Ann Mah’s “Kitchen Chinese,” a Q+A, and Salt and Pepper Shrimp

Kitchen Chinese Ann Mah

Ann Mah’s debut novel, Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself, has all the ingredients for a successful chick lit novel. It’s an easy, breezy read. It has a lovable heroine–Isabelle Lee–who has her flaws yet  emerges victorious. And it offers so much more, especially for Asian Americans who hardly see themselves reflected in mainstream literature. Plus, the book is chock full of mouthwatering descriptions of the regional cuisines Isabelle samples in Beijing, Shanghai, and beyond.

Isabelle leaves behind debris of an ex-boyfriend and a dead-end editorial job in New York for the bright lights of big city Beijing. She moves in with her high-powered attorney sister, Claire, who helps her land a job as dining editor for an expat magazine. True to formula (and just the way I like it!), Isabelle bounces between two irresistible men, all the while struggling with her identity as American yet Chinese.

With her knowledge of the culture and language limited only to what Ann terms “kitchen Chinese” (hence the title of the book), Isabelle finds her way in Beijing’s fast-paced society and reconnects with her roots with a touch of self-deprecating humor, warmth, and somewhat wide-eyed innocence.

I couldn’t put the book down for many reasons. It was smart, funny and overall, a very engaging read. Three things really struck me:

1. Isabelle, with all her insecurities and self-doubts (about her identity, talents, allure, etc.) was very much like me. I could really identify with her character and I deemed her my soul sister!

2. The smattering of Mandarin words (written in Romanized hanyu pinyin) used throughout the book encouraged me to pick up Mandarin again.

3. All the luscious descriptions of regional specialties like jianbing, mabo tofu and Peking duck made me so hungry I was enticed to either seek out recipes or call for takeout.

To give you a taste, I asked Ann to share a little bit about herself (do check out her blog) and her book and I hope you treat yourself or a friend to it. You can still order it in time for Christmas here!

Q+A with  Author Ann Mah

Ann-in-Paris KGL

 1. What inspired you to write this novel?

In 2003, my husband and I got married and a month later we moved from New York to Beijing. I gave up a job I loved in New York book publishing to become a diplomat’s wife. Initially, I was a little stunned — and I missed my job so much it felt like I’d amputated a limb — but slowly the local Chinese food ignited a spark to explore. This book grew out of those experiences.

2. You’ve admitted that Isabelle’s story is inspired by your own life. But how much is true to (your) life and how much is fiction? Did you embellish Isabelle’s character/life with elements you wish were present in your life?

Oh, of course! Isabelle is based loosely on my own experiences but ultimately I decided to write a novel because it allowed me to explore ideas of ethnicity and self-discovery more metaphorically. Isabelle is much braver than I am, especially when it comes to eating everything and traveling in the primitive Chinese countryside. And, unlike me, she’s lucky enough to have a sister.

3. You spent a year in Bologna, Italy on a James Beard Foundation scholarship, and after living in Paris for several years you are now working on a book about regional French cuisine. But you are ethnically Chinese and grew up eating Chinese food. How important was it for you to write this book and to spotlight China and Chinese cuisine?

I love Chinese food but in my Chinese-American home, I grew up eating it every day so I thought I knew everything about it. But when I got to China, I was shocked to discover an enormous landscape of regional cuisines — everything from numbing peppercorns to Chinese cheese — stuff wildly different from the food in my parents’ house. Food became the bridge that drew me into China. But the tale that burned inside of me was of a young American woman — who happens to be Chinese — living in Beijing. Food is the metaphor that allows the main character to make peace with her circumstances.

4. Growing up in Southern California, were you raised with strict Chinese traditions? Did living in China and/or the process of writing this book connect you to your culture? What are your reflections on both?

My father is ethnically Chinese but he was born in the States and as a result I had a very American childhood and grew up with a very American perspective. Living in China actually made me feel more American than Chinese because I felt more accepted by my compatriots, who understood that the conflict of outer appearance and inner identity. It also made me appreciate the struggles faced by my grandparents, who must have experienced the same fish-out-of-water challenges in 1920s California that I faced in 21st century Beijing. And, after leaving China, I have to say I missed Chinese food for the first time in my entire life. I still do.

5. You used to work in book publishing and made the transition to writing when you moved abroad. How did this decision come about and why focus on food?

I always secretly dreamed of being a writer but never had the gumption to go for it. Living overseas changed that — especially living in a place like Beijing, which pulsed with opportunity for someone young, energetic and educated in the West. I’ll always feel grateful to China for giving me a chance to realize a dream. As a young, semi-illiterate woman in Beijing, food was the bridge that drew me into China, the thing that made me eager to learn more about the culture and history. In fact, I’ve learned, it’s a pretty great way to explore the whole world.

6. Unlike many households, your dad did most of the cooking. Did you find this odd? Can you share a favorite recipe your dad taught you?

My dad grew up in central California, the son of Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant. When he moved to North Carolina for his first job, he missed his mom’s food so much he taught himself how to cook it. I love to imagine him growing bitter melons and gailan (Chinese broccoli) — he even made his own tofu (once). Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the counter while he chopped garlic; he remains one of my favorite cooking partners. For his legendary dinner parties, he always makes a dish of salt and pepper shrimp — they’re so delicious, they can make even the most squeamish of eaters start to suck shrimp shells.

**Question #7 has a spoiler so it’s after the recipe.

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Salt and Pepper Shrimp (Salad)

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Ann learned to make this dish from her dad. She usually serves the shrimp as a salad with arugula or mixed greens tossed in balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sesame oil. I adapted the recipe a little, tweaking amounts as well substituting pine nuts for red bell pepper. I also chose to serve the shrimp as a main course on an undressed bed of shredded red lettuce.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 servings as part of a multi-course family meal

1/2 pound shrimp (about 20 31/40 shrimp), peeled, cleaned, and patted dry (*preferably fresh because frozen shrimp contains salt, and you may have to alter the amount of salt you use)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt-pepper-sugar mixture (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 plump garlic clove, minced
1 green onion, chopped
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced (about 1-1/2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dry sherry or white wine

Bed of shredded lettuce or mixed greens for serving

In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with the salt-pepper-sugar mixture and cornstarch until well coated.

Preheat a wok or large skillet. Swirl in the oil and heat over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the shrimp and cook until they just turn pink (1 to 2 minutes on either side). Add the garlic, green onions, and red pepper and stir and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Drizzle in just enough sherry to create a sauce that barely coats the prawns. Remove from the heat.

Place the shrimp on the bed of greens and serve with rice.

Salt-Pepper-Sugar Mixture

This is a master batch for your spice cabinet (about 6 batches). You can increase the quantities to make more and store it in a bottle. I used white pepper from the Asian store which in my opinion is spicier than black pepper. Feel free to adjust the ratio according to taste.

2 tablespoons ground black pepper or white pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine all the seasonings in a small bottle or jar. Shake well and store for up to a month.

 

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**SPOILER ALERT—If you don’t want to know what happens in the end, stop reading now!**

7. This question is to satisfy my personal curiosity. I like that you left Charlie and Isabelle’s relationship open-ended. I get annoyed when authors feel they have to give their characters a happy-ever-after ending. Was this intentional?

Ha ha — well, yes, I wanted Charlie and Isabelle to have a chance to be together, but who knows what happens to them in the end? I like to think Isabelle stays in China for a good long while, unlike me. Maybe she is my döppelganger in that sense.

Deconstructing Take Out: Make Honey Walnut Shrimp at Home

Honey. Walnut. Shrimp. These three words strung together invoke such delight in me, I should probably be embarrassed.

But seriously … Crispy shrimp coated with a sweet, creamy mayonnaise dressing and studded with candied walnuts, what’s there not to love about this dish?

This dish isn’t your usual Chinese fare the likes of fried rice or chow mein. In fact, with ingredients such as mayonnaise, honey, and candied walnuts, this dish is as far from the Far East as one could imagine. Rumor has it honey walnut shrimp was invented in Hong Kong and was transplanted to the U.S. in the early 1990’s when chefs started immigrating stateside in anticipation of the 1997 handover of the British colony to China.

Whatever its provenance, honey walnut shrimp has come to be a fixture on every Chinese restaurant menu in the U.S. and it’s one dish I’ll always order.

When we dine out with my siblings and their families, it’s a race of dexterity and speed with the chopsticks. Slowpokes get stuck with only bits of candied walnuts, which are yum but I’d much rather have choice morsels of shrimp. You can bet my chopsticks skills are up to par! My husband has to rely on me to snag one or two pieces for him. Most often though, we compromise by placing two orders so there’s enough shrimp to go around, and no hair-pulling or kicks under the table.

Lately, I’ve been on an “I can make that!” kick, attempting to recreate beloved restaurant favorites at home. Fried rice, check! Shrimp and Pineapple Red Curry, no sweat.  Pot stickers? Easy.

Judging from this recent post on Food52 , I’m not alone.

I’ve been told before how easy honey walnut shrimp is to make. However, I’ve never attempted it until I was flipping through Bee’s (of Rasa Malaysia fame) new cookbook “Easy Chinese Recipes—Family Favorites From Dim Sum to Kung Pao.” (Tuttle Publishing, September 2011).

True to the title of her book, honey walnut shrimp is super easy! As are other familiar favorites such as pot stickers, Kung Pao chicken and Mongolian beef. A comprehensive ingredient guide, informative snippets on making shrimp “bouncy” (who knew?) and chili oil, plus, deep-frying and stir-frying tips and tricks round off this must-have book. (Ahem … do I hear Christmas present?)

Here’s to Bee’s new book and easy take out dishes done at home!

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Honey Walnut Shrimp (核桃虾)

Adapted from Easy Chinese Recipes—Family Favorites From Dim Sum to Kung Pao (Tuttle Publishing, September 2011) by Bee Yinn Low

Time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time
Makes: 4 servings

8 ounces shelled and deveined medium raw shrimp (I used 41-50 count. Go here for a guide to shrimp sizes)
1 tablespoon egg white
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cornstarch
Oil for frying

Dressing:
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 tablespoon condensed milk
1/2 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Glazed walnuts:
1/2 cup walnut halves
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sugar

Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels and marinate with the egg white and salt for about 30 minutes.

To make the walnut glaze, rinse the walnut halves with cold water and drain.

In a small pot, bring the water to a boil over high heat and add in the sugar. Keep stirring until the syrup thickens. Lower the heat to medium and add the walnut halves. Keep stirring until the mixture turns golden brown or caramel in color, about 4 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully as you don’t want to burn the walnuts. Transfer the walnut halves onto parchment or wax paper to dry.

To make the dressing, mix the mayonnaise, condensed milk, honey and lemon juice in a bowl that is big enough to accommodate the shrimp. Set aside.

Dust the marinated shrimp evenly with the cornstarch. Shake off any excess.

Heat 2 to 3 inches of oil in a wok or stockpot to 350 degrees F. Drop the shrimp one by one into the oil and deep-fry in batches until the shrimp turns light  golden, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove with a strainer or slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Combine the shrimp with the dressing and toss well.

Transfer the shrimp to a serving plate and garnish with the candied walnuts and serve immediately.

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Related articles

 What are your favorite restaurant/take out dishes you like to make at home?

Tom Kha Goong Made with Sustainable Shrimp

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Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Researching and writing The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook has given me an appreciation for traditional and authentic recipes and eating the way our grandparents’ generation ate. It’s been a perfect complement to my other passion–sustainable foods.

Many of us shop at the neighborhood farmers market (or even work at one; I just got a job as a manager at the Pacific Grove Certified Farmers’ Market but more on that later) for fresh, seasonal produce and to support sustainable agriculture and small family farmers. But have you ever given sustainable seafood a thought?

I have to admit that I’ve only become more in tune with this important issue in the last two or three years. But since moving to the Monterey Peninsula and living so close to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the nation’s leaders in ocean conservation, it has risen to top of mind. Their Seafood Watch Program encourages us as consumers to play a role in protecting the health of the oceans to:

  • Ensure a bounty of seafood for this and future generations.
  • Support environmentally responsible fishing and fish farming.
  • Increase the demand for ocean friendly seafood.
  • Give species that are in peril a break so that they may recover

So what is sustainable seafood? According to the Aquarium, “Sustainable seafood is from sources, either fished or farmed, that can maintain or increase production into the long-term without jeopardizing the affected ecosystems.”

To help you guide you in your sustainable seafood decisions, you can download a regional pocket seafood guide here. Both Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute have also produced sustainable sushi lists. Yes, that sake, toro and–woe is me–unagi served at American sushi restaurants aren’t sustainable. (Read more about this issue in a post I wrote for National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel .) Another tool is the Green Guide’s nifty fish finder. Just plug in the name of a fish and learn how ocean-friendly it actually is.

To celebrate National Seafood Month, fellow food-blogger Jacqueline over at the Leather District Gourmet launched Teach a Man to Fish 2008, a blog event to create awareness about sustainable seafood.

I’ve chosen to focus on shrimp. Over the last decade, shrimp has become American’s favorite seafood but with a high cost to the environment. According to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle , “some 85 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Taiwan, Ecuador, Mexico and other Asian and Latin American countries, as well as Australia… Yet most guides to sustainable seafood consumption advise against buying imported shrimp because the way these are farmed or caught is generally destructive to the environment.”

As cheap as they are, I’ve had to slap my hands many times to stop them from picking up that pack of tiger shrimp from Thailand at the market. Along the coast of Thailand, as well as numerous other tropical nations, mangrove forests once sheltered wild fish and shrimp which the locals caught to feed their families. Mangroves also filter water and protect the coast against storm waves. However, with increasing demand from Europe, Japan and America, many mangrove forests have been cut down and replaced with shrimp farms. After a few years, waste products build up in the farm ponds and the farmers have to move on. The end result: no shrimp farms and no mangrove forest.

So, farmed shrimp from Thailand is a big no-no. According to the Seafood Watch guide, pink shrimp from Oregon (the tiny shrimp used for shrimp cocktail or salads) is a best choice (green), U.S. and Canadian farmed/wild shrimp and U.S. and British Columbia spot prawns are good alternatives (gold), but imported farmed or wild shrimp should be avoided (red!!). Click here for the details.

I have to tell ya, shopping for sustainable shrimp isn’t an easy task. I made a trip to Trader Joe’s the other day and found that their frozen farm-raised shrimp is imported from various sources: Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Vietnam. At Safeway, the frozen shrimp hailed from China and Thailand. The shrimp in the refrigerated section wasn’t even labeled!

Ack! Where was I to find shrimp that I could buy without treading on my conscience? At Nob Hill Foods it turned out. Here, I found wild white shrimp from the U.S. at $12.99/pound–ouch!–as well as Canadian farmed shrimp ($8.99/pound) and Thai tiger shrimp ($4.99/pound). I bought a pound of Canadian shrimp. I made a mental note to explore local fishmongers next time. I live right next to Monterey Bay for goodness sake!

At home, I transformed my shrimp into tom kha goong, using a recipe from Nicky and Jill Sriprayul who own Thai Bistro II in Pacific Grove, CA (if you visit the Monterey Peninsula, dine here for some yummy Thai food!). As I sipped the fragrant soup, I relaxed knowing I was doing good by my taste buds, my conscience and the environment. 

I’m a practical person. I realize that not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a locale where sustainable shrimp (or sustainable edible anything for that matter) is readily available or affordable. It’s easy to follow this mantra if we don’t have to go too much out of our way. But if it’s beyond our means or pocketbooks, we can do one of two things–abstain or go easy. Abstaining is a little drastic. If you’re not prepared to go full-throttle then I believe that everything in moderation is a good thing (yes, that means no more all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets!). You’ll still be making a difference, albeit with baby steps.

Thai Hot and Sour Soup with Shrimp and Coconut Milk (Tom Kha Goong)

tom_kha_goong by you.

Like all home-cooked dishes, tom kha comes in many guises. Remember tom ka kai? The Sriprayuls’ version is spicier and has a little more kick. Substitute the shrimp with chicken (perhaps chopped-up chicken wings as Nicky likes) or a mixed seafood medley. For tom yum, omit the coconut milk entirely.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 servings

3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet chili paste
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 cups shrimp, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
5 thin slices fresh galangal
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, using white parts only, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
8 mint leaves, hand torn
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup sliced button mushrooms
1/2 cup straw mushrooms
1/3 cup red onions cut into thin slices
12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined with tails intact
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1/4 cup loosely-packed cilantro sprigs
1 teaspoon finely chopped Thai red chilies (optional)

Mix the first 4 ingredients in a small bowl to form a chili sauce.

In a large pot, bring stock and coconut milk to boil over medium heat. Add galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 4 to 5 minutes for spices to infuse broth.

Stir in chili sauce, mint leaves tomatoes, mushrooms, and red onions. Bring to boil and cook for 2 minutes.

Stir in shrimp and cook until pink, about 1 minute. Do not overcook!

Fish out herbs and ladle soup into a serving bowl. Garnish with green onions, cilantro, and chilies, if desired.

Recording recipes … behind the scenes

When I first started working on my cookbook, I really didn’t know what to expect.

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Grace Young at the 2007 IACP conference in Chicago. The author of two family-based cookbooks, Grace gave me a behind-the-scenes overview of cooking with grandmas and aunties. Be prepared, was her number one advice.

And so I am.

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Some tools of the trade

Every time I pay a visit to someone’s kitchen, my bag is packed with the following arsenal:
-Measuring cups
-Measuring spoons
-Stopwatch
-Camera
-Notebook and pen
(I decided against a tape recorder though)

As you can imagine, it’s not easy juggling so much gear. I often feel like a character straight out of a Merry Melodies cartoon (though if I had to choose, I’d like to be the smart and feisty Road Runner … beep beep). Yes, it’s been comical–having to stop cooks at every step of the way to measure out the salt (2 teaspoons), the sesame oil (1 tablespoon), or the galangal (1-inch equals how many tablespoons minced??) And it’s not even funny anymore how many times I’ve had to fish packages out of the trash can to note down how many pounds of pork went into the soup.

Don’t forget that in between all this activity I’m taking photos (wait, hold that spatula in mid-air so I can capture your stir-fry motion!), and writing down notes (slice carrot on the diagonal not straight across), and timing (garlic is fragrant, add chicken to wok, start stopwatch now).

Everyone I’ve cooked with has been so very patient and they never fail to humor me. For this, I am very thankful.

Despite the flurry of activity that goes on when I’m out “in the field,” I feel that it’s actually the easiest and most accurate way to record recipes. And I get to taste the–always yummy–results immediately.

That being said, let’s turn to my other route for gathering recipes. Friends and strangers alike have been very generous in sending me their family recipes. Some have been easy-to-follow, requiring minimal tweaks here and there, yet others have been quite amusing. Take this list of ingredients my friend Luwei emailed me for her mom’s bakso goreng (crispy fried meatballs) recipe:

Bakso Goreng
==========

(Luwei’s comments are in parentheses)
Ingredients:
– 1kg minced pork
– 0.5kg minced prawn (you can halve the prawns and add 0.25kg fish as well, which is my mom’s friend’s recipe, but my mom sticks with prawn only)
– 2.5oz cornstarch (this is the iffy part–not sure how they figured that out since they don’t measure!)
– 8 eggs (another iffy part–seems like a lot of eggs to me, but my mom seems quite comfortable with that number)
– fish sauce
– salt
– sugar
– optional: green onion and rehydrated dried cuttlefish, diced (for crunch, but I don’t like it, and my mom doesn’t use it)

Recipes like these are priceless :).

No measurements, or iffy measurements–I don’t know which is better. But therein lies the beauty of homecooking: everything’s fluid, a dish is perfect when your taste buds say it is, and ingredients vary according to what’s available in the fridge.

And of course, it’s my job to translate and test recipes to make it easy for even the most novice of cooks to follow. All it takes is patience, patience to add the salt teaspoon by teaspoon, or water 1/4 cup at a time, tasting every step of the way; and a keen eye for observation–hmm … does the mixture look too dry or too mushy?

Et voila, here it is, the bakso goreng recipe after a makeover.

Bakso Goreng or Crispy Fried Meatballs

Bakso goreng is originally a Chinese dish and was modified by Hakka immigrants to Indonesia. Halal versions use chicken or beef instead of pork. Instead of shrimp, try substituting with fish paste. The same mixture can also be used to stuff peppers, eggplant, or tofu, which can then be either steamed or fried. This variant is called Yong Tau Foo in Singapore and Malaysia. Bakso goreng is delicious eaten with rice and a side dish of vegetables for a meal, or as party poppers (appetizers you can easily pop in your mouth 🙂).


Time: 45 minutes
Makes: about 35 meatballs

2 pounds minced pork
1 pound shrimp, peeled and minced
2 eggs
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup green onions cut into thin ‘O’s (about 2 stalks)
2 cups canola oil

In a large bowl, gently mix all ingredients together using your hands. The resulting mixture will be moist and lumps well into balls.

In a 14-inch wok or skillet, heat oil over high heat until it registers 350F on a thermometer. Fry a small piece of pork mixture and taste to make sure it’s salty enough.

Shape pork mixture into golf balls (about one-inch in diameter). Grab a handful of the mixture and squeeze it out of the hole at the top of your fist. Scoop each meatball with an oiled tablespoon and drop it carefully into the oil. Make 6 to 8 meatballs per batch; do not crowd the wok. Deep-fry meatballs until golden brown and crispy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

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Lift meatballs from oil using a slotted spoon or wire mesh strainer, and drain on paper towels. Remove any debris from oil and continue frying meatballs in batches until done.

Serve with chili sauce and/or rice. 

In memory of a chef-dad, plus his from-scratch black bean sauce

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Cathy Chun stir-frying vegetables to use with her dad’s black bean sauce recipe

Not everyone grew up on the tasty goodness of mom’s or grandma’s cooking.

Cathy Chun is a valid case in point. Her late father, David Chun, reined in the kitchen. And everyone, including Cathy’s mom, was happy with that arrangement.

Ironic as it was, Cathy’s dad was the first son in his family. The antithesis to the stereotypical, pampered, first-born son (FBS) in a Chinese family (more often than not, a FBS is showered with attention, isn’t expected to lift a finger, and lo and behold if he steps into the kitchen!), David spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a boy and learned to cook.

Cathy and her siblings were the happy beneficiaries of their dad’s talents in the kitchen. Food was the medium he used to show his love, she explained. “He was not expressive emotionally but he made sure we ate good food.”

On a surprisingly sunny day in autumnal Seattle, I was cooking at Cathy’s house with her sister Carol who was visiting from Hawaii. Cathy wanted to show me how to make her dad’s black bean sauce–from scratch!–and a couple of other dishes from their family cookbooks.

Yes, they had not one, but three, family cookbooks! In 1988, Cathy’s family published a family cookbook entitled Potluck at Popo’s followed by the sequels Just One More in 1989 and Once Again at Popo’s in 2002. When Cathy was growing up in Hawaii, her grandmother, whom she called Popo, hosted numerous potluck parties to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. Relatives stretching across five generations would gather at Popo’s house, each family bringing a favorite dish. Eventually, they decided to compile these dishes into several cookbook volumes for posterity.

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As we chopped asparagus and peeled shrimp, Cathy and Carol bantered and reminisced about their dad and their childhood.

Turns out that not only was their dad a superb cook, he was a meticulous one too.

Carol remembered how, wielding a pair of tweezers, he would pick the tiny hairs off pork destined for the pot, and pull the pin feathers off the chickens he was about to cook. And he could always be found on Thanksgiving morning cutting bread into cubes to roast in the oven for croutons and stuffing. Boxed versions never passed muster.

The conversation meandered organically: we discussed all the different things you could do with spam and Vienna sausages–staples in Hawaii, of course–and whether rice is better cooked on the stove or in the rice cooker. Cathy explained it simply. “I grew up on rice made in a pot.” And that’s how she’s always liked it.

In the end, it all boils down to what you’re used to. Yet another quirk–Cathy’s dad never used a wok and “his cast iron skillet was always on the stove,” she recalled. This might explain why her favorite kitchen accoutrement is the skillet.

Through osmosis, Cathy incorporated many of her dad’s tips and tricks into her culinary repertoire. And the ever-sentimental daughter still keeps his sharpening stone on her kitchen counter as a reminder of the loving father who nourished her both physically and emotionally.

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Here are some tips and tricks Cathy’s dad used in the kitchen. Perhaps you’d find them useful too!

  • Cathy’s dad taught her never to add oil to a cold pan. So when’s the right time to add it? I watched as Cathy held her hand over the pan on the heated stove to “feel” if it was hot enough. She couldn’t really explain it but she said with experience, you’ll just know. “There’s a connection between knowing the heat level and what it does.”
  • He always hand chopped ingredients. He believed a food processor mashed up food and ruined its texture.
  • When making kao yuk (another term for soy sauce pork), Cathy’s dad would fry the pork belly first. Then he’d place it in the sink, pierce the fat and run cold water over it to allow the fat to rise to the top. This removed some of the “fattiness” of the pork.
  • The secret to great tasting chow fun (fried rice noodles) is to season the rice noodles with oyster sauce and let it sit first before throwing in the rest of ingredients.
  • Cathy’s dad always cooked with bacon grease. Does it make food tastier? You be the judge!

Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce

Bottled black bean sauce is ubiquitous in the aisles of any Asian grocery store. But as the saying goes, from-scratch really does taste better and you can control the amount of sodium that goes into the sauce. Keep in mind that fermented black beans are coated with salt so feel free to adjust the amount of sodium-containing ingredients (i.e. soy sauce, store-bought stock, etc.). Try the basic sauce with chicken or pork too, and mix and match the vegetables.

Time: 20 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

Combine the following in a small bowl for the basic black bean sauce mixture:
2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2/3 cup chicken stock

2 green and/or red bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares
12-14 stalks asparagus, cut into 1-inch lengths (about half a bundle)
1-1/2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 tablespoons canola oil (or bacon grease if you dare!), divided

In a work or large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil until very hot (test with a few sprinkles of water, if it sizzles, it’s ready). Stir-fry veggies over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes and remove from pan.

In the same skillet, add remaining oil and heat until very hot. Add shrimp and cook until they just turn pink, about 1 minute. Add black bean sauce and stir to coat shrimp. Add veggies and mix well. Add 2 tablespoons water and stir-fry with a couple more flourishes.

Take off the stove and serve with steamed rice.

Pranee’s Shrimp and Pineapple Red Curry

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Chilies and shrimp

The first thing Pranee Khruasanit Halverson did (after she enveloped me in a warm and fuzzy Thai hug, of course) when I entered her kitchen was make me a drink. In this instance it was bale fruit tea, simply the dried fruit boiled in water. “Americans like to use this in potpourri,” she says, laughing. Bale fruit tea–a natural laxative, it turns out–is a popular herbal tea in Thailand.

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Dried bale fruit is sold in packets at Asian grocery stores

That was just the beginning of Pranee’s Thai hospitality.

Effervescent in personality and in possession of a big heart, Pranee is the owner of I Love Thai Cooking, and teaches Thai cooking classes around the Puget Sound and also leads culinary tours to Thailand. She invited me over to show me how to cook some of her favorite dishes that her grandmother taught her so long ago in their home on the paradise island of Phuket off the southwestern coast of Thailand. 

Before we began, Pranee pointed to a black and white photo encased in a simple wooden frame perched on her dining table. “I took out her photo so that she can be with us while we cook,” she said with a smile. Hence, her grandmother Kimsua Khruasanit sat regally in her chair, frozen in time, as her spirit guided our culinary capers. 

Grandma Kimsua Khruasanit

Kimsua Khruasanit a.k.a. Ama Sua (photo courtesy of Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen)

After we sipped on the aromatic and slightly astringent bale fruit tea, we soon got to work. While I minced garlic, Pranee glided around the kitchen pulling ingredients together–lemongrass, lime leaves, bean sprouts, tofu–and started recounting stories about her grandmother in her musical sing-song voice. 

When Pranee was growing up, her grandmother lived with her and her parents, as is common among Asian families. Pranee called her “Ama Sua” (pronounced ah mah, it means grandmother) and learned many culinary skills from her. In fact, Pranee eventually became her right-hand woman in the kitchen. “She was in an accident and lost one rib,” explained Pranee, and she was unable to stand for long periods of time and had to sit down while cooking.

Pranee’s Ama Sua has since passed away but she lived to the ripe old age of 85. “She cooked very healthy food,” noted Pranee who also benefited. In Phuket, their diet comprised lots of fresh vegetables and herbs and seafood. “We ate more seafood because it was cheaper than meat,” Pranee explained. “In Phuket there was no land for cattle and cows.” Her grandma improvised a lot in the kitchen and used up whatever ingredients were available. “She was also very good with the budget,” Pranee continued. Somehow or another, her Ama Sua always managed to stretch the tight household budget making it go a long way, and never failed to serve tasty, nutritious meals right to the very end of the month. 

Needless to say, Pranee is grateful to her grandma for passing on many culinary gems to her. During my afternoon with Pranee, she was kind enough to share several recipes and tips. I’ll in turn share them with you over several blog posts. Here’s the first one. 

Shrimp and Pineapple Red Curry (Keang Kue Sapparod) 

You can make red curry paste from scratch however it is rather time consuming and the ingredient list rather lengthy. Pranee special orders her curry paste from a supplier in Thailand. (Side note: Pranee said she asked her supplier to make it 70 percent less spicy than normal and yet my mouth still felt like it was ablaze when I sampled this dish!) For the rest of us, Mae Ploy brand curry paste is a superb choice (and not a fire hazard for the taste buds). Try this recipe with chicken or pork too. I’m going to use duck and lychees instead of shrimp and pineapple next time!

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4-6 servings

1 cup coconut milk, divided (Pranee recommends Mae Ploy or Aroy-D which my mum swears by too)
2 tablespoons red curry paste
2/3 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained of juice 
1/4 cup reserved pineapple juice
15 medium shrimp (about 1 pound)
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer layer discarded, then sliced on the diagonal into thin ovals 
Ground peanuts to garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons coconut milk and red curry paste. Stir until well combined. Add 2 more tablespoons coconut milk.

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Boil until coconut oil separates from the mixture and rises to the surface. (You can also add vegetable oil to stimulate this process which may be slowed down by pasteurization/preservatives). About 3 minutes.

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Add another 3 tablespoons coconut milk and 1/2 cup water. Add pineapple chunks and remaining coconut milk. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil.

Reduce to medium heat. Add shrimp, and cook 1 to 2 minutes until pink.

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Add kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Give everything in the pan one thorough mix and take off the heat. Serve immediately with jasmine rice.