Uncovering my grandfather’s war pain through his cooking

Nov 12, 2018

Plates and bowls always leaned in a shaky stack in the fridge when I returned home from school, leftovers my grandfather cooked earlier that day. The sharpness of chopped scallions would linger in the air and waft through the house.

A man of few words, Yeh Yeh, as we called him at home, preferred to speak through the food he prepared. Born in rural Shandong province in 1922, he grew up learning how to cook the regional staples of northern China: steamed buns, pork dumplings, and hand-pulled noodles.

But his signature dish was the scallion pancake, a recipe he perfected on the front lines of war.

In 1946, the Communist forces had cornered the Kuomintang army in the Chinese Civil War. In their retreat out of Qingdao, Shandong, the Kuomintang supplemented their dwindling troops by rounding up and capturing young men against their will.

My grandfather, then 25 years old, was lured into the army by the false promise of a new job in the city. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late. He left behind a pregnant wife and two sons.

My grandfather in Taiwan in 1991.
My grandfather in Taiwan in 1991. / Photo: Diane Chiang

Thrown into atrocious military campaigns as “new recruits,” my grandfather and others assisted on the front lines, feeding soldiers and tending to the wounded. In Jinan, Shandong’s capital, the troops camped out in a moat for eight days to defend the city. Bombers shelled the ground forces relentlessly. The soldiers stayed immersed in moat water until their skin started peeling, my grandmother told me decades later.

Over the next five years, the troops moved from city to city as the Communists drove the Kuomintang further south. During that time, my grandfather saw the worst of the civil war. Tens of thousands of soldiers died fighting for a cause they fell into, and countless others were forced to retreat to Taiwan, unable to return to their homelands.

In 1951, my grandfather was stationed in Kinmen, the Kuomintang’s last stronghold between mainland China and Taiwan. There, he and a fellow cook were tasked with feeding the starving troops twice a day. Limited food supplies on the island made cooking nearly impossible. The two cooks had to quickly figure out how to feed the angry, starving soldiers with whatever they had on hand.

Rice was expensive and hard to find, but barley flour could be imported cheaply from the mainland 6 miles away. Unlike wheat flour, which is rich in flavor, barley flour is coarse and bland, but my grandfather found solace using it to prepare food from his homeland.

With barley flour, Yeh Yeh made magic.

With barley flour, Yeh Yeh made magic. Unleavened dough became noodles. Baking powder added to rising dough became mantou (馒头), steamed buns the size of a fist.

And then there was his specialty, scallion pancakes. A street staple of Shandong, scallion pancakes are flat, palm-sized flour cakes scattered with green onions. Crispy on the outside and chewy in the center, scallion pancakes satisfy a savory craving when dipped in soy sauce.

As a child, I would wait impatiently at my grandfather’s side while the pancakes sizzled and hissed in the hot pan. Yeh Yeh cooked with intense conviction, meticulously working the dough with military precision. His years in the army had perfected his technique, and his hands flitted about like machinery as he kneaded and rolled the dough. Cooked at the right time and temperature, the crispy pancakes gave way to a soft snap as they tore. Yeh Yeh would watch approvingly as I devoured them whole off the stove.

My grandfather kneaded dough with military precision.
My grandfather kneaded dough with military precision. / Photo: Diane Chiang

In the war, food supplies were scarce, and the soldiers found creative ways to add to their diet. They soon discovered scallions and cilantro growing in nearby fields and added them to their pancakes. They bought chili peppers with the little wages they had to eat with their steamed buns.

Soybeans were boiled in saltwater to make soup. Marinated peanuts dried under the sun became salted peanuts. Pigs were raised for meat, which became filling for buns and dumplings. Eventually, the soldiers realized they could grow sorghum, a cereal grain, and sell them to local liquor factories in exchange for white rice.

After the war, my grandfather stayed in Taiwan and remarried. He spoke little about himself or his past, and I never thought to ask. It was hard to understand his heavy Shandong accent, characterized by its rough R’s and nasal sounds, different from the lighter, airy Taiwanese Mandarin I grew up speaking. He, too, found it difficult to communicate with me. Instead, we bonded over kung fu movies, period dramas, and the food he made.

My grandfather, third from left in front row, with his coworkers at a restaurant in Taiwan. Many former KMT soldiers remained in touch.
My grandfather, third from left in front row, with his coworkers at a restaurant in Taiwan. Many former KMT soldiers remained in touch. / Photo: Diane Chiang

Up until the end of his life, my grandfather’s dietary habits changed little from his military days. He enjoyed his solitude and preferred eating alone in his room, unless of course he was eating with me. His meals usually consisted of a simple bowl of congee, rice, or a steamed bun paired with heavy, salty side dishes.

Yeh Yeh continued to cook for the family until advanced lung cancer left him immobile. When he stopped cooking altogether, our bond faded, but his love never wavered. After he passed away, my family filled the empty nooks and crannies of the kitchen with stories of his life. I learned more about him than I ever did through the tales my grandmother, aunt, and father told.

Yeh Yeh’s departure made me wonder what opportunities I missed learning about my grandfather and his past. I wish I had asked. The pancakes passed down through the generations—what secrets do the crusts hold? What unspoken words and untold sentiments hide between the thin flour layers, pressed, and forever silenced?

When my grandfather made scallion pancakes, the simplicity of the meal overcame language barriers and transcended generations. I’ve now inherited his story, much as I have inherited his recipe for perfect pancakes. In his absence, the legacy Yeh Yeh left behind—the duty to tell our story—is his gift to me.

Asian-AmericansTaiwanChinese cuisineGrandfatherCultural inheritance