Amidst the hectic pace and chaos of modern life, we often forget the importance of family. Whether it is the family we are born into or one we build for ourselves, it is love that keeps us together. We must continue to cultivate this relationship if we were to maintain a healthy balance in life. Mid-Autumn Festival is an opportunity for Chinese families to reunite, and my family never fails to celebrate it with a feast. This year, with the upcoming first anniversary of the publication of my cookbook, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking, I’m expanding my celebration with a virtual feast to include my fellow North American bloggers, friends and food enthusiasts whom I consider as family.
When my brother got married in Singapore more than two decades ago, the wedding banquet included a braised wild duck dish. As a city state Singapore does not produce much of its food, never mind finding wild ducks. So the banquet chef at the restaurant provisioned imported wild ducks from Germany. In order to show evidence that the ducks were in fact wild, I remembered the chef showing us bullets left in the duck before butchering and cooking them. That was my first encounter with wild fowl.
A few days ago I talked with Andrew Coe about his recently published book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Coe has created a scholarly work with extensive research and fascinating findings, enlivened by entertaining narratives and anecdotes. Yesterday I posted my impressions and reactions to some of the findings in the book, today I’d like to share with you highlights of my conversation with him.
Like many immigrants to America I constantly search for food of my homeland. This search continues even now after more than thirty years. When I first arrived in the U.S. during the 1970’s the most common Chinese food was still chop suey. I remember being horrified when I was served chop suey as Chinese food at my college dormitory. Not only was it unrecognizable, but also tasted positively vile. I wondered how Chinese food had turned into this mess. Chop Suey: a Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, a new book by Andrew Coe, helps answer this question.
Last summer during one of my Red Cook Private Chinese Kitchen dinners, I accidentally let a metal steamer run out of water and burnt a hole in its bottom. Dalia Jurgensen, who was then assisting me in the kitchen, told me that she’d done the same thing while cooking at Nobu. We giggled quietly to ourselves knowing that we’d probably never admit such an error to anyone outside the kitchen. I quickly took the steamer off the stove, cooled it under running water and tossed it in the trash. These private moments are the kind of things Dalia shares in her new book Spiced.
Dalia left a desk job in publishing to become a pastry chef. How she started out as a novice cook at Nobu, worked her way through Layla and La Cote Basque to become the pastry chef of Veritas is told with vivid details in her book. She illuminates not only the mundane incidents in the kitchen but also the professional and personal exploits of the staff, as well as the politics in the restaurant world. As you can imagine it’s much more racy than just burning a hole in a pot.
First a disclosure. I am a fan of Jennifer 8. Lee’s writing so everything I am about to write is terribly biased. This is not a review of Jenny’s book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, but an expression of how it resonates in my life as I discover my Chinese roots through food. Everyone in America is to some extent an immigrant. The closer you are to being a first generation immigrant like me, the more you think about what part of you is “American” and what part of you is not. Jennifer 8. Lee, in her book writes about her food-centered journey of self-discovery just as I continually do.