In a few days I will go home to celebrate Chinese New Years with my mother and family. Mama is 88-years old, extremely frail and has dementia. If you ask her what should be served for Chinese New Years she can no longer tell you. If you ask her for her signature recipe for steamed sea bass with scallions and ginger, a dish she insisted on serving every year for over 50 years because it symbolizes good fortune, she cannot tell you a thing. All of that knowledge, tradition, and food memory is lost.
In her prime Mama was obsessed with eating well, in particular, her beloved Cantonese homestyle dishes. In the mid 1990s I made many trips to San Francisco to cook with Mama. She was in her 70s and was an extraordinary home cook. As I recorded the recipes and family stories I decided it was important to turn this into a cookbook so that future generations would not lose the traditions. In 1999, Simon & Schuster published my memoir cookbook, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.”
In the last few years, I have been cooking my mother’s Chinese New Year’s feast for her. It’s odd and wonderful to open the cookbook to the chapter on Chinese New Years and to find all the recipes for her menu are there. When Mama sees the dishes and tastes the food her face lights up in delight, awakening the food memories buried in her. In a million years I never dreamed I would give her cooking back to her.
Sometimes I wonder if any medical studies are being conducted that show the connection between food and memory. In 2003, when my mother was 77 she suffered a stroke. When I arrived at the hospital she was unable to speak. I watched her poking at the ghastly meatloaf and mashed potatoes she was served. After a day of helplessly watching Mama in her diminished state, I drove home and made one of her favorite dishes, a stir-fry of chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and ginger that is finished cooking over steaming hot rice in a pot. I made a small portion and brought the piping saucepan into her hospital room. As I entered the room I could tell Mama recognized the familiar aroma. She devoured the entire meal.
On February 18th, to properly start the Year of the Ram, I will cook Mama’s traditional Chinese New Years feast. We will have stir-fried clams with black bean sauce, poached chicken with ginger sauce, stir-fried snow pea shoots, glazed roast squab, stir-fried garlic lettuce, oyster-vegetable lettuce wraps, Buddha’s delight, and steaming hot rice. And we will finish the meal with a steamed sea bass. It is essential to prepare more than enough fish, so that some of it remains on the platter at the close of the New Year’s Eve dinner. This symbolizes taking a reserve of food, or surplus, into the New Year. Here’s Mama’s recipe as it was published in Saveur.
I think my mother’s story is a reminder that if your family has great recipes and stories you should learn them from the older generation to preserve your culinary legacy. Someday those recipes could be the one link we have to reach our loved ones.
NOTE: Saveur did not include all of Mama’s helpful tips. The platter has to be heatproof with sloping sides (to prevent the juices from spilling over). Steam the fish until the fish just flakes when you poke the thickest part with a fork or chopsticks. Once the platter is removed from the wok carefully pour off any liquid. And finally sprinkle on the remaining scallions over the fish and drizzle with the soy sauce before pouring the hot oil over the fish (Saveur switched the order by mistake). Don’t be alarmed if the oil makes a loud crackling sound as it hits the fish. Then, garnish with cilantro.