The Only Thing My Grandmother Cooked

Read this excerpt from the freshly-released anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings.
The Only Thing My Grandmother Cooked

Image courtesy of iStock.

Almost every culture has their own version of the esteemed dumpling. The freshly released anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings collects tales and recipes about a ubiquitous food from around the world. In this excerpt, Food Editor Chantal Braganza shares a recipe of her own black bean potato chops, an updated version of her Goan family recipe.

While raising two children in Mississauga in the 1990s, my father was spoiled with choices when it came to feeding us the food he loved. At the time, this Toronto suburb was a fraction of the diverse behemoth it has since grown into. Nonetheless, Mississauga was still home to a thriving ecosystem of businesses serving up regional Indian cuisines: steaming foil bags of Crayola-red tandoori chicken; foam plastic dinner trays of thalis with every variation of dal we could name; boxes of fudgy, milk-based sweets soaked in syrup and laced with crushed nuts and edible silver foil; and so on. Seemingly every style of Indian takeout was available to him at that time and place, except the Goan food my father had grown up eating.

Much like the west coast state from where it originates, Goan cuisine occupies an interesting place in what we now call India. It is distinct in its flavours and ingredients, leaning heavily toward seafood and vinegar, and Goa is one of the first regions outside of the Americas to employ in its cuisine tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers – foods introduced via trade routes from 456 years of Portuguese occupation.

These are the kinds of details my father likes to remind me of – his way of passing food knowledge down, since his own childhood in coastal Kenya’s Goan expat community had few memories of home-cooked meals. His home life was chaotic, and he found himself on his own at sixteen, until his family reunited in Toronto in the late 1970s.

However, one thing his mother, whom I called Nana, passed down to my dad was a one-dish obsession when it comes to cooking. For Nana, that dish was known as ‘potato chops’ – dumpling-like patties of mashed potato stuffed with spiced ground beef, dredged in egg and bread crumbs, then pan-fried until crisp. She rarely cooked anything else, in fact, so my dad ate potato chops for dinner and rice pudding for dessert through most of his childhood. Understandably, he got sick of both and he never once looked back fondly on either of those foods when he became a parent himself.

Maybe his disdain for potato chops explains why I remember so clearly the only time Nana cooked them for my brother and me. We were eight and nine respectively, and she lived in a one-bedroom, retirement-living apartment in Mississauga at the time. More often than not, her kitchen was stocked with the best of snacks: frozen chicken pot pies, jars of cashews, bags of Bugles, and cans of ketchup-flavoured Pringles. One weekend afternoon, our parents dropped us off at her home, and she cooked my brother and me potato chops in her little kitchen. The mashed potatoes and ground beef filling had already been prepared when we arrived. All that was left to do was form the mash into dough-like pockets and stuff them with meat before dredging, frying, and serving them with a squirt of Heinz on disposable blue plastic plates.

The meal came as a surprise to us – a home-cooked luxury, rendered as such because potato chops were a rare occurrence in our house and almost never spoken of. Nana may not have cooked much, but she had the method for preparing this particular dish down to a science: spicy vinegared beef wrapped in a salty crunch, not unlike a chicken nugget. That was the only time I tried her version of the dish and one of very few instances I have had potato chops since then—until I started trying to make them myself.

Doing so helped me to understand a lot about my grandmother’s and father’s respective personalities. Functionally, potato chops require a lot of active attention: boiling and mashing potatoes, cooking the spiced filling, assembling the chops, dredging them in egg and bread crumbs, then shallow-frying them until crisp. There is no extended resting time or long simmer on a stove. They are most often cooked as comfort meals or a party treat and make for an odd choice as a frequent weeknight dinner.


It didn’t dawn on me until after she passed that Nana didn’t cook them as often as she did because they were easy for the reluctant cook. Rather, she loved them enough to take the time to make them often – sometimes even at the expense of her children’s enjoyment of dinner. A younger version of me might have regarded this habit uncharitably or seen it as selfish, but I think her perseverance was its own gesture of love.

Like his mother, my father was always confounded by cooking – hence the takeout – except when it came to dried beans. Black beans, pinto beans, cranberry, lima. If these legumes could be cooked with an onion and a garlic clove in a pot of water, you can bet my father made a soup out of them. It took him years to learn the tricks of dried beans – about the soak and boil times and the seasoning they required. Consequently, his bean soups were often thin and undercooked, with rafts of waterlogged onion floating in the broth.

"My faaaamous bean soup!" he’d chirp any night my mom wasn’t able to make dinner, which wasn’t often, but frequent enough for my brother and me to decide early on that we hated bean soup and possibly just beans in general.

My father grew up as the sibling who was at odds with his mother. I grew up having the same relationship with my father in my early life (and, to be honest, sometimes still). And so, for a long time, I never once looked back fondly on his bean concoctions. Even when I learned to feed myself, even after I grew into a person who loves to cook, unlike him and his mother before him. For years, the idea of using dried beans over canned seemed more like a barrier to a home-cooked meal than a delicious end goal in and of itself. In some cases, I think this assumption still holds true. But I’ve mostly come around when it comes to using dried beans over canned, and the period of pandemic-enforced home cooking, in particular, proved how wrong I had been.

I’ve also been lucky enough to learn tricks of my own when it comes to dried beans: cooking them on a hard boil for ten minutes before simmering or using baking soda to speed up the process, and always salting them at the end of cooking. Perfect, articulated, smooth-as-cream legumes every time. I’ll spice them with flavours that transform the beans into an approximation of any dish I want: bacon and red wine for bourguignon; tomato paste, olives, capers, and anchovies for a puttanesca; avocado leaf and cumin for a salsa madre-based soup. Learning how to cook beans properly, in fact, made me a better cook overall. And yet there is almost no version of them I can cook that will consistently entice my own two young children to eat, let alone enjoy, them. The lesson is not lost on me, though my father has been graceful enough never to point it out; he brings them their favourite takeout instead.


The version of potato chop I’m sharing below swaps out the vinegared beef with black beans, cooked the way I prepare them for soup. This version is far from traditional, but it’s also a good example of how the way we cook evolves; it reconciles dish, ingredients, and a little light obsession into something that feels right for me.

Black Bean Potato Chops

Black Beans 1 cup dried black beans, rinsed ¼ tsp baking soda 1 bay leaf ½ onion, intact 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed 1 bird’s eye chili, split halfway but still attached at the stem 1 tsp cumin seeds ½ tsp salt

  1. Cover rinsed beans with 3 cups cold water in a pot. Set aside to soak overnight.
  2. Transfer pot to stovetop, stir in baking soda, and, without changing the water, bring pot to a hard boil for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to a simmer.
  3. Add bay leaf, onion, garlic, cumin seeds, and bird’s eye chili; cover pot and continue to simmer until beans are tender, about 60 minutes. If beans are still undercooked, continue to check them (adding water as necessary) every 10 minutes until done. Remove bay leaf, onion half, chili, and garlic cloves, if they are still intact. (If they’ve completely fallen apart, they can be mixed into the beans and cooking liquid; they’ll incorporate quickly.)
  4. Using a fork or potato masher, crush the beans into the cooking water until mostly mashed and water is incorporated. Alternately, blend beans and cooking liquid together until it becomes a thick purée.

Bean mixture can be made ahead and will keep covered in the fridge for up to three days. It will continue to thicken.

Potato Chops 3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped 1 tsp salt 1 Tbsp olive oil 2 cups black bean mixture, room temperature 2 large eggs, beaten 1½ cups Panko bread crumbs 5 Tbsp vegetable frying oil, such as canola

  1. Cover potatoes with cold water in a stock pot and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes until fork-tender, then drain. Pass potatoes through a ricer, mix with salt and olive oil, and set aside. This can be made up to one day ahead and kept in the fridge.
  2. Scoop mashed potatoes into palm-sized mounds, shape each one into a ½-inch thick disc, and press a hollow indentation in the centre with your thumb.
  3. Drop a heaping tablespoon of bean mixture in the indentation and gently press the outer edges of the potato disc up and over the bean mash, forming it into a patty-shaped disc. Continue until no more mashed potato remains.
  4. Dredge each patty in the beaten-egg wash, then the bread crumbs. Shallow-fry in vegetable oil on each side for 1 to 2 minutes until golden brown. Drain on a plate lined with paper towel and serve warm.

Note: Use any leftover bean mixture as a taco filling or toast spread, or thin out with piping-hot vegetable stock until desired consistency for one to two servings of black bean soup.

The cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings

Originally published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings, edited by John Lorinc, Coach House Books, 2022.


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