. Maybe one day...but I think fusion is beautiful.

cutiefaceNow that I'm a mom, there is a new profundity accompanying the recognition that shame is something we learn. I look at my sweet baby boy, and the purity of his innocence jumps out at me. It causes a pang or two here and there for it's temporal nature. He will face, have to deal with and make sense of, countless challenges, prejudices, injustices, and hurts. They will change and shape him in ways I can't begin to imagine or hope to protect him from. I hope to help him develop a moral sense that brings with it regret and desire to right his negative choices. But no matter what, I with with a full heart he never be ashamed of who he is.

For a long time now, any kind of Asian food is not only up there with my favorites, it carries kind of a a festive feel to it. At new year, some kind of noodle dish has to happen.  I guess it stems partly from a blend of superstition and respect for the Asian tradition of "long life noodles" at the new year, bringing the eater what the name suggests. OK, pad thai's not Chinese, but as I said, all my attempts at Asian food are "fusion" anyway, and it's awfully good.

This is just loosely "pad thai". It happens to be (of course) easy to prepare and full of veggies and potential for variation. This year, as our holiday plans temporarily collapsed in one stressful day, Asian-inspired noodle dishes are appearing sooner and more often. They make me feel closer to family.

 pad_thaiLight vegetable pad thai

  • 6 ounces dried wide rice noodles
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 8 ounces shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • approximately 6 cups mixed vegetables of choice: I used a red bell pepper, a small broccoli crown, mushrooms, and some bean sprouts
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon light soy or tamari sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • dash cracked red pepper
  • generous splash of lime
  • Chopped dry-roasted peanuts
  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until just al dente, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain.
  2. Heat oil in a wok or large deep skillet over high heat until very hot. Add garlic and vegetable mix and stir-fry about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate or bowl.
  3. Add eggs to skillet and cook, stirring, until scrambled, about a minute. Add shrimp and the reserved vegetables; stir-fry until the shrimp curl and turn pink, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the noodles,  scallions, vinegar, fish sauce, soy/tamari sauce, honey, pepper, and lime juice; toss until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. If desired, sprinkle with peanuts.