In celebration of Labor Day Weekend, I’m sharing a recipe for one of my favorite picnic foods: potato salad. Or potato salad sandwich, as my Ah Ma would have it.
Everyone knows not to eat the potato salad at a picnic, right? Well, try telling that to my grandmother.
When I was around ten years old, my paternal grandparents came to stay with my family for an entire summer. During the endless weekdays, Ah Ma and Ah Gong—who spoke little English — would grab the county bus map, and a stack of coins. My younger brother and I would join them to explore California suburbia by public transportation. The buses ran infrequently and made many stops, but we managed to make to various destinations, ranging from the local Kmart to Stanford University.
In the afternoons, Ah Ma would take over the kitchen, giving my mother well-intentioned — but nevertheless unsolicited— advice like, “Butter makes everything taste better.” And that was just for the Chinese food. Round and good-natured, she was the Taiwanese answer to Paula Deen. Her other favorite ingredient was mayonnaise.
On weekends, my dad would load up the entire family in car for more exciting locales: San Francisco, Seventeen-Mile Drive, and such. In preparation for one of those trips, Ah Ma spent the morning boiling potatoes, carrots, and eggs in a pot. The cooked ingredients were diced and mixed with generous amounts of mayonnaise. But she didn’t just pack it all in a Tupperware and throw it in a cooler. No, in front of my horrified eyes, she took a slice of Home Pride white bread, topped it with a heaping scoop of potato salad, and covered it with another slice of bread. “That’s not how you’re supposed to eat it!” I screamed. She insisted this was good.
“Potato salad sandwich,” she said naturally, the way another grandmother might offer peanut butter and jelly. The bread-potato-bread pattern continued until all the slices were used. Then, she stacked the sandwiches one by one, back in the cellophane bread bag — so it resembled the original loaf, only interspersed with the potato-mayonnaise mixture.
On this particular weekend, our family was headed for Big Sur. I don’t remember much about the drive, except my father yelling, “Just focus on the road, and you won’t feel sick!” and me just wanting to squeeze my eyes shut and hoping the bilious taste in my throat would go down. Perhaps it was the windy coastal highway. Or perhaps it was being squashed four-abreast in the backseat. I blamed it on the sight and smell of the potato salad sandwiches. When we finally reached the redwood picnic area, the rest of the family tore into the loaf of sandwiches. I just drank orange juice.
For years, I laughed at the concept of potato salad squeezed between slices of white bread. Until recently, when I found this Potato Salad Bun offered at many Taiwanese bakeries (What’s that? The most well-known is the Sheng Kee chain found in many metropolitan areas with a large Asian population). Nostalgia — combined with the temptation of one white-carb stuffed inside another white-carb — prompted me to try one. Unfortunately, I loved it. If only I had given it a try when I had the metabolism of a ten-year old.
Over the years, the job of potato salad making fell to me. I’ve tried many variations of my family’s “recipe” (I use that term loosely, because we never wrote anything down, just used some of this and some of that). This is a Japanese style potato salad, more like the kind found on a Hawaiian plate lunch than the kind behind the deli counter. It is dense and mild, with no pickles, olives or sour cream. I’ve kicked it up a notch with the addition of wasabi.
Wasabi Potato Salad
•Six small Russet potatoes
•One Japanese or English cucumber (remove seeds if using a regular cuke)
•1/2 Red Onion
•1/2 c. Kewpie mayonnaise (or substitute Best Foods)
•1 tsp. of prepared wasabi for starters, or 1 Tbs. (or as much as you can stand) for more spice
•Rice Wine Vinegar, Salt and White Pepper to taste
Peel, boil and cube potatoes and carrots. Hard boil eggs and dice. Cut red onion and cucumber into 1/4″ dice. I like to leave the skin on the cucumber for added color. When the potatoes and carrots are still hot, sprinkle lightly with rice vinegar. Mix mayonnaise and wasabi. Toss with potato mixture, remaining vegetables, and eggs. Chill and serve. Makes about 20 Japanese-sized side dishes, or ten average sized portions. The buns are optional. But if you’re not concerned about refined carbs, stuff the potato salad in a sweet white roll, such as King’s Hawaiian hamburger buns, or even Home Pride white bread. Also, if you can find Trader Joe’s Wasabi mayonnaise, it’s a great substitute for both the mayo and wasabi, although you might want to cut it with some plain mayonnaise to preserve your sinuses.
Please, make sure you pack the potato salad in a cooler with ice and don’t leave it in the sun.