Magazine article Newsweek

The Art of Chinese Cooking

Magazine article Newsweek

The Art of Chinese Cooking

Article excerpt

Byline: Vanessa Hua; Hua Lives In Claremont, Calif.

I can make a mean seafood paella, but I never learned to cook the food my grandmother made.

I stood before the electric stove, poised to crack an egg on the side of a frying pan and into a mound of steamed rice. Fried rice--what could be easier? It was a dish I had eaten hundreds, maybe thousands of times, a dish my grandmother cooked with bits of chopped ham and peas, a dish my siblings and I ate when we were disgusted by Chinese banquet courses of jellyfish or sea cucumber, a dish I assumed would be simple to make when, after graduating from college, I was forced to feed myself for the first time.

I had slit open the bag of rice, unboxed my brand-new cooker and followed the directions. Twenty minutes later, the rice was starchy-fragrant, big bubbles gurgling under the glass dome. I pulled off the lid and poked the rice with my finger. It was soggy, not the perfect balance of chewy moistness I expected. I scooped the rice into the frying pan and cracked the egg on top, turning it into a gluey mess. I pushed the mass around with a wooden spoon, but it refused to crumble into the delicious bits I remembered my grandmother making. What did I do wrong?

Recall any movie with an "ethnic" cast, the scenes of families sitting around a dinner table, digging into plates of chow mein, collard greens, cannoli, baklava, whatever. Food is culture; food is shorthand for who you are. And here I failed this basic test of identity. Chinese cuisine, with its long list of ingredients, seemed better left to the experts.

It would embarrass me to have to turn to lessons from someone like Martin Yan, the celebrity chef and public-television staple. "If Yan can cook, so can you!" he'd bellow. Shouldn't I know intuitively how to cook Chinese? Wasn't I born with a pair of chopsticks in one hand and a wok in the other? My maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, was a Chinese cook of the old order. She was born in a village in southern China, raised seven children during the war and could conjure meals from the most basic ingredients: bean-thread-noodle soup, soy-sauce chicken and glossy steamed white buns.

Once I tried to help my grandmother make wontons. I might have been 8. She sat at the glass table in the kitchen of our house in the Bay Area suburbs and mixed together ground pork and chopped vegetables. …

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