I grew up in San Francisco surrounded, on the one hand, by the immigrant Chinese traditions of my family and relatives, and, on the other, by innovative American culture. My earliest memories of food are of the extraordinary meals my mother and father prepared for us (my brother and me) and of the efforts they made to ensure that we ate well. Their care was not only a matter of selecting the freshest ingredients, but also for the authenticity with which they replicated the traditional Cantonese dishes of their youth in China during the 1930s and forties. This connection to the cooking of old-world China coupled with the discovery of Julia Child on television (and her “exotic” dishes) shaped my lifelong affair with food and cooking. At the age of thirteen I began an apprenticeship with Josephine Araldo, a French cooking teacher. Those lessons initiated an exploration of other cuisines and led me, eventually, to my career in food.
I spent much of my early professional life as the test kitchen director for over forty cookbooks published by Time Life Books. In the early nineties after growing weary of producing what had become soulless work with formulaic recipes, I developed a yearning to reconnect to the tastes and foods of my childhood. Over the next few years I made numerous trips back to San Francisco from my home in New York to cook with my 70-year old mother and 82-year old father. It took much cajoling and great persistence to convince them to teach me their recipes. At the beginning, my focus was on a precise recording of the recipes. Eventually, and to my great surprise, as we cooked my parents who had always been reticent about talking about the past began to share memories of their lives in China and accounts of their early days in America. This is how I came to learn a large part of my family’s history. What started as a little recipe project soon blossomed into a memoir cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1999. The book was awarded the IACP Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award, in addition to being a finalist for an IACP First Cookbook Award, and a James Beard world International Cookbook Award. It was also featured in a special segment on CBS Sunday Morning. Many of the relatives and friends who taught me their recipes and shared their stories have since passed away. The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen feels to me now almost like a treasured family album.
My second cookbook, The Breath of a Wok, grew out of the realization that most Chinese Americans know little about their own culinary traditions, specifically wok cooking. I had become aware also of how cooks in China were abandoning their classic, well-seasoned iron woks for inferior nonstick cookware. In a tribute to wok cookery and out of a desire to reignite its popularity, I partnered with Alan Richardson to create what the acclaimed food historian and author Betty Fussell described as, “a bridge between cultures for a Chinese-American in search of history and destiny. It is a remarkable collaboration between a writer and a photographer that reveals what the wok symbolizes—a craft, an art, a container of communal harmony and balance.” That book won the IACP Le Cordon Bleu Best International Cookbook Award, the Jane Grigson Award for Distinguished Scholarship, and the World Food Media Awards’ Best Food Book. It was also featured in the New York Times, on NPR’s All Things Considered and was selected as one of the best cookbooks of the year by Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, Bon Appetit, and Epicurious.
The Breath of a Wok led me to the adventure of traveling with my carbon-steel wok (in my hand-carry baggage) on a 25-city tour for the culinary retailer Sur la Table to teach the art of wok cooking. I published further articles on Chinese cooking in Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Eating Well, and Saveur, where I am a contributing editor. The book also brought me speaking engagements at the Culinary Institute at Greystone, China Institute, New York University Asian/Pacific/American Institute, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, The French Culinary Institute, and the Chinese Historical Society of America.
In 2006 I began work on Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge. This effort was dedicated to the effort of empowering home cooks to stir-fry with confidence. It explores everything from the origins and health benefits of stir-frying to the technique’s great economy of time and fuel. I was awarded an IACP Culinary Trust eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters Culinary Journalist Independent Study Scholarship which funded my research travel to Trinidad, Germany, Holland, Canada, and the United States to study the stir-fries of the Chinese diaspora. While Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge concentrates on traditional stir-fries, it is also filled with remarkable stories of how this simple, beloved cooking technique has enabled generations of Chinese around the world to eat well and with exquisite economy. My interviews include Chinese who grew up in such far-flung locations as Peru, Jamaica, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Macau, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and the Mississippi Delta.
My passion for recording and preserving Chinese culinary traditions continues to lead me in quest of home cooks who understand and enjoy the benefits Chinese cooking. If you have a comfort food that is at risk of being lost or a story to share, it would be my great delight to learn of them. Please feel free to contact me.
Photos Above: Mama, Grandmother, and me; Baba in China; Baba, Mama, my brother Douglas, and me on our first family trip to Hong Kong; Mama in China; Baba and me.