Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My inspiration: dinners with Lazy Susan

As a child growing up in Seattle, Washington in the 1970s, I kind of lived a double life.  You see, I am 100% Chinese.  But back then, even though my traditional parents were extremely proud of our culture and heritage, they chose to raise me and my three older siblings in  a community that was predominantly Caucasian.  Mom and dad spoke fluent Mandarin in the house, but we answered back in English.  For eight years, I attended a Catholic grade school where the only other Chinese students were my two older sisters and brother.  My public high school offered a bit more diversity, but I still didn’t have any Asian friends.  In my college sorority, there were 120 girls in the house.  How many Asians?  Seven.  (And that included Jane, our sweet, little housekeeper.)  But despite the lack of diversity in our social circles growing up in Seattle, my parents always taught my siblings and me to take pride in our culture.  To preserve the traditions.  Stay true to our roots.  So even though mom sent us to  school with bologna sandwiches in our lunch bags, we would sit down to a home-cooked Chinese meal around our big, round table, every single night.  

Circa 1968, my parents surrounded by a bunch of bananas.  That's me in the middle.

Complete with a spinning Lazy Susan, just like in the Chinese restaurants, our dining room table was the heart of our home.  It was here where our family of six would gather for a delicious, traditional Chinese dinner that my mother would skillfully whip up, with love, seven nights a week.  Platters of soy sauce chicken, saucy beef and broccoli, stir-fried bok choy, spicy ma-po tofu with minced pork, and of course, rice.  (My dad loved rice, and in his opinion, no meal is complete without an ample pot of steamed white rice.)  It wouldn’t be unusual to have four or five courses like this every night.  Nor would it be considered indulgent to consume three different types of meat in one sitting – chicken, beef and pork, all in one meal.  Yes, Carnivores-R-Us!  My Caucasian friends eating Hamburger Helper just didn’t know what they were missing. 

 Over the years, I did take these Chinese feasts for granted.  I really didn’t know how good I had it until I left for college, and then was suddenly craving mom’s lo-mein noodles after a week of bland, fattening, unhealthily prepared meals at the sorority.  Our cook at the Pi Phi house would “season” a turkey by spraying Pam Non-Stick Cooking Spray all over it (sorry for outing you, Lorna, but that  was  gross).  I would go home every Sunday and chow down on one of mom’s great Chinese dinners AND do loads of laundry – double bonus.  After my siblings and I got married and started having our own kids, we were spoiled with the Sunday Chinese dinner ritual for several years.  But when the headcount of the immediate family topped out at 17 (10 adults, 7 grandchildren), the weekly dinners thinned out to quarterly gatherings.  And then, they were reduced to just Chinese New Year’s dinners, which were eventually replaced with my parents booking a couple round tables at a restaurant in Chinatown.  It simply was just too many people, and therefore too much work for my dear, petite mom.  Her dedication to feeding her large Chinese family has certainly been a labor of love.  She has put in countless hours slicing, dicing, poaching, frying, marinating.  Mom’s tired, and it’s time for someone else to pick up the slack.  To carry on the tradition.  To host the family gatherings.  To honor my mom.  And to ensure her legacy continues.

So that’s the background of my goal:  to share my mom’s wonderful Chinese recipes for all to enjoy.  The problem is….there are no recipes.  All these years, my mom has cooked from the heart, from her head, from her experienced sense of taste and visual measurements of “that looks like enough oyster sauce” or “put in one more handful of green onions.”  Nothing is documented.  Until now.  I am ready to step up to the wok and produce these recipes for you.  For me.  For my family.  For anyone who can appreciate some damn good Chinese food.  Also, to show you that if you’re in the mood for Chinese, you don’t need to order take-out or venture down to Panda Express anymore.  These soon-to-be-documented recipes are simple, healthy and very do-able.  I know because I have mastered them.  To the degree that my husband and two kids have thought they were eating my mom’s cooking, when indeed, it was my own.  But, up to this point, I have only replicated her dishes by carefully following my mom’s verbal instructions, and with her assistance either by my side or via numerous phone calls to her while I’m in the kitchen.  But now I’m ready to measure, record, test, taste, re-test (and repeat, as necessary) each and every recipe, with mom’s help, of course.  All that, my hungry friends, will take place in the Dragon Lady Kitchen.

Dragon Ladies (me and mom), taking a break from the kitchen.


  1. Mary I can't wait to try your rescipe's! love the blog and your family picture, such a cute toddler you were!

  2. I just found your blog. I am definitely making the spring rolls on Saturday. I'm looking forward to more recipes. Can't wait for the lo-mein.

  3. Thanks for sharing these receipes. My story is similar to yours (substitute Toisan for Mandarin in my household). Now that I am in my mid-30s, I find myself longing for my grandmother's and mother's "recipes". I cannot wait to try your versions.