A few weeks ago, Carolyn Phillips wrote this to me:
Food is such an integral part of Chinese culture that it’s really hard to fit into a Chinese family if one isn’t adept at the cuisine. I suppose this is true to some extent with any country, but the Chinese are probably on par with the French and Italians when it comes to the importance of dining well.
This is probably doubly important when a yangxifu doesn’t speak Chinese fluently but still hopes to be accepted. Have your readers talked much about this? I truly feel that the old saw about the way to a man’s stomach etc is gospel for us yangxifu.
Carolyn should know — she’s a yangxifu who devoted her adult life to mastering the art of Chinese cooking. She blogs about food at Out to Lunch and tweets about it as @MadameHuang. She’s also working on two forthcoming books on the subject — “Simple Pleasures from a Chinese Kitchen: Authentic Seasonal Recipes from Every Region of China” and “Culinary Goddesses: The Women Who Changed Our Dining Landscape… Recipes Included.” — and is a regular contributor writing about Chinese food for Zester Daily. In addition, she’s even fluent enough in Mandarin to do court interpreting.
In any event, Carolyn has discovered a thing or two about what it takes to woo a Chinese family that truly loves to eat through food. So I sat down with her — from one yangxifu to another — to talk about all things related to food and Chinese family. As Chinese New Year approaches, it’s a topic that will come in handy for lots of readers.
Just be warned, Carolyn mentions a lot of delicious Chinese food with links to her recipes — you may not want to read this one on an empty stomach. 😉
How did food play a role when you were dating your husband?
Oh my. My first dinner for my boyfriend was a disaster. It was the only Chinese food I knew how to make – egg foo yung, sweet-and-sour pork, fried rice – and it is a wonder he didn’t fly out the door.Fortunately for me, he nibbled at it politely and then took me out to buy me my first Chinese-language cookbook. Of course, I could barely read from it way back then, so he made some really delicious things out of it, like a braised duck that fell apart at the first touch. That dish was exquisite, and I soon just hovered over him and gradually took over.
I’ve also been fortunate in that while J.H. has a good palate, he’s not a picky eater. Over the years he’s managed to swallow more than his share of dog’s breakfasts, and I love him for that.
We spent all of our courtship time in Taipei, which in the late 1970’s was probably the center of the Chinese culinary universe. When the Nationalists left the Mainland for Taiwan in 1949, most of the great chefs fled, too. And while some settled in Hong Kong, Europe, America, or Japan, it seems that the lion’s share went to Taipei.
Prior to the mid-70’s, though, Taiwan was anything but wealthy. This was, after all, where transistor radios and cheap clothes came from, and it was not until a huge industrial boom and the tech revolution took place that people in Taiwan had the money to pursue fine dining.
I was therefore in the right place at the right time.
So, as over the course of our relationship, my then-boyfriend showed me what good Chinese food really was and turned me into a genuine foodie by feeding me superb Shanghainese cuisine, hearty noodles and beef from the Islamic northwest, delicate dishes from Fujian and Zhejiang, tasty seafood from his mother’s home town of Tianjin, and the delightful favorites of his father’s Hakka people.
Then, I got a job as an editor/translator for two major cultural institutions, where the directors were gourmands. They wanted me along on all of their feasts because of their many foreign guests. I was thus paid to eat the best China had to offer… how much better in life does it get? And then I came back home and cooked from memory.
That is how I learned about Chinese food and that is how my husband came to love my cooking.
Tell us about your first experience cooking for your Chinese family. How did it go and what did you learn from it?
I don’t really remember the first time I cooked for them… it was over three decades ago! But I do recall that each person had favorite dishes I would make for them.
My mother-in-law was very homesick for Tianjin style food, and there were no such restaurants in Los Angeles, so I pumped her for recollections of the foods she had eaten as a child.
One of them was the little steamed cornmeal thimbles known as wowotou’er; I had eaten them before in Taipei, so I figured out how to make them. They were a big hit alongside some Tianjin style fish and her favorite prawns. She had also mentioned how much she missed the wowotou’er made with chestnut flour, so I experimented and made those, too. I don’t think she ever got over that first bite because it was like her childhood had been returned to her on a plate.
My brother-in-law has always adored heavy flavors, and he flipped over the stir-fried chicken livers I made for him. From then on, that was a dish he constantly requested, and I could count on him to devour at least half of the platter.
My father-in-law had an enormous sweet tooth, and he especially loved those that were sticky in texture, so I would make him things like Malay cake, rolling donkeys, and water chestnut pudding whenever we came to visit.
Others preferred Taiwanese dishes, and some wanted nothing but fried chicken (Chinese or American… it didn’t matter!). Whatever it was, I made sure to have it ready so that they felt pampered.
I often tell people that I built a relationship with my mother-in-law by asking her to teach me some of her recipes. Have you also done the same with your family?
Oh yes. However, the cook in my husband’s family was not his mother, but his father. A retired Air Force colonel, my father-in-law was a very gifted cook who created Hakka specialties for us, especially on Chinese New Year.
I would try to help him, but he was always so slow and precise that we soon lost patience with each other. That did not keep me from hanging around and studying his secrets, though!
With such a large number of individualists in the family, we used to create favorite foods in our own kitchens and then bring them together for family celebrations; less stress and lots more happy diners that way.
Another thing that I have tried to do over the years is to adapt American traditional foods to Chinese tastes. This has resulted in holiday feasts that the whole family can enjoy.
What Chinese food-related dos and don’ts do you wish someone had told you before you married your husband?
That Chinese food is not all that hard to make.
That it is not simply an assortment of stir-fries.
That there is not one monolithic Chinese cuisine, but rather that it is a patchwork of stellar cuisines, each delicious in its own way and yet also very different.
It took me ages to open up my eyes to the incredible incarnations that Chinese cuisine assumes. I learned to eat real Chinese food during my first years in Taiwan, so I had originally assumed that Taiwanese food equaled Chinese food.
That was simply not the case! Trips to Hong Kong instilled a love for glorious Cantonese dishes with their sublime simplicity and for the divine seafood of Chaozhou, up near Fujian province.
And after my boyfriend took me under his wing, we ate subtle dishes from northern Fujian, cinnamon-flavored jiaozi from a Chinese Muslim stall, richly flavored pork dishes served up by cranky old soldiers from Jiangsu, refined vegetarian meals at Buddhist temples, and savory snacks in the many night markets.
You see, opening up your mouth to real Chinese food is all about opening up your mind. I wish someone had told me that.
We nibbled on braised duck tongues while watching kung fu movies, ate mountains of eels, worked out way through enormous sea cucumbers, and cooked our own pig heads. None of this had ever even figured as food to me before. But I ate and I learned and I enjoyed just about everything.
But what I really want to get across is this: the way to learn about China is through its food. First you have to understand and appreciate it, and then you have to cook it yourself. This opens so many doors, not only to new friends, but to new places in your mind.
China and her foods are as intrinsically intertwined as France and her cuisines. You simply cannot love China without loving her way of preparing ingredients. And you can’t love her food without exploring all of the permutations in this vast, virtually unexplored cuisine. Her food even teaches you about history, if you care to listen.
My husband has become more adventurous in terms of eating over the years, but his stomach still prefers Chinese. But I can’t eat Chinese all the time — it got to the point where the two of us now eat separate things during lunch, so I can get my non-Chinese-food fix. Have you ever had similar clashes at the family table — and if so, how did you solve them?
I am very fortunate in that my husband has always loved Western food and actually prefers coffee to tea!
That is not to say that he wouldn’t pick Chinese food over Western for every meal if he had his druthers. He even has made a joke of it: Mei jiangyou, mei weidao (no soy sauce, no flavor).
But he does love to eat, and he has developed a real love for many Western cuisines, and I think he could probably live quite happily on French food for the rest of his life if he got a hit of soy sauce every once in a while. It all comes down to whether or not it is well made food.
So, what I’ve done over the years is to cook and learn from the masters, like Madeleine Kamman, Julia Child, and Patricia Wells for French, Claudia Roden and Paula Wolfert for Mediterranean, Marcella Hazan for Italian, Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen for vegetarian, James Beard and Marion Cunningham for American. You just can’t go wrong with them, and even the most persnickety eater will soon surrender to these perfect recipes
The secret is to make Western foods that appeal to the same preferences your fiancé/husband has in Chinese dishes. Does he like spice? Noodles? Rice? Eggs? Lots of meat or vegetables? These are all clues to making Western dishes that pass muster.
I will point out that I have made it very clear to my family that I’m not a short order cook, and whatever comes out of the kitchen is what is being served. That being said, I do more or less cater to their tastes. But then again I love Chinese food, and as far as I’m concerned, I could live on Chinese food for the rest of my days… as long as I got a hit of stinky cheese and red wine on regular occasions.
Could you share some of your favorite recipes you turn to when you want to impress your Chinese family?
Certainly! By Chinese family, though, I include my wonderful circle of Chinese friends. In fact, I strongly recommend that any yangxifu or yangnüxu have a supportive cast of Chinese pals, as they will provide the good feedback that sometimes is missing with in-laws.
One thing we like to do for Chinese New Year is host a huge jiaozi wrapping party [link]. This is a great way for Chinese family and friends to celebrate the biggest traditional holiday together, especially if you don’t live in China.
My smoked chicken is always a big winner at any gathering, since everyone loves smoked meats yet few people make it at home. However, this really is little more than a steamed whole chicken seasoned in an easy-to-make home smoker.
Breads of all stripes get rave reviews, again because not that many people tackle them. However, once you make your own silver thread rolls or fried sesame rolls, you will find how deceptively easy they are. Or cook up something few people have heard of: Tianchang’s sugared fried bread, which is also very simple and delectable. Any of these will make your reputation.
Chinese sweet soups are not at all difficult, but when you give them a Wow presentation, you have set yourself up for stardom. Check out the recipe for yin yang sweet sesame soup to see what I mean.
Brined eggs are another item that is not really cooking at all, but just a matter of placing fresh eggs in salted water for two weeks. Again, it looks impossibly hard, but it’s a no-brainer.
And if you really want to show off, create your own fermented rice. Honestly, if I make one thing that blows people’s minds, it is this. But making it is no more difficult than steaming some rice, tossing it with a yeast mixture, and letting it bubble away. No magic, no hard work. Just perfect homemade rice wine every time.
And this is one thing you will have in your favor: even Chinese people think that Chinese food is difficult. But the secret is, it’s not!
Just don’t tell your mother-in-law that and let her think that you are one heck of a catch.
If someone is new to Chinese cooking but wants to make a good impression on their Chinese relatives, how should they proceed?
This all depends upon where your in-laws come from and what your tastes are; some people love spice, for example, and others shy away from chilies; some people are diabetic or love salty things or are finicky eaters. So, in this regard, feeding your Chinese relatives is just like cooking for any guests: know their preferences and cook accordingly.
When you are just beginning to cook Chinese food and are not yet completely confident, make something simple and practice it at home a few times to adjust the seasonings and get used to the way in which Chinese food is made.
Fortunately, stir-frying is just one way to prepare Chinese food, although many cookbooks would have you think otherwise! This means you can make a dish ahead of time and either serve it cold or heat it up just before dinner.
A couple tips for avoiding disaster:
- Make something that is authentically Chinese. This means no neon red sweet-and-sour pork or Chinese chicken salad. You want them to be in total awe of your chops and nothing less.
- Start out with uncomplicated foods and slowly work your way up to the fancier stuff. You’ll be less stressed out as a result, which will show in your food. If you are confident and proud of the dish, this will be communicated to your diners, and the food will taste much better as a result.
- Use your fiancé/husband as your guinea pig. Feed him some things you’ve made, watch his reactions, and ask for suggestions. Write them down and adjust your recipes accordingly. He will be pleased that you are seeking his advice (or at least he should be), and he most likely reflects the taste preferences of his family.
- Practice, practice, practice.
Here are a couple of really easy dishes to make ahead of time when you want to make a good impression: Sichuan’s icicle radish pickles, drunken soybeans, northern style stewed peanuts, small rice paste balls, and crystal lychees.
When you feel more comfortable, move on to other things that you again can prepare over and over again until they become part of your repertoire, like a silky steamed custard, a spinach and peanut appetizer, and three-cup chicken.
Clearly, some yangxifu (or yangxifu-to-be) out there either don’t like to cook or struggle with it. What could they do to build goodwill with their Chinese families in the kitchen or at the dinner table?
Well, if you are lucky enough to have a Chinese husband or fiancé who likes cooking and actually is good at it, you’re made in the shade. In that sort of situation, learn to be a good prep cook (washing and peeling veggies, cleaning up, that sort of thing) so that he doesn’t start to resent doing this.Even then, you should start to learn how to cook, if for no other reason than to give him a break and share the load, as well as to make the foods that you personally love. (Of course, the reverse is true: the guy should be the kitchen helper if the woman is the chef, or else he should have other duties that lessen her household burdens.)
If your fiancé/husband excels in the kitchen, or if you have talented in-laws, start learning from them. That’s what I did at the beginning. You might find yourself – like me – entranced by this art.
The best way to ease yourself into this is to read some good English-language resources on Chinese cooking. Most of the out-of-print ones I’ve loved over the years (Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, Florence Lin’s Chinese Regional Cookbook, and Grace Zia Chu’s The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking) all are still worth seeking out and reading from cover to cover. If you have in-laws from Sichuan, or just love central Chinese cuisine, run out and get Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty; her recipes are foolproof and fantastic.
And read my blog, Out to Lunch, of course!