Pig Knuckle Soup

My mother believes in soup. Whenever I was too sick to go to school, she would start a pot bubbling. I remember the reek of blood leaching out of bones. The suds that rise to the surface of the boiling water and the yellow pools of fat hiding below. When my mother wasn’t looking, I would lift the lid and stir. There at the bottom of the pot lay the ruins of animals, vegetables and minerals.

My mother the Chinese cook
My mother and me

Drink, my mother would say. The soup will make you feel better. Or, it’ll clear up your complexion and make your teeth strong. The Cantonese have a soup for every woe, each carefully calibrated to serve a particular purpose. Though in my memory, they all tasted the same.


At school in sunny Southern California, there were different, more exotic tastes to savor. Sloppy Joe on Thursdays or taquito on Fridays. On Sundays, after mass, there was a menudo breakfast. It’s a concoction worthy of my mother made of tripe and beans and chiles. We ate it from big bowls balanced on our knees while the mariachi bands played.

My brothers and I were the only Chinese at our school in East Los Angeles. We were as dark-skinned as any of our Mexican-American friends. We wanted to become gang members too, though the good kind that had kids and ate menudo on Sundays.

run run shaw

Chinatown grocery store
Yee Sing Chong Co. Chinatown, view 6. Owner: Los ngeles Public Library. Source: Calisphere

My mother always insisted that we attend Mass but the real pilgrimage for our family was to Chinatown every Saturday. Our first stop was always the Yee Sing Chong Market on Broadway. My mother loaded up on essentials she couldn’t find at Lucky’s supermarket. Soy sauce and sesame oil by the gallon. Sweet bean paste and pork knuckles. Bags of rice the size of my baby brother. My father would heave the lot into the back of our old Ford Country Squire station wagon.

But we didn’t come to Chinatown just to shop. There was always dinner and a movie, both Chinese of course. We must have seen every movie ever made by Run Run Shaw, each one gorier than the last. The hero always dies with his family and his fellow warriors and all of their families.

My brothers and I learned to speed-read in those dingy little theaters. Our eyes eagerly scanned the English subtitles in search of an explanation for all that gore. At home, we would practice our sword master skills, jabbing and thrusting our way to death, over and over on the living room floor.


We lived in a spartan house. My parents didn’t have a lot of money in those days. Their friends struggled too. They had all come to the United States in the 40’s and 50’s to get an education. By the time they were done, the way home had closed.

They would meet at each other’s house once a month to gamble. The women played mahjong and the men, poker. Every visit would end with a bowl of zhōu (粥), a savoury rice porridge studded with shredded scallions and bits of spicy mustard green pickles.


When I get sick now, zhōu is what I want to eat. And since there are no street peddlers in Amsterdam selling bowls of steaming zhōu, I have to make it myself.

When my kids were little, I’d take them to do the shopping. We’d visit Jan the milkman and Lex the greengrocer. If I wanted to make Chinese food, I wouldn’t make the trek into Chinatown. Instead, we stopped at the local toko. That’s Bahasa for shop, though in Holland it usually refers to one that sells Asian groceries. The loanward comes from Indonesia, in the time when it was a colony of the Netherlands.

Chinese have lived in the Indonesian archipelago since the time of Kubla Khan. But the tumult of the 20th century caused many ethnic Chinese to emigrate. The Japanese occupation during WWII, the subsequent war of independence from the Dutch, the virulent anti-Chinese discrimination in Indonesia.

The Dutch use lots of loanwords from Indonesia. Senang, Malay for happiness and comfort. Indo, on the other hand, is a coined term used primarily in the Dutch East Indies to identify anyone of mixed Dutch and Indonesian heritage. In China, people of mixed blood are not widely admired. Yet, the woman at the toko was always happy to see my kids. They’re Indo, she would say enthusiastically.

My parents worried when I married a Dutchman. Would I face prejudice and discrimination in 1990s Holland, just as they had in 1950s California? To them, Holland seemed farther than the moon. To me, they had made the longer journey.


Chinese recipes
My trusty old Chinese cookbook

Nowadays, I take my recipe book to the tiny Chinatown here in Amsterdam. I point at the ingredients I want. The recipes are written in the traditional characters I don’t know and translated into an English I don’t trust. The shopkeeper and I use a mangled medley of Cantonese and Mandarin, English and Dutch. I can usually find something I can use, though maybe not what I wanted.

I’m making soup tonight. I’ll start with pork knuckles, lotus roots and goji berries. Flavor it with cinnamon sticks, anise seeds and peppercorns. If I’m feeling extravagant, I might add some dried abalone. Texture my soup with wood fungus and bamboo knots and dried chestnuts. Then I’ll steep it until my whole house smells like home.

Chinatown supplies
Goji berries, mushrooms, bean thread, star anise, chestnuts