Author, Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Here, she describes going into the kitchen, and back to her roots, to learn some traditional Chinese dishes courtesy of her mother. In learning some authentic 'home-style' cooking, Celeste also received a surprising lesson in what immigrating to the US meant for her mother.
Celeste learns a few important lessons in the kitchen with her mother.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I preferred hot dogs and pasta to anything Chinese. But now I've begun to long for the food my mother cooked in my childhood: fragrant with ginger, feisty with garlic and black bean sauce and soy. The crunch of water chestnuts, the snap of bok choy, the silk of thin rice noodles on my tongue. I feel like a fraud: a Chinese-American who can't cook Chinese food.
So I went home for a cooking lesson. Who better to teach me to cook authentic Chinese food than my Chinese mother?
We're cooking cashew chicken, one of my old favourites: a simple chicken stir-fry with green beans and nuts toasted a deep brown.
"Well, actually, snow peas are typical for this dish," my mother admits. "But when we first got here" (she means to the U.S., in 1968) "I couldn't find snow peas. So I invented my own version."
It's like learning the colour red is actually blue. "You made this up?" I ask.
My mother considers. “I embellished,” she says.
The next surprise: we head not to the Chinese grocery but to the supermarket. Most of the ingredients - oyster sauce, soy sauce - are staples in her kitchen, as flour and sugar and baking powder are in Western kitchens. "All we need is the chicken," my mother says, picking up a package of boneless, skinless thighs.
...as my mother stir-fries, the 'real' dish fades from my mind. More authentic, perhaps, but not authentic to my family, a blend of Hong Kong and American midwest.
"So convenient," she beams. "Before, I had to remove the bones. Now they sell it ready to cook!"
At home, I cut the chicken and mix in soy sauce and cornstarch while my mother heats oil in a pan. Once, she used a traditional wok: cast iron, double-handled, meant for use over a blazing fire. Nowadays she's abandoned it for a Calphalon non-stick skillet. "This pan is really amazing!" she says. "Nothing sticks." She slides chicken and garlic into the pan and hands me a plastic spatula. Then she pulls out frozen green beans in a microwaveable steamer bag.
"You need to cook the beans partway and finish them in the pan," she says. "This kind is so much easier than fresh." She pops them into the microwave and fetches a tub of roasted cashews from the natural-foods section of the supermarket. "Usually you toast raw ones in the pan, but I couldn't find any. This should work okay."
But I wanted authentic, I keep thinking. This isn't how our ancestors did it; this isn't even how I remembered it. I wanted real Chinese food, not this Americanised thing. Still, as my mother stir-fries, the 'real' dish fades from my mind. More authentic, perhaps, but not authentic to my family, a blend of Hong Kong and American midwest. Delicious, but not what I'm hungry for.
My mother adds the nuts and tips everything into a blue-and-white porcelain dish. And there it is: jade-coloured beans, bites of chicken glistening in savoury-sweet sauce, fragrant cashews with spots of mahogany where they've seared against the pan. Just as I remembered it.
Celeste's book, Everything I Never Told You, is published by Blackfriars and is available from Amazon.