About Me

My mom, right, with her friend Betty.

I grew up in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. We lived in a one bedroom apartment on the corner of Stockton and Washington Streets. The bedroom was for my parents, while the living room doubled as a bedroom for my brother and I. My mom worked full time at a Chinatown sewing factory, shopped during her breaks or after work, and cooked all of our meals in the apartment’s tiny galley kitchen. It was only years later that I appreciated my mom’s ability to hold down a full time job and still have dinner on the table by 7 pm every evening.

Dinner was never a simple affair. There would always be 3 or 4 dishes, known as sung (餸), to accompany the rice. My father was not fond of leftovers, so these dishes had to be different and freshly prepared every night. At the very minimum, there would be a soup, a meat dish, and a seafood dish. Vegetables were mixed in with the meats, but they were also served as standalone dishes. As my mother’s assistant I learned the basics like snapping long beans, pounding garlic cloves with a cleaver, scraping the skin off fuzzy melons, cleaning squid, de-veining shrimp, and slicing flank streak across the grain.

Me with street food. Yichang in Hubei province, near the Three Gorges.

Me with street food at Yichang in Hubei province, near the Three Gorges. Photo taken during a family tour of China in the 1980s.

My mom was part of a large network of relatives and friends who shared recipes and discussed the latest food trends so her repertoire was constantly evolving. Over time she mastered not only everyday fare, but also all the special items that are prepared for holidays and special occasions. These included pickled pig trotters to celebrate newborns, joong (Chinese tamales) for the Dragon Boat Festival, neen goh (glutinous rice cake) and sesame seed balls for Chinese New Year, and Asian-American items like sticky rice dressing for our Thanksgiving turkey.

Many of the recipes in this blog are either directly from my mom or they are my own interpretations of what I remembered eating as a child. Getting a recipe from my mom was not always easy. She did not keep a written recipe file. Everything was in her head. When I ask her how to prepare something, the response would usually involve imprecise qualities: a little of this, a dash of that. Sometimes key ingredients would be left out: they were either understood, or added as a last minute inspiration. In order to obtain the precision required to reproduce these dishes, I had to resort to asking her to prepare the actual items and follow her around the kitchen with pencil and notepad in hand.

One important lesson I learned from this process was that precise instructions are no substitute for understanding the essence and spirit of cooking. Rather than memorizing quantities of ingredients, try to appreciate the role that each ingredient plays in achieving the final result. Along with the mastering of basic techniques, an appreciation for the “why’s” in a recipe is the path to creative cooking. Once you understand why, you’re on the road to innovation.

Treat these recipes … as a base to work from. There is nothing sacred about the text. It exists only as a guide to what your imagination can produce. Perhaps the best thing to do is to take the approach that is used in translating poetry. Word for word is obviously impossible. What one is after is the feeling of the poem, the emotion, the ‘wholeness’ of the verse. It is the same in trying to duplicate a dish from another cuisine.
— Ann and Larry Walker, To the Heart of Spain: Food the Wine Adventures Beyond the Pyrenees. Berkeley Hills Books, 1997.

Roger Fong and dungeness crab

Getting ready to cook dungeness crab, a West Coast delicacy that’s very conducive to Cantonese cooking techniques.