Chinese American Gothic

Background: Ten years ago, Gourmet magazine sent me to Richmond, Virginia to get in touch with my mother’s family’s roots, and by doing so understand a sliver of the Chinese experience in the South during the 1960s. The eventual piece, “Virginia is for Wontons,” was published in October 2008. However, separately, the insanely wonderful, incredible Nanette Maxim, who was assigned to me at Gourmet at the time, shaped the original 30-odd pages that I had submitted. (An extremely well-respected food writer, upon hearing that I had “landed” Nanette, mourned, “Why do YOU always get the great editors?”)
The essay hasn’t seen the light of day until now, but reading the words over, I quite like them, mainly due to Nanette’s input. It is also about one Chinese family adapting to their new home while remaining true to themselves, and hence I think it is relevant to Slaintchi. So ten years later, on a day when Virginia has acted, politically, in a pretty awesome fashion, I’m publishing it now to celebrate why Virginia was once welcoming to my immigrant family. The piece has rough edges and warts. Be warned that it is long.
My grandma Chin’s tofu fritters are an example of Chin Richmond cooking, tofu & bacon, hush puppy style. You can find the Saveur recipe here.


This story begins with two Chinese families, the Chins and the Sungs, who both came to Richmond Virginia from over the ocean. The two families’ paths would have never crossed but for a sweet-eyed girl called Sha Chin who migrated here from Taiwan at the height of the Civil Rights movement, changed her name to Maria when she converted to Catholicism, and renounced her ambitions to become a nun when she met a tall, handsome Chinese doctor by the name of Ed. In many ways, as Ed and Sha’s firstborn, my cousin Jay must be considered a Richmond product, like Jefferson Davis, Arthur Ashe, and peanut soup. I have come to Richmond to reacquaint myself with the Chin and Sung’s history, and have dragged a reluctant Jay in tow.

Richmond VA was the Confederate capital, a fact that its residents have not forgotten. It is old, proud, and slightly decaying. Monument Avenue is a testament to the Richmond life, grand houses inhabited by people who cannot afford them, statues of local heroes who face south in case their allegiance was ever brought to question.

I am charmed by Richmond. Jay hates the place. I have not been back here since I was eight years old and my Grandpa Chin died. I remember the taste of my first spoonbread in a cafeteria, the Mondrian painted pigeon coop that my architect grandfather built, and the trees that my mother described from their first house on Grace Street heavy with damson plums. Every Christmas, my Chin grandparents’ house would be infused with the dark, sweet perfume of soy and anise. It would be the pigs’ feet that my grandfather had simmered specifically for personal delectation, and when he lifted me up to the stove to peer under the lid, I could revel in the sticky glaze of fat and skin. But Jay has been back a lot, for funerals, weddings, birthday celebrations. He has seen this place converted into a suburban nightmare, he has witnessed long lengths of rural landscape being converted into strip malls. He has fretted away nights at the local Hampton Inn, eating Wendy burgers and waiting for his Grandma Sung to die. For Jay, there is no romance – only melancholy, aversion, and embarrassment.

“You might think,” he tells me, “that Richmond is about the simple life, pig pits, farming, and sing-a-longs on the banjo, when really, it is all about TGIFs and Applebees.”

On our first afternoon here, I lean against the car as Jay sits inside, frantically SMS messaging. I have gotten bored, lit a cigarette, and am idly waving to truck drivers. My cousin Jay has the looks of a Hong Kong pop star – gelled black hair, cheekbones, black pants, and rimless spectacles. He is also a cripple thanks to a recent hernia in his back. Despite the injury, he insisted that he would still come with me. When he stands, his torso curves in an S and his legs are bowed, a fine-featured Chinese Toulouse Lautrec.

Jay has made us drive for hours after getting off the plane – past the restaurant chains and multiplexes, past the wistfully chi-chi neighborhood around our hotel, in his quest to find something that bears no relation to the city that continues to live on in his mind. Sisters is a spray painted aluminum shack across the railroad tracks from downtown Richmond, hidden by car part manufacturers. The parking lot is almost exclusively trucks. It is owned and run by three lean, no-nonsense sisters named Esther, Judy, and Punchie. Elbow-to-elbow with the chain smoking clientele, Jay snaps his digital camera, types into his Blackberry, while an entourage of his other digital instruments beep at intervals. I crack Southern incest jokes every time someone asks us if we are married. We partake of sweet tea, heart-stopping mac and cheese, collard greens laced with ham, and fried seafood of every description. The deviled crab is soft and spicy inside its shell. We are sated, yet slightly ill at ease.

“Um,” Jay tells me, “do you think that these people have ever seen a Chinese person?”


In fact, a number of Chinese have claimed Richmond as their home. There have been Chinese in the South for longer than one might think. There were Chinese who fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War. My friend Steven Tao recollects his grandfather sitting on his small-town Arkansas porch, eating ribs, slugging bourbon, and wearing boots, and holding forth on why Jefferson Davis was robbed by revisionist Yankee history. For over fifty years, there have been Tao mayors and Tao sheriffs in Steve’s hometown of Hughes.

Our cab driver one night is a gray haired 70-something Korean War veteran, and quotes poetry while the rain pounds against the windshield. He was best friends with a Chinese boy Peter Wong growing up. They used to go fishing.

“Then,” he whistles, “Peter got himself married to a blonde, divorced her, and shoot, found himself in a whole mess of trouble.”

Nevertheless, many of the Chinese here have not been acclimated. Even now, you don’t see them in bars or on university campuses. You don’t even see them in Chinese restaurants. Though the staff is Chinese, the clientele ranges from African American and Hispanics to sad businessmen, old couples, and loud, red haired secretaries. To be accepted in the South when you’re Chinese seems to be a combination of skill and luck. Steve’s grandfather and great-uncle, with no language and no friends, bought the local five and dime. When the Depression hit, the Taos’ social status rocketed, because it was the Taos that controlled the food.

Maybe it’s also a mutual love for pork and peanuts that attracts the Chinese to the South. Add onto that a liking for sodium, deep-fried foods and one begins to understand why certain Chinese have not only settled here, but also adore it. The hard, salty Virginia country ham bears a resemblance to the famous ham of Jinhua. Both the Chinese and the Southerners understand pig’s trotters, vinegar, and crabs sucked from their shells. And between the Chinese and the Southerners there is always a keen appreciation for the strip of meat and bone that runs along either side of the pig –- aka the sparerib.

The older native Virginians that we meet – friends of the Chins – have an unsentimental, humorous view towards life, death, and hardship. “Yes, that was the year I lost my two best friends in a week,” smiles an elegant denizen by the name of Ruth Jordan. “I guess you would call that a pretty tough summer.”

Miz Jenkins is the woman that my grandmother considered her greatest ally in this town. On her family’s most valuable memento, a gold pocket watch, Miz Jenkins muses, “My husband had the nerve to ask me what I would rather have, this watch or bread. I said, well shoot, what do you think? Say we’re the last people on earth. I’d eat my bread, watch you die, and take the watch.”

Some fun seems to have come out of slender times. Miz Jenkins’s tobacco growing cousins would smoke their hams with whatever was leftover from their crop. Miz Jordan used to net shad in the creek. There is an absence of moping. Richmond is a beaten down town, by numerous wars, by the Depression, and now by recent change; the only way to cope is by not letting it beat you down with it. The older Chinese from China that I have met and liked, and who have also had a share of war and famine, partake in this merry, morbid approach. Shucks, they all imply, we never had it that bad.


The Chins came to Richmond VA from Taiwan in 1962, with four daughters and one son. Sha/Maria was the oldest by many years – by the time they arrived in Richmond, she was twenty and extremely pretty. The other three daughters were closely clustered in age; there was Yen (energetic, efficient, helpful), there was Annping, my mother (moody, self possessed) and Shoping (who loved beauty and cleanliness and by far the most popular girl in their school). Yo, the boy, was as young as Sha was old, and he was still a toddler when the Chins settled. Grandpa was an architect with a taste for the impractical and expensive; Grandma Chin, a college educated woman, stayed at home and kept the family fed and clothed. In many ways, the Chins experienced a normal childhood in their white neighborhoods and their white schools. They were taught that Jefferson Davis was the country’s first president, that the Stars and Bars was the only true flag of the United States, and to sing Dixie Land at football games. They ate fried chicken, collard greens, and Jello salads. They learned that American history began and ended at the Civil War.

My uncle Yo says, “Frankly I was a bit of a redneck. Stars and Bars, fishin’, and football,” all of which he did with his best friend Jimmy Brown. Yo, who is more Richmond than the rest of the family, still twangs when he talks about fresh caught trout and Brunswick stew.

Still, the Chins were not without their social blunders, most notably when my grandmother showed up at the cafeteria with the other school mothers to sell milk in a cherry red, slightly translucent cheongsam slit up to her thigh. There is also some shame, especially on the part of Yo, to the extent to which their parents went to separate the children from what is still referred in this town as the “coloreds.” Steve Tao concurs. Back in the day, if you were Chinese, you were either going to be considered as white or black. “Black” Chinese ran laundries and cleaned houses. “White” Chinese were respected citizens, held real jobs, and sent their children to schools where they would not be teased.

The Chins’ first home was 3111 West Grace Street, with a back yard that adjoined Monument Avenue. My mother has always said that this was her favorite house and it is easy to see why. There are tall ceilings, fireplaces, cornices, steep staircases, and columns. The Chins were treated with immediate kindness. Mr. and Miz Shopland lived a few doors down, just like the Chins, had four daughters and one son. The Shoplands were also immigrant, at least in part. Miz Shopland hailed from Virginia, but Mr. Shopland was an English violinist twenty years his wife’s senior. Memories of Mr. Shopland are shadowy, a silent, stern man who came down for meals with a cravat and a cane; and just as my grandmother made sure that there was rice, tofu, and bean sprouts, Miz Shopland, herself a professional violinist, made sure that there was kippers and Yorkshire pudding. At the Shoplands, there were five meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner plus elevenses and tea). Dinner would always involve at least four dishes, and if company was present – even if it was only a couple of twelve year old girls – then the best china would be laid on the dining room table. For school lunches, Miz Shopland would pack cream cheese sandwiches, wrapped in parchment, with a nickel for milk nestled in the center.

3111 West Grace Street is now owned by a barrel-shaped foster mother, who thinks that all Chinese people go by the name of Chicken Fat. Her silver haired husband sits in the kitchen inches away from the television, with a platter of meatballs with gravy. The backyard is a wasteland – dead bushes, plastic toys, and wire fences. But when the Chins lived there, there were tangled roses and trees dripping with damson plums. My grandmother, who loved tidiness, despised the fruit littering the yard, for their juice stained both the grass and the soles of ones feet. During damson season, the Shopland and Chin youngsters would scramble up the trees and throw plums to Miz Shopland, who would gather them up in her voluminous apron. Her damson jam was famous – since I was a child, my mother has rhapsodized both about the fruit and its final product. Damsons are small, dark, and sour, with a large pit. It requires patience and quite a lot of sugar in order to, as Miz Shopland did, coax them into the syrupy amber colored condiment that was her trademark.

Across the street there were the Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins was a typesetter for the local newspaper, and Miz Jenkins was a nurse who took care of everyone in the area on her rare hours off. She was a spry woman, navigating the neighborhood with a birdlike quickness in short hair, a gingham shirt, and jeans. She kept an eye on her farm in the country, fixed cars, and provided ailing neighbors with an arm to lean on and injections at midnight. To the Chins, Miz Jenkins acted as confidante, social entrée, and even business manager – she would tell my grandfather when he should demand a raise, and advise my grandmother on stocks. Because Yo, then a boy of three, loved riding in cars, she would swing by and fetch him when she went to pick her daughter up from school. He would stand starry eyed behind her in the back seat. When my grandmother opened a shop, Oriental Village, Miz Jenkins would sit with her for hours at a time, to keep away the trouble makers and thieves.

Verbal communication between the Chins and their new friends was difficult in the early years, so affection was expressed through gesture. Miz Jenkins and my grandmother, whom she persists in calling Miz Chin, whiled away many moments simply holding hands. It was also expressed by the exchange and consumption of food. Miz Shopland, according to everyone, was a divine cook. Besides her perfectly presented cream cheese sandwiches and her damson jam, there are moans about Miz Shopland’s squash casserole, her pork chops, and the things she could do with potatoes.

On their first Thanksgiving Miz Jenkins showed up at the Chins doorstep with an expertly carved turkey and a plate of stuffing. The Chins ate the stuffing but had to throw the turkey away, the slightly gamey flavor of turkey being something that many Chinese cannot abide. But as Miz Jenkins continued to do this every year, they started eating turkey and liking it. On Christmas Miz Jenkins would drop by with a ham, and whenever, during the year, she was making her ham and biscuits, a tray would appear at the Chin foyer. In return the Chins introduced their new friends to soft buns stuffed with pork and chives, deep fried meatballs spiced with ginger, shark fin soup, and sticky rice steamed with dates and red bean paste.

The Chins still get misty at the mention of Miz Jenkins ham – moister and less saline than the usual local product. Jay and I were sent to Richmond with two injunctions: to send Miz Jenkins their special love, and to get her recipe. Now, Miz Jenkins has always used her own family’s ham, for her brothers, her cousins, and now her nephews raise pigs in her home-seat among the mountains of Halifax County. At the moment, they cure and smoke only for their kin. But Miz Jenkins also soaks the ham for at least forty-eight hours, rather than the customary twenty-four, and then she bakes the ham at 200 degrees for an entire day, switching the oven off at intervals. In the weeks after Christmas, the Chins consumed a lot of it, in sandwiches, in slices, and in spirals that my grandfather would steam – Chinese style — in honey and wine.


I have also come to Richmond to see Jay’s Auntie Leona, who is the younger sister of his father Ed. I have never met Leona. All I know about her is that she has lived in Richmond most of her life, during which time she has married and divorced a truck driver and mothered three children. She also believes in ghosts and every time her name is mentioned, it is accompanied by tongue clicks.

Between our hotel and Auntie Leona’s one must traverse the Powhite Parkway, which Richmonders insist on pronouncing Pow-heet, but which we two outsiders, quite reasonably, refer to as the Po’ white. I have an orchid for Auntie Leona balanced on my lap, and both Jay and I are singing along to the Country Western tunes. Over the cellphone in the car, we discuss dinner plans with Auntie Leona, a lengthy process. Finally, Jay cuts in. “What about Inter-China? Wasn’t that where we always used to go?” There is a pause. “Of course I will take you to Interchina,” Auntie Leona responds. “Interchina is a nice restaurant. You will like it. Of course, it was the restaurant that killed your grandmother.”

Half an hour later, Jay and I pull up in front of a contemporary sprawl with a well kempt front lawn and brambles in the back. Jay shakes his head. “I don’t remember this place.” Only Auntie Leona appearing at the front door assures us that we have arrived.

Auntie Leona has down-turned doe eyes, a pursed mouth, and gray hair. She wears heels and long linen skirts. Walking in through the front door, I observe that all the curtains are shut, the floors are glossy, and the air smells pasteurized. Apart from a cat that we never see, Auntie Leona lives alone. In the living room I notice an empty fish tank and a five-foot bunny rabbit dressed in a floral skirt. The television in the parlor is on mute, and there is a bowl of candies on the coffee table. Auntie Leona is an ardent fan of Arnold Schwarznegger and the Nutrisystem diet, but sounds like a hippie family counselor when she talks. She is sad that Jay’s father Ed has lost the videotapes of the old days in a basement flood. “But,” she says, cheering up, “my friend says, it’s Nature wanting you to forget and have a new beginning.”

I love the Sungs. When I was a little girl in Richmond, I divided my time between the Chin and Sung grandparents, and my Sung memories consist of sitting in their shady parlour doing needlepoint while Grandma Sung bustled about being large and cheerful. The Sungs pampered me to the pores, with endless glasses of lemonade, cups of chrysanthemum tea, and Chinese sticky rice snacks.
Above all the other Sungs I love my uncle, Ed Sung, Jay’s father. Ed, an obstetrician, delivered me into this world, so arguably he provided me with my first glimpse of my future clan. Ed is morbid, jocose. Jay talks about a boyhood stumbling over the pickled kitten heads and cadaver arms his father would keep around the house as sentimental mementos. But Ed is also as wise and warm as sunshine. Ed will tell me, tears staining his glasses. “I spanked your fucking bum, kiddo. You pissed on me when you came out of your mom. I love you.” Bringing babies into the world is his raison d’etre. In Ed and Sha’s house there is a flowerbed, and they keep their beds separate. Ed’s flowers are the ones that Sha has discarded because they were too ugly or hopeless, but he thinks are beautiful. The tenderness with which Ed cared for my grandmother could make your throat catch. One day, my grandmother had to use the bathroom and there was no one else in the house except for him. She protested because she didn’t want for him to see her with her pants down.

“Look,” he told her, “you know what I do for a living? I look at women’s bare asses. You think you’re showing me anything special?”

When Ed married Sha, he announced that should his wife predecease him, he would want to keep her in a glass coffin, so that he could gaze upon her beauty until his own time had come. It was Ed who was responsible the excommunication of Sha, my oldest aunt, his wife, and former aspiring nun. Ed shrugs at the memory. “I was trying to convert. The priest asks me about my views on contraception.” (While Ed loves babies, he loves women more.) Ed’s opinions resulted in the two of them being marched down the aisle and out of the church forever.

Ed’s wife Sha is the type of woman who will roll puff pastry in one hand, down martinis with the other, all the while barking orders and laughing. The feasts that she creates are staggering – rock shrimp lasagnas, table-sized fishes en croute, crisp ducks lined in a row. Her wine cellar rivals King Herod’s. Going out to lunch with Sha is a pilgrimage, in which we hit three restaurants instead of one. Waiters, chefs, and vendors adore her, even though she drives a hard bargain. There is a touch of Mafia about her personality. Impeccably dressed, she remembers the busboy by his first name, carries rolls of hundred dollar bills in her Fendi purse, and calls the girls in our family “Cookie.” When my grandmother was resident at Ed and Sha’s house and dying of cancer, Sha told her daughter, “When I die, don’t let me go like this.” For Sha, it was a rare teary outburst. Her daughter – Jay’s sister Gia — shrugged and said, “Nah, mom, I’ll just lock you in the wine cellar and let you drink yourself to death.

Leona is obsessed with analyzing her older brother Ed.

“He’s so scared of letting go,” she explains. In truth, Ed takes too many photos and gets attached to strange objects, like cat heads. However, Leona has kept her huge house and bought herself a new mini van even though her children have been gone for a decade. She has even, by persuading her son to buy the old family house in Richmond, and therefore kept a hold on the house of her parents. Auntie Leona shares another slice of wisdom about Ed. “If bringing babies into this world makes you feel powerful, then you definitely need counseling.”

Back in Northern China, the Sungs had made a fortune in wigs; they harvested Chinese hair and then dyed it for a Western clientele. The symbol for their factory was two rams clashing horns. They were kicked out of China without any warning after World War II for, in auntie Leona’s words, “being nice to the Japanese.” In Hong Kong, the Sungs had to start over, which they did, thanks to their new family friend Mr. Du, your typical Triad gangster with two wives and financial and political ties.

“I don’t understand,” Jay says, “how did Grandma and Grandpa Sung survive?”
Auntie Leona beams, “Oh, they’d been cooking the account books for years.” Also, she tells us, they smuggled most of their stockholders’ money via an accommodating Catholic priest. Grandma and Grandpa Sung followed their children to Richmond after Grandpa Sung’s two brothers fled with the family money to Brazil.

Jay’s eyes are saucer shaped. “Jeez,” he breathes, “it’s like Godfather II.”
The Chins, in contrast, were not fighters. They came to Taiwan after World War II because my grandfather was offered a job at a university, and then they moved to Virginia because my grandfather was offered another job as an architect. In Richmond, the Chins lived on Grace Street, and moved to a house on Avalon Drive. The family seat for the Sungs lies at the intersection of Arsenal Drive and Old Gun Road.

But it is the ghosts that I really want to hear about. Over dinner at the local restaurant China Jade, Auntie Leona complies, beginning with the story of the woman in white. The family (Jay was not involved) had piled into two cars after dinner, Grandma and Grandpa Sung taking the lead, the second car following a half an hour behind. Both cars saw a woman, clad in billowing white, adrift on Old Gun Road. Old Gun Road used to be a battlefield in the Civil War Presumably she was a war widow who still combs the premises looking for her husband’s body.

Better yet, however, are the ghosts that haunted the Sung house on Arsenal Drive. (Auntie Leona shudders as she relates this.) Grandma Sung was in the kitchen when she heard the sound of a mop being swished in a bucket coming from the office. Grandpa Sung was in the bedroom and heard the same. They both rushed to the office and found it empty. Apparently, the space had functioned the servant’s quarters in the house that had stood there before. Later, Grandpa Sung saw a man in the master bedroom, absent from the waist down, trying to turn on a light switch. Another day, Grandma Sung saw three girls scurrying down the hallway in antique dresses. Leona and her sister Cherry were cleaning in the master bedroom closet when Cherry screamed, “Stop hurting me!” And when they tried to open the closet door, it wouldn’t budge.

Grandma and Grandpa Sung moved out of the master bedroom. They closed the office. For reasons unknown to the rest of the Sungs, they shut the living room and watched television in the dining room instead. By the time I arrived as a child, half the house was uninhabited. It was when Grandma Sung moved into a retirement home, that the Sungs hired a Haitian psychic called Daniel. Daniel felt vibrations in the office immediately, and followed them to the master bedroom, where the freezing palpitation had reached its saturation. “There is a body buried underneath here,” he announced, “and the closet is the spirit gateway.” The motive behind the hauntings is pretty straightforward, at least in my skewed view. The master had an affair with the maid and possible pregnancy, death, and mayhem ensued.

Jay asks, “Why didn’t Grandma and Grandpa just move?” To this, Leona has no answer, especially considering that the house on Arsenal Drive is now the home of her son Herbie. I suppose the Sungs don’t believe in fleeing from their ghosts, they believe in dwelling amongst them.

Recently, Grandpa Sung himself was spotted from the swimming pool, his face reflected in the bedroom window.

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Chins and Sungs together. From left to right, Shoping, Yo, Grandpa Chin, Yen, Grandma Chin, Annping, Leona, Cherry, Grandpa Sung, Ed, Sha, Grandma Sung.


We are at China Jade with only two other customers – the woman with dyed hair drawling on her cell phone, and the slumped businessman three tables away. Jay and I eat scallops and filet mignon, deep fried orange beef, garlic shrimp. After a lot of finagling, a plate of cabbage is ordered for Auntie Leona, who is on a diet. The Virginian Chinese community, I am realizing, like everyone else in the area, doesn’t hold much stock in vegetables. From time to time a sliver of snow pea rears its weary head.

It is interesting watching Auntie Leona picking at cabbage, for the Sungs have a reputation for being heroic eaters. Whenever they would come over to the Chins for dinner, my grandmother and grandfather would be in the kitchen for days. “Each of them would start,” my Chin aunt and youngest Chin sister, Shoping muses, “with an enormous T-bone. Then there’d pigs feet, fried noodles, fried rice, duck, soy sauce chicken, and god knows what else. At the end it would be all gone.” Dinner at the Sungs would be a barbecue, involving meats of every cut and description. They would lounge around at the swimming pool in the Sung’s backyard, tossing rib bones to the thirty-odd stray cats that Grandma Sung had taken into her care. The Sungs love cats. Auntie Leona has one, so does Herbie, Jay has two, and Ed pickles their heads in a jar.

Despite their love of eating, the Sungs – especially Grandma and Grandpa Sung – were not famous for their kitchen skills. Therefore, when Grandma and Grandpa Sung opened a restaurant it was a bit of a surprise. Yee-An was actually a promising restaurant to begin with; Grandma and Grandpa Sung went through some trouble to import two chefs from Taiwan. The senior chef could even be called a visionary. Perhaps he was too much so. One multi-course meal he served to the Chins was comprised entirely of venison. The choice of grasshoppers as an accompanying beverage was unfortunate, but the Chinese have never been known for their savvy with booze. Head chef wanted to serve sea cucumbers, dried fish, and shark’s fin soup. His customers wanted chop suey, lo mein, and eggrolls. Perhaps such rejection helps explain the head chef’s habit of beating the younger chef on the head with an eight-ounce ladle. Needless to say, the two chefs’ tenure at Yee An did not last. Eventually the kitchen was handed over to Jay’s uncle Alex, a failed concert pianist. All the time spent before a Steinway did not enhance what he could do with a gas flame and wok.

The Chins were arguably Yee-An’s most faithful customers. Jay remembers it with affection because he used to play everywhere that was left empty by potential clientele. The food was awful. But that fact alone should not have affected the Sung success in the restaurant business. As most residents of Richmond will tell you, bad Chinese food flourishes on every street. In Richmond, all you have to do is open up a tin of baby corn, throw in enough soy sauce to cover up the flavor of stale meat, and call it foreign. The restaurant of my mother’s youth was a place called Joy Gardens, a place where you could eat hamburgers alongside your moo-goo-gai-pan and wash them down with a suggestively named cocktail with a pineapple spiked parasol. Not only has Joy Gardens survived the past 40 years, it has been such a success that there are now three of them, presumably all with the same neon sign advertising Chinese American Food.

Perhaps the reason Yee-An failed was because it was so ambitious, a yawning space with white tablecloths, real glasses and silverware, a full bar, and a separate banquet room, that due to lack of use, served as a nursery for the grandchildren. This, I believe, had something to do with Grandma Sung, who entertained a vision of herself as a doyenne; in her later age, she had a habit of tipping wherever she went, stuffing twenty dollar bills into the palm of the astonished casher at McDonalds. A bare-bones takeout with two tables would not have satisfied her. If Grandma Sung was going to open a restaurant, she was going to do it in style. Not only did she import her chefs from Taiwan, she had the Sungs pay for their chefs’ plane fares, their taxes, and their apartments. It was a grand gesture on her part, but not necessarily a profitable one.
It was Grandma Sung who kept the myth of her family’s importance going strong, and Grandma Sung who kept the ghosts alive. She either adored people or thought that they were scheming against her. The force of Grandma Sung’s personality lives on in her descendants today. You glimpse it in Leona, when she reports that the neighbors leave threatening notes in her son’s mailbox, while the garbage man sifts through his rubbish, and when she insists to only trust a Chinese restaurant that carves your duck at the table, because most Chinese will try to serve you half a duck and charge you full price. You glimpse it in the reverence with which her grandchildren talk about her now. When Leona’s son Herbie speaks of the founding of their Yee-An restaurant, he sounds like he is reciting a creation myth. Grandma Sung went to Peking, China and for six months studied the ancient techniques with the greatest cooking masters. When I ask him about her recipe for sweet and sour sauce with maraschino cherries and sweet pickles, his visage becomes grave. “You understand,” he says, “that all the cooks would kill for this recipe. It is an old Peking secret.”

Nevertheless, everyone loved Grandma Sung. She was a flamboyant woman, blessed with a wonderful ability to poke fun at herself, even at her tall tales and her machinations. My Chin grandparents did not eat at Yee-An out of obligation, they did so to express their affection. Grandma Sung could make someone really guffaw.

Grandpa Sung – a quiet man — passed away in 2000 when a stroke overcame him at the front door, having just finished a large plate of sea cucumbers. “It’s the way he would’ve wanted to go, you know?” Ed sobbed to me at the time, “at least he’d just had a good dinner.” Grandma Sung passed away three years later. The last time I saw her was at Jay’s wedding; she was in a wheelchair, clutching my mother and her sisters and kissing their hands. Of course, the last time anyone saw Grandpa Sung was more recent, when he appeared at the bedroom window of Arsenal Drive.

The Arsenal Drive house, complete with the ghosts, now belongs to Auntie Leona’s son Herbie. When we pull in to the driveway I start to feel twinges even though I have not been here for over twenty years. There is the swing set on which I used to pump my legs. Back then, it was rusty and on the anorexic side; now the seats are missing, and it looks like a Giocometti that has languished on the ocean floor. I remember, too, the crumbling stone table and the bench. The driveway is cluttered with torn sofas from the 1970s. There is an old pickup truck. The atmosphere is eye-watering with dry grass. As I make my way to the house, a ginger haired cat curls itself around my legs. I wind my way through the back yard and see the swimming pool. What shatters me is the state of the house. It is buckled and peeling, colored in three different kinds of paint. This looks like the house in the neighborhood that your parents warned you to stay away from when you were a kid – the one with three broken trucks, a snarling dog on a chain, and a plastic Christmas statues that remained in the yard yearlong.

I am also unprepared for the parlor. Large boxes – of beer, Entemmanns donuts, and jarred tomatoes crowd the entryway, and there is a whiff of tobacco and cat food. At Auntie Leona’s one lingers in a perpetual twilight, but here, it is black. A blonde boy sits on the sofa, illuminated by the flicker of a video game. This room was where I spent the most time as a child – it was where I drank lemonade and cross-stitched daisies into an embroidery frame.
Leona’s son Herbie ushers us through the kitchen to the living room, and suddenly everything is bathed in fluorescent. We head back to the kitchen – always the center of Chinese family life – where there is a geriatric electric range, two cartons of donuts stacked next to the refrigerator, and cat food spilling onto the floor. Herbie is apologetic, scooting chairs, emptying ashtrays.

“See that?” he says, pointing to the ceiling that undulates and cracks. “Water damage. I hafta tear everything up and begin again.”

I look up and imagine that it is from the tears of the resident, angst-ridden phantoms. I cannot imagine that Grandpa Sung, the latest addition, is happy here with a suicidal Southern master, his slave lover, and their slain children. In the meantime, Auntie Leona has vanished. She is Herbie’s wife, whom I never meet throughout our visit’s duration. Herbie’s wife suffers from bouts of sobbing, sleeping, and weeks when she cannot bear for her – or anyone else in the family — to answer the phone. She has, incidentally, made the acquaintance of several of the house’s spooks, namely the three girls dressed in nineteenth century dress who like to play tag in the hall.
Herbie is only person keeping both his home and his household together. He contends with phantoms, renovations, angry neighbors, a depressed wife, and a silent, video-game playing son. The battle that he fights cannot be easy.

Jay has been bragging about Herbie throughout this trip. “Herbie knows so much about food,” he tells me. “Herbie graduated from the French Culinary Institute.” Together they are a strange pair. Jay is a sleek yuppie and stands about five foot seven. Herbie looms at over six foot tall, flushed skin sweating underneath unshaven skin and a teeshirt, the drawling product of Auntie Leona and her truck driver ex-husband.

Mention food, however, and both men come alight. Herbie goes into a fugue state when he talks about his days as sous at the Berkeley hotel, when they made grits cooked in scallop shell broth, and bite sized morsels of crab bisque enclosed in crisp cornbread cups. Richmond cooking is dead, he tells me. The problem with Richmond Chinese cooking, he tells me, is that the cooks drown everything in hoisin, the ubiquitous condiment that Herbie pronounces to rhyme with poison. Meanwhile, Jay bustles about slicing the dragonfruit that we have picked up from the Asian market Tan A.

I’ve never seen Jay this considerate with the family that we share. At Chin gatherings, Jay is the one arrives late (gym, work), the first to leave (gym and work again) and when he is actually present, he is either at the piano or dozing. At Herbie’s, he is wiping knives and cutting boards and punctuating his conversation with remarks with, “Aw, gee. Hey Mei, did you hear what Herbie said? Isn’t that great?”

Jay is also wary of my manners. When Herbie ruminates about the long-forgotten secrets of the Sung’s Peking sweet and sour pork, I interrupt, exasperated. “Herbie,” I blurt, “I don’t think there were maraschino cherries in the imperial Peking court.”
Jay blinks. “Sorry, she’s from New York. It’s the way she is.” There is no cruelty in his voice, only worry.

It’s true what they say about the South – time here is syrup slow. Casual house calls swallow entire afternoons. No wonder the Northerners don’t make ham – you can’t see Yankees spending three days to cook a ham, let alone the months that it takes to cure and smoke one. Maybe Bostonians like cod because it’s fast; down in the South, however, they bake their shad fish for a jaw-dropping three hours to let the bones dissolve.

Even the Chinese here are languid. At Arsenal Drive, the hours drone on until it is very late. Still Jay and Herbie are talking. My foot taps.
“Uh-oh,” Jay says, “my cousin is gonna kill me.”

Several times the two men say good-bye and cannot tear themselves apart. I feel terrible – the cold hearted Yankee for whom time, and not family, matters.
In the car, Jay looks agonized. “I dunno,” he says, “maybe it was all that deep fried orange beef.” Conflicted with guilt and ghosts at China Jade, Jay finished the entire plate. He inhales. “Also I didn’t want to leave Herbie, you know? I just feel so bad for the guy.”

I have known Jay all my life. He is diffident, deadpan, and hard to impress. The most emotion I have ever seen him express is over a piece of seabass en souvide.
Richmond changes him. It makes him punctual and well behaved. It also makes him snap at me for wearing jeans. New York Jay would have found it hilarious that his family’s restaurant Yee-An is now Family Dollar; Richmond Jay, on the other hand, is devastated.

Driving through the Hollywood cemetery in Richmond, he screeches to a halt. His eyes goggle, his complexion alters two shades. “Jesus,” he says, “did you see that? That person died on the exact day I was born. God, that’s so creepy.” Jay, who has never entertained a superstition in his life, is spooked.

I almost never met Jay because he almost died when he was born; he emerged three months premature on a Japanese army base. As a boy, he was serious, sensitive and a doting brother and cousin. He was also fiery. Intellect has always come easily to Jay, and if his temper was ignited, it was what he unleashed first – pummeling the person with razor wit and a general mental superiority. It is a trait he has since subdued.

Jay has always said he has a bad memory, but he lies. He is a CFO. He can play, by heart, a piano concerto that he hasn’t performed since he was thirteen. He has re-taught me differential equations and explained osmosis. He will take you through the nuances of every meal in his waking life. His bad memory, as I can tell, serves as an excuse from having to face what he would much rather not – namely his own kin.

So here I am, dragging Jay to the city that he despises, and making him confront the people that he has kept at an affectionate distance. Not only are there the Sungs, but there are also the Chins, who, thanks to cell phones, have been making themselves cozy and available. This is the family road trip that we have never had. Under these circumstances, it is astounding the way Jay’s memories return. He remembers the texture and color of the chairs at Yee-An, and the games he used to play underneath its white linen tables. He remembers the dilapidated supermarket next door (now turned a satellite betting center) and the parking lot out back where his older cousins would skateboard. Later, we stand on the driveway at the Chins’ second house on Avalon. Jay looks at his feet. “It used to be gravel,” he murmurs. “Now it’s paved.”

But what really kills Jay is how nice the people are. The new owner at Avalon drive welcomes us and lets us idle. Waitstaff and bartenders swing by for frank chats. At 2 AM, Jay, who is normally curt with strangers, is spotted outside a shack called Ribs, Rolls, and Cheesecake, licking smoky sauce off his fingers, and deep in conversation with a 72 year old African American photographer about life, love, art, and race, all while police sirens wail.


My family never knew Miz Ruth Jordan, but she looks after us because her best friend, Miz Shopland, is now deceased. Miz Jordan has features that are so refined that they are almost forbidding; she has a pale, smooth, cultured complexion, and is dressed in a pale coral shirt and loose fitting trousers. The moment we see her waving at us on the porch, we feel guilty to have kept this splendid lady waiting. Then Miz Jordan shakes our hands, and keeps mine nestled in hers as she leads me up the stairs. Miz Jordan’s napkins say No Salt, No Fat, No Fun. Never married, she’s been working with disabled patients most of her life, and now she zips across the United States in her car. She pats Jay’s torso. “You take care of yourself, y’hear? Get that fixed.” She hugs us.
Later, Jay comments, “I want to be like her when I grow up.”

Grandma Chin’s best Richmond friend, Miz Jenkins, no longer lives on Grace Street, but in the suburb Milosian. Like Miz Jordan, she awaits us on her porch, but dismisses with the formality of a handshake by throwing her arms around our necks. Jay is doing more hugging in this town he has done in a lifetime. To be frank, he is not exactly an expert. Usually, he attempts a stiff one-armed pat, but with Miz Jenkins, he melts. She takes us both by the hand, and squeezes us at intervals as she bustles about the kitchen making “a little snack.” Miz Jenkins is tiny and sinewy with a penchant for cars. She owns a red convertible and despite the fact that she looks graceful now in a white silk blouse printed with black orchids, there is nothing that makes her happier than fixing the shocks of a pickup truck with her son-in-law. Her idea of fun is a two hundred mile bike ride. Her idea of a little snack, is a two foot platter loaded with ham and biscuits, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes mashed with cinnamon, red potato salad made with Duke’s – the non-sweet mayonnaise of the South, and a bottle of Riesling. Like a Chinese relative, she makes us feel obliged to finish everything. The ham biscuits live up to their promise, especially considering that since we have been here, we have country ham three times a day and consider ourselves connoisseurs; the buttermilk biscuits are butter based and crumble rather than flake. Jay and I eat six apiece.

At the beginning of this summer, Miz Jenkins’s son-in-law died of a heart attack in the shower. They used to tinker with cars together and every night, he would drop by for coffee. As she sips her wine, she tells me about the time that he bought a special bottle for the two of them to share. “Blue wine,” she says he called it. “He poured me about two ounces, and he was worried whether I was okay. Shoot, who did he think I was.” She laughs, “If I’d ‘a known he was gonna die, I would’ve finished the whole thing.”

Our snack takes up the afternoon and I do not care. Jay stretches himself out on Miz Jenkins leather La-Z-Boy and falls asleep. Much later, as we all drive into Richmond, Miz Jenkins leans forward in the back seat (she will not take the front) chastising us with her characteristic chuckle. At the end of the evening, we find ourselves at the Richmond dining landmark Tobacco Factory. I look up to see this sparrow-sized woman guiding Jay down a tall staircase with one arm supporting his crooked waist, the other firmly under his elbow. Jay is grinning.

Jay’s loves include eating, work, exercise. He can play the piano for twelve hours at a time. Another one of Jay’s hobbies has been hyperbole, for he collects it as other people do butterflies and stamps. He combs for it in newspapers, novels, movies, and political speeches, and he will call me with the overwrought statement of the week. “The first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race,” he’ll quote. “How can this not make you want to read 100 Years of Solitude? How could it not?” Hyperbole bemuses, appalls, and bewitches him; and it is only in Richmond, larger than life city, that I realize why. His family, its history, and hence, the roots from which Jay himself has sprung — are the stuff of hyperbole itself.

When I was a little girl, Jay made scavenger hunts for me and his sister. He would hide often-rhyming clues in books, pizza parlors, and beneath the peel of a fresh banana. The prize in the end would be full of sugar — homemade cookies, gummy peaches, ice cream. Years later, I find myself on another hunt – with Jay functioning as both organizer and player. Doggedly, he tracks every shop, every restaurant, and every street corner for a sign of his heritage. It is a challenge he pursues though he knows that the reward at the end might not be so sweet. Yee-An is now Family Dollar. 3111 West Grace is now the residence of a fierce woman and her foster family. Arsenal Drive is in disrepair. But Avalon Drive looks the same, and even its furniture is organized the way we remember it – a cabinet piano in the corner, a chair by the front window, and a long sofa lining the wall of the downstairs sitting room. Outside of Miz Jordan’s, we run into Miz Shopland’s nephew walking Miz Shopland’s last surviving terrier. Grandma Chin’s Oriental Village is now the café Betsy 22 and we pick up a peanut butter cookie, which is actually two warm peanut butter cookies sandwiched between an oozing, peanut butter middle. Peanut butter was Grandma Chin’s private passion.

No stop on this hunt has been more fulfilling than Miz Jenkins house. Not only was she my grandmother’s best friend, it seems that she was also her best customer. She has kept every mother-of-pearl screen, teapot, teacup and rice bowl. There is even the ice bucket imprinted with the DOW index that was Grandma Chin’s gift. She shows us the first Christmas card that the Chins ever sent when they were Richmond. We look at our mothers and aunts crowded around a chubby cheeked Yo, whom Miz Jenkins still refers to as “that lil’ squirt who loved rocks.” (Yo is now six feet tall and is a professor of Geology.)

It is half past eleven at night when we drop Miz Jenkins off at her house; we escort her inside, and then she walks us back out to our car – our arms still lingeringly entwined. The last stop that Jay needs to make is Inter-China, the old Sung family hangout, site of flaming cocktails and ducks carved tableside, and, at least Auntie Leona’s mind, Grandma Sung’s murderer.
Inter-China is five minutes from Miz Jenkins. The first time I suggested going, Jay laughed at me. Now all he wants is a mai-tai and a plate of eggrolls.

“You know, I also didn’t want to leave Miz Jenkins,” Jay remarks, echoing what he said after we left Herbie the night before.

“Because you felt sorry for her?” I ask him.

“No,” he sighs, “because I just didn’t want to go.”

We can only find a darkened Barnes and Noble at the address, and when we telephone, a Chinese-accented recording apologizes. We circle this strip of malls and shops and keep dialing. Various signs — for Curves, Home Depot, and Applebees – beckon with their flicker of yellow, white, and pink and go dark.

Chinese Irish Stew

photo by Jane Wong

In New England’s November, when the windows are ice-cold in the mornings and the grass shimmers with frost, my mother starts to make her stew. This is a Dongbei dish, pork ribs, potatoes and green beans braised with soy, ginger, and star anise, the potatoes cooked until they are soft and the green beans until their surfaces wrinkle. The final touches are mung bean vermicelli, or fen si and a lavish glug of sesame oil.

In an earlier post about a news agent that serves Dongbei food, I mentioned lu rou, or Dongbei stewed meat, and how I simply don’t have the time to make it. Instead, I make this stew, which has similar flavours but more conveniently serves two or three people. Like lu rou and other stews, the flavour improves over time. Like lu rou, but unlike other stews, the vegetables become more delicious as the meat loses its savour. Every day, top this stew up with more green beans, potatoes, fen si and broth; the vegetables from the day before darken, soften, and provide a contrast. At the end you are eating vegetables in gravy and it is delicious. Fensi is optional – some people find the texture questionable – but for anyone with Dongbei blood, the fen si, which has turned tawny in its bath, is the best part.

At the backbone of the dish is star anise, or ba jiao, the prickly star shaped spice that is the unripe fruit of the Illirium verum tree. (Licorice, aniseed, fennel, and star anise are rich in anethole molecules, which is why these very these biologically unrelated roots, barks, bulbs, and seeds are virtually identical in flavor.)

For meat, pork ribs are customary, but I also like the richness of pork belly. If using ribs, see if your butcher will cut them in the “Chinese” way. (Instead of separating the ribs lengthwise, have him horizontally cut through a rack of ribs so that they are strips of ribs about two inches wide. However, normal style ribs will do.) For the pork belly, have the butcher remove the skin but leave the fat intact. I tend to find this braise makes the skin chewy, so I score it and make a separate crackling.

Smash the ginger slices, tear the scallions in half with your hands and crush them between your palms. Start all aromatics in cold oil (including star anise and my Americanised family’s additions of Sichuan peppercorn, bay leaves and rosemary) and as the oil comes up to temperature, the flavours will infuse. Brown your meat well. Stock, soy sauce, a spoonful of sugar, and a splash of Jerez sherry, which my family quite reasonably prefers to Chinese rice wine, go into the pot. When the meat is soft add your potatoes and beans, let it go until they are tender. Finish with a grind of pepper and dollop of sesame oil. No one ingredient better assuages my homesickness than sesame oil. And by sesame oil, I don’t mean the pale-hued organic stuff, but the heady, caramel colored “pure” ma you, and once you stir it into the stew, a nutty aroma will penetrate the room.

It’s an economical dish, and no fancy knife work is required. As you can probably tell, it isn’t exactly Michelin star fare. In China, Dongbei cuisine isn’t on the list of the eight influential Chinese cuisines, which include Sichuan, Canton, and Hunan. Many Chinese consider Dongbei people rustic and maybe a little backward. Even Dongbei words for things are bumpkin; “bao gu” for corn instead of “er mi;” “tu dou” (or dirt bean) for potato instead of the more elegant “di gua” (earth squash). The cold weather means a paucity of vegetables and a lot of turnips, cabbage and also potatoes, which were introduced by the Russians in the 19th century. In the rest of China, rice is the starch of choice, but in Dongbei, rice is expensive, and so they rely on corn, wheat, and potatoes. Dongbei people also love physical combat and drinking. Irish readers, punch yourselves if this sounds familiar.

My mother’s Dongbei stew has no name. I saw a photograph of something similar, which I traced to the Golden Palace restaurant in Flushing, Queens, and was uninspiringly named “stewed assorted vegetables w. braised pork.” A recipe for a Dongbei “luan dun” which literally translates into “messy stew,” calls for pork, star anise, and green beans, but also everything else in the vegetable crisper, baby corn, carrots, cabbage, snow peas.

My brother and I refer to it as that spare rib, green bean, potato and fen si thing.

My Irish boyfriend calls it Chinese Irish Stew.


Chinese Irish Stew (Serves 4)

3 ¼ inch slices of ginger, smashed with the blunt end of a knife
2 cloves garlic, smashed
5 scallions, twisted in half and bruised
4 star anise, broken into pieces
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, one branch of rosemary, bruised. (optional)

1/3 cup vegetable oil like rapeseed
white pepper

¼ cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sherry
3 cups unsalted chicken stock (or can substitute water)
3 tbsp brown sugar

1 kilo pork ribs or pork belly, skin removed but fat intact, cut into two inch
pieces and skin scored and set aside. (See above.)
8 new potatoes, scrubbed, or 3 potatoes peeled and cut into thirds and then halved.
300 g. green beans, tops and tails chopped off.
100 g. fen si or mung bean vermicelli, preferably Long Kou (optional), rehydrated in boiling water for one minute and drained. ** see note.

fresh black pepper
Sesame oil to taste (3 tbsp)

** Long Kou fen si, or mung bean or cellophane vermicelli are the most reliable noodles on the market. They either come in a large packet, in which case you have to pull half the packet apart, OR they come in one packet of small bundles, in which case you need exactly two. Everyone tells you to let cellophane noodles to soak in water for a long time, but this will make them mushy. For me, if I am to cook them, I soak them for a minute, or pour boiling water over them while they sit in the strainer. You just want to soften them.

1. In a pan with a tight fitting lid or a Dutch oven, place 1/3 cup vegetable oil, place ginger, scallion, star anise, garlic, and other spices.
2. Bring the heat to medium, add a pinch of salt, and wait for the oil to begin to simmer and the spices to begin to smell aromatic(5 minutes).
3. Increase heat to medium high, add meat, and season generously with salt and white pepper. Brown the meat well on both sides. (10 minutes.)
4. Add stock, sherry, brown sugar, soy sauce, and increase the heat to high until everything is bubbling. Then reduce the heat to medium low and cover, and simmer for two hours, until the meat is soft when prodded with a fork.
5. Add potatoes and green beans, stir, and cover, and continue to simmer for 30 minutes. The potatoes should be tender to the fork. If they are not, continue to simmer.
6. (Optional) Add the drained fen si (mung bean vermicelli), stir and cover and simmer for fifteen minutes.
7. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add a lot of cracked pepper and a healthy glug of sesame oil.
8. Serve with rice and freshly chopped scallions if desired.

Home For The Winter

There is a newsagent on Westmoreland Street’s most humdrum stretch, wedged next to a scrubby casino, an O’Brien’s and a Boyle Sports bookies. It is called TEMPLE EXPRESS NEWSAGENTS. Inside it is the size of my living room. Walk past the cigarettes and crisps that date to the time of death of Princess Di, the one person purchasing tickets for the Cork bus. In Dublin, I dislike Westmoreland Street because when I first moved here, it was the strip I was most often almost run over. However, when I walked in this place on a blustery autumn afternoon, my heart gave an exhilarated squeeze.

Continue reading “Home For The Winter”

Mourning Oysters


My father, Pop, died on May 2, twelve years ago today. It is the sweetest time of the year, the trees’ leaves have unfurled, the grass is at its most green, and in the gardens, it is the time for my favourite flowers — tulips, peonies, and magnolias. Pop was on his motorcycle riding to his office, observing the speed limit (unusual for him), and a large branch detached itself from a tree and fell on his skull. It was not far from our Connecticut house, which was located in a neighborhood of quaint, Louisa May Alcott, apple-cheeked beauty – 19th century cottages flanked by rock beds, shrubs, and weeping willows. I know the corner where my father died well, because it was only half a mile from our house and I walked past it often as a teenager. Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, I knew that the intersection was full of blossoms.

Pop died on my brother’s 25th birthday.

I was raised fervently atheist. “There is no God,” my Pop was fond of saying when I was young. “When you’re dead, that’s it. Finito. The end.” Despite this, I grew up observing Chinese rituals for dead. My grandfather was the first person to die in my family. When he passed away, he was cremated and his ashes were put in a beautiful mahogany box. Grandpa traveled to each of his children’s homes. That first year after he died, every night we would set out a portion of our dinner with utensils and a glass of Scotch whiskey next to his photograph. His children and wife often stopped by for a chat. This behavior went hand in hand with my upbringing that there was no afterlife.

Every day, on May 2, my brother Yar walks to a Chinese restaurant by himself and orders a meal and drinks a beer. Yar misses my father in the walk over to the restaurant, the meal consumed, and the walk back. I am less regular in my rituals because my relationship with my father was more complicated. My brother loved him and mourned him. My acknowledgement of Pop on these days is sporadic, perhaps a reflection of our relationship when he still lived.

Pop was the parent I listened to when I was a child. He was clever, silver tongued, dropped out of high school and ended up with a PhD from Columbia. He loved practical jokes and pranking. He taught me math shortcuts, ping-pong, how to skid down steep hills while on a hike, and how to balance while walking on high castle walls. I loved him until he divorced my mother.

I am three and a half years older than Yar, and when you are an adolescent, that age-gap feels like a century. When our parents separated, I was in my sophomore year when Yar was still in the sixth grade. When they divorced, I had graduated from high school and Yar was on the cusp of entering it. Yar says to me, “When Mom and Pop divorced you had four bad years of him. I had those too, but then that was followed by eight very good years, which are the years that I remember.”

I can never forget when Pop died, for it was on my brother’s birthday, for goodness sake. Nor can I forget Pop’s birthday, because it was on the fourth of July, Independence Day. I might cook for him. I might even go to his grave with my godparents and pour a can of Miller Lite where he lies. Yet sometimes I still let those days pass without setting out a dish in his memory.

One of the May 2nds, my Irish boyfriend observed me quietly as I slaughtered and stirfried lobster in ginger and then made crabmeat spring rolls. (It was my brother who had told me that our Pop preferred seafood to meat – I had never known that.) My boyfriend said several days later, “I thought, initially, it was a strange thing, but I realized that it was beautiful.” This year, on May 1st, my boyfriend said, “So, you’ll be cooking, yeah?” And because he said that, I supposed I had to.


Like I said before, it was my brother who pointed out that Pop loved seafood. So this morning, I walk to my neighborhood Oriental Pantry, next to the Dublin LUAS Jarvis stop, where there is a dazzling display of fish in the back. It is a beautiful day, crystal blue. If I was in Connecticut or in New York, I would not take this to heart, but in Dublin, such days are not to be taken lightly. At the fish counter, I select ten rock oysters with their deep cups, and Lee behind the counter half-shucks them for me (half-shucked so I could pry them easily when I was home), and cleans a beautiful lemon sole. He plops in an extra oyster for good measure. At the checkout counter, the girl gives me a radiant smile.

At home, the oysters pop readily open, and I roast them with wine, butter, soy sauce, ginger and garlic. I do much the same with the sole, and then make a garlic crab noodle. I make pak choi ,which I blanch first in garlic and sauté, and it comes out melting tender whereas all my Chinese greens in the past have been tough and stringy. The oysters are extraordinary – they taste of seawater, butter, and soy, and their edges have crisped slightly in the heat. I undo a Morretti beer and it is frosty.

On death days, the world conspires to be wonderful to you.



Oysters with soy, wine, ginger and butter

11 oysters
Raw rice
dash of soy, dash of wine
two cloves of garlic
One two-inch piece of ginger, peeled.
two tbsp. of butter pinched off into eleven pieces
white pepper
two scallions, minced

Preheat oven to 250 C. Shuck oysters and place the oysters, in their deep shell with their juices, on a roasting pan on a bed of raw rice. Season with the slightest dash of soy and wine. Thinly julienne the ginger and scatter over oysters. Microplane the garlic and scatter over the oysters. Distribute one nub of butter per oyster, sprinkle with white pepper, and pop into the oven. Roast for ten minutes until you can smell the seafood cooking and then take out and enjoy.


Steamed Irish Hake with Ho see Fat Choy (or Oysters and Black Moss) 蠔士髮菜蒸魚 

Photo by Kate Packwood

The Chinese love puns. On Chinese New Year’s, most Chinese dishes involve a pun of some sort. For instance, nian gao 年糕means New Year’s Cake, but gao 高 is also the word that means “to elevate” which means that you will rise in the New Year. Also nian (粘) means sticky, and a nian gao cake is super sticky indeed. Steamed fish with hosee fat choy (oysters and black moss) — is a Chinese New Years dish packed with puns.

First let’s start with the fish, a fixture on almost every Chinese New Year table, and served at the end of the meal. The word for fish, yu , is a pun for yu , or surplus. As the Chinese saying goes, Nian nian you yu 年年有余, which means “May you have a surplus each and every year.” Mind you, a belief in surplus isn’t exclusively Chinese. Charles Dickens has Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield explain. ‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” In other words, as Mr. Micawber and the Chinese point out, start your year with even just a few cents leftover from the year before in your pocket.

Oysters, like many other seafoods, are crucial in Chinese cuisine. The Chinese for “dried oyster” 蠔士 is pronounced hao shi, which sounds like hao shi 好事which means “good things.” Also, the Chinese love their oysters. Xian , is the Chinese equivalent of umami, and is our favourite flavor, and oysters are xian’s most luxuriant conduits. For some lay Buddhists, oysters are considered a vegetable for when they have to do their ritual vegetarian fasts. For the rest of the Chinese, a celebration would be nothing without this salty, gorgeous bivalve.

Fat Choy or fa cai (Black Moss) grows on the steppes of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and the Qinghai plateau in Tibet. Literally translated, Fat choy (Mandarin fa cai), 髮菜 means hair-vegetable, but it is also the pun for the Cantonese phrase “fat choy” (發財) for good luck. It is prized in Buddhist cuisine. It is butter soft and silky, the inky vermicelli of vegetable world. Some of the most luxurious Chinese ingredients are about texture rather than taste, and fat choy is a good example of this, because it picks up the flavours of whatever it has been cooked with, but has its own unique, velvet mouthfeel. Fat choy is increasingly rare and expensive, because over-harvesting has been damaging the desert steppes where fat choy grows, and many Chinese purveyors are adulterating their fat choy. If you want real fat choy, look for the stuff that is extremely dark green in colour, rather than black, which will mean that it is probably fake. Ironically, even though it grows far in the North, it is an almost exclusively consumed by the Cantonese in the South, where every New Year, they grace their tables with the stuff and wish each other “Gong hey fat choy.”


Kwanghi Chan has given his Ho See Fat Choy steamed fish a fresh, Irish-continental twist. He replaces the pungent dried oysters with Irish oysters, plump, freshly pried from the shell, and lightly poached. Hake is one of the sweetest fish in the Irish waters, and letting it sit briefly in a French-style brine give the fish just a bit more body and flavour. My mother who dislikes both dried oysters and black moss and its place in the Chinese New Year’s table (Cantonese tastes, she will mutter) said – “Oh. Kwanghi’s version sounds lovely.”

Kwanghi uses fillet rather than the whole fish that is traditional, but you can of course substitute whole sole, turbot, flounder, or even red snapper or sea bass. If you go the whole-fish route, it is important for the person who sits nearest to the head of the fish to commence eating. Usually this person is either the guest of honour or the eldest, and it is for them that the best bits – the fish cheeks (which Mei loves) and the fish eyes (of which she’s not too fond) — are reserved. They also need to know how to serve the fish properly, for flipping your fish at a Chinese table is bad luck. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the person sitting next to the head of the fish to remove the skeleton of the fish after everyone has finished eating the first side.


Steamed Fillet of Atlantic Hake with Ho See Fat Choy 

Recipe by Kwanghi Chan
Serves 6

For brining the fish:

  • 1 litre water
  • 50g (4 ½ tbsp.) salt
  • 40 g. (3 ½ tbsp.) sugar
  • Six 160g fillets of fresh Atlantic hake, scaled, and pin boned

For the Ho see fat choy:

  • 1 ounce of dried black moss (fat choy)
  • 12 large shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 teaspoon organic chicken base stock
  • 1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
  • Optional: 1 tbsp of chicken fat, rendered from a four-inch piece of chicken skin.
  • 5 slices ginger, ¼-inch thick, and slice into thin slices
  • 2 scallions, white portions sliced like the ginger
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 50g teaspoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 18 Irish Native or Pacific oysters, freshly shucked.
  • To finish:
  • 1 small head of baby gem lettuce Instructions:
    1. Brine the fillet of hake in cold water, salt, sugar for 25 minutes, and drain on a kitchen towel. Set aside. Soak the black moss in cold water for 15 minutes. Swish it around a bit to loosen any dirt or particles. Remove the moss by hand and discard the water. Repeat the process once more before transferring the moss to a colander to drain.
    2. Rinse the shitake mushrooms, and squeeze them gently to remove excess water. Cut off the stems and discard. Slice thinly.
    3. If using the chicken fat, render the skin in a pot over medium heat until the fat/skin is a little crispy. If not using the chicken fat, heat the pot over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of canola oil, the teaspoon of chicken base, the smashed ginger slices and scallion whites, and brown them until caramelized (about 1 minute). Add the mushrooms, and stir fry for another minute.
    4. Add the Shaoxing wine and, after a quick stir, add the chicken stock, sugar, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Stir everything together. Next, add the fat choy and gently stir it in without breaking it up, so it’s submerged in the liquid. Cover, reduce the heat to medium low, and let simmer for 20 minutes.
    5. While you wait, prepare your steamer. Fill a large wok or large pot a quarter-way with water and bring the water to simmer. With parchment paper, line a steamer big enough to fit the six fillets or, alternatively prepare two steamers. Place your fillets in the steamer, cover, and steam for 5-7 minutes, until the fish is opaque and flakes away easily.
    6. To the black moss and mushrooms, add the oysters and poach for three minutes, just until barely cooked.
    7. Traditionally the Chinese serve family style, which would mean all the portions of the fish on one plate. If you wish to do this, line a large deep serving plate with hand-torn romaine or iceberg lettuce. Alternatively, divide the lettuce between six plates.
    8. Uncover pot and with a slotted spoon, plate the moss, oysters, and mushrooms on the top of the lettuce. Allow for three oysters per portion of fish. Place the fish atop the mushrooms, moss, and oysters. Increase the heat to reduce the sauce until most of the standing liquid is no longer visible. Stir in the green portion of the scallions, and spoon the mixture over the top. Try to place the oysters and mushrooms on the top where they are visible, and serve hot!

Asia Market

Photos courtesy of Kate Packwood

In my life, I was never far from a Chinese market. I was bargaining for a jing of fava beans, picking a chicken with its head and feet still attached, watching turtles blink wearily at their fate. I would wander through barrels of strange herbs and dried fish, smelling cuttlefish browning on a hibachi. I would paw through fish to get the one with the clearest gaze, argue with the butcher for the meat with the freshest sheen.

My family’s biggest concern, when I moved to Dublin, was where I was going to buy sesame oil. “What are you going to eat?” my mother wailed. “You love tofu. Where will you find tofu? And fish sauce?” Maybe the Asian market gods were listening because they gave me Asia Market on Drury Street only five steps away from my first apartment.

Asia Market isn’t as large as Kanman in New York or Baba in Boston but it has five magisterial aisles. There’s a sliding door, and before the entrance was painted yellow, the way to remember where it was on Drury Street was the old-fashioned red and blue striped barber pole that marks the Grafton Street Barber next door. I went through the unprepossessing entrance into a small lobby and make a sharp right. And while Asia Market isn’t massive, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, Asia Market is a lot bigger on the inside. (It brings out my inner nerd.)

See the pak choi, coriander, winter melon, Japanese aubergine, watercress, water-spinach, chilis from Thailand and India, fresh peppercorns, turmeric root and lime and curry leaves. In season, you can buy a box of fruit for practically nothing — cherries and pomelos, lychees, and Asian pears. There is a massive freezer where you can find frozen durian, sashimi, wonton wrappers, and yuba. There is Chinese bacon, Chinese sausage, Vietnamese pates, fish balls, fresh noodles, and fresh meats – the fattier, more gelatinous cuts that we Chinese tend to adore – like pork belly, beef brisket, shin, and oxtail. Plus seafood, which is always fresh but what you see is what you get. Tiny crabs still alive and snapping, oysters, and scallops enclosed in their shell.


Asia Market is also clean. Perhaps only if you are a Chinese market denizen, can you appreciate how tidy, fresh-smelling, and cordial the Dublin Asian Market is. The Kanmans and Babas in this world are chaotic like the markets in Shanghai and Taipei. But at Dublin’s Asia Market, the vegetables are bright and glossy. All the meat smells clean and the butchers from where they came are clearly labeled. None of the products are mixed up and there is no coat of dust on the shelves. The fruits have a lovely, intoxicating perfume and colour. There is not the smell of dried fish in the air, nor the piped Cantonese love ballads that every other Chinese market from Shanghai to Sao Paolo seems to have playing on a loop. Plus the building itself is beautiful. It is one of the oldest buildings from the original Georges Arcade Market, and everywhere you wander, you can see the 19th century brickwork and bones.

My Americanized family delights in Dublin’s Asia Market. (My mother left Taiwan when she was ten years old so she has no real nostalgia for the war zones that are Chinese markets.) “Everything is so bright! Fresh! Organised!” they exclaim. In New York, I would have to board a bus and then fight the crowds on Canal Street. Therefore, although I ate Chinese food out, I rarely made Chinese food at home. Now, with Asia Market a few steps away, I am eating Chinese food all the time.


The owner Howard Pau, who is Hong Kong born and raised, opened the Asia Market back in 1981, when he was working as an engineer in Grimbsy, England. His brother, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Ireland, called him and said, “You have to get over here! There’s so many Chinese restaurants in Ireland and there are no suppliers.” Ireland, at the time, was a Chinese ingredient desert, and yet there were restaurants opening up to keep up with popular demand. Kwanghi was a kid back then, working in his family’s restaurant in Buncrana, recalls the days before Asia Market, which opened in Belfast and then in Dublin. “We would wait for supplies to come in from England,” Kwanghi says, “And that was unreliable, so we’d have bags and bags of rice stocked up in case the deliveries wouldn’t come. Closets full of oyster sauce in case something went wrong.”

What about Asian vegetables in the days before Asia Market? Kwanghi says, “We grew beansprouts in the bathtub.”

But as I walk with Mr. Pau through Asia market, Mr. Pau waves his hand and chuckles. “I’m glad you like it,” he tells me, “Me… I’m not sure. It’s too clean. It’s not Chinese.” Of course, Mr. Pau’s right. Chinese markets are savage places. Everyone is screeching and scrambling. However, while I like an “authentic” Chinese market, I enjoy it in a tourist sort of way. Let’s face it, sometimes when I want a bottle of oyster sauce, I want to have it without having to go into battle. I love the Dublin Asia Market because, like me, it is half China and half West.

There’s something else about the Asia Market which is that there is, pulsing through it, a thread of family. Mr. Pau waxes lyrically about that Christmas when his daughter Eva was born, in Manchester, and he lifted her so that all his friends could see her through the window. (No one but family was allowed inside the hospital.) He likes the Asia Market, but his daughter is his proudest accomplishment. He’ll talk about the business that he built, but he’d rather talk about Eva. Eva, who was born in England and grew up in Dublin, widens her eyes when I say this. Eva is now in charge of the Asia Market, sweet voiced and pretty, but competent like her father. She says, “Really? My father never talks about me.”

I say, “Yeah, he only does it when you’re not around. He’s like all dads.” Regardless of time and place and nationality, certain things – like a father-daughter relationship, are the same.

I especially appreciate the proximity of the Asia Market when I am homesick. I live a six hour flight from my mother, and ten hours from my brother. And when I ache for my family, I want home-style Chinese food, not the restaurant stuff. I crave the comfort food that my mother and my aunts and my grandmother used to make. Mock duck — thin layers of yuba wrapped around fresh shitakes and braised in stock and sesame oil. Pork ribs cooked slowly in anise, potatoes, and green beans, which my partner Tommy calls “Chinese Irish stew.” Missing my family, I’ll quickly slice some Chinese sausages and stirfry it with rice. I dice tofu cold and stir it with salted eggs and soy sauce. Thank you, Asia Market and Mr. Pau. Mr. Pau, I know that your shop is not as rowdy as you would like it to be, but for me, it embraces the best of all of my worlds. Sometimes when I am bereft, it makes me feel like I have a little bit of my family here with me.


What you need to know.

  1. Don’t be afraid.

So many Irish people have told me they don’t go to the Asia Market because they are intimidated. Don’t be. My non-Asian friends constantly do battle at Chinese, Korean, and Japanese markets all the time, and all I can say is – Irish people, you have no idea how good you have it with the Asia Market. Everything at the Dublin Asia Market is labeled and clean and the aisles are wide. If you can’t find something, just ask. We Chinese do not bite.

Some people say that the shopgirls can be “unfriendly” to non-Chinese. Trust us, the ones who are a bit standoffish  are like that to the Chinese too. Like London sales girls and tortoiseshell cats, they might be initially distant to strangers, but they really do warm up once they get to know you. Once they do, they are incredible.

  1. Some of my favourite things.

Silk squash. Chinese sausage. Japanese curry. Tofu of all kinds – melt in your mouth custard, pressed and dried and redolent of soy and anise, and the tofu skins that we call yuba. Chinese bacon. Shoyu. Winter melon. Salted duck eggs. Black lime leaves. Champagne mangos, small, shapely, and heavy with perfume. Plus, Asia Market gets the best green papayas year-round. My Thai friends in New York and in Paris are jealous. Young coconuts from which you suck the juice from a straw, before scraping the tender, slightly sweet flesh with a spoon.

  1. Don’t get lost.

Eva Pau, the lovely, Irish-Chinese daughter of Howard, assures me that she is working on an interactive map of the market for customers. In the meantime, here is a brief breakdown. At the shop’s entrance, there’s a tea shop where you can get a cuppa and some sweet Chinese treats.

Then enter, and you’ll face a wall of Chinese cookware, cleavers, chopsticks, teapots. My favourites are the basic blue and white designs, which are reminiscent of the dishes that my mother would buy. Turn right and that’s when the Asia Market becomes like a Tardis.

Aisle one. Vegetables and fruits, fresh and tempting and varied. In the middle, is the massive deep freeze. Then further along, to your right, is the refrigerated section, you’ll get your tofu, Vietnamese pates, buns, meats, fish balls, soy milk, fresh noodles, and seafood. To your left is the JAPANESE AND KOREAN section. Japanese curry paste, yuzu (a Japanese grapefruit lemon citrus fruit) shoyu, shiso viegar, wasabi peas, pickled ginger. This is important. I often crave a Japanese katsu curry, pickled ginger for my rice, or dashi powder for my eggs. In many Chinese markets, those ingredients are not guaranteed to be there. In Asia Market, they are there every time. In the middle is the freezer with yuba, frozen durian, dumpling and egg roll wrappers, and also frozen packs of Japanese ramen, which, if you can’t make your own ramen, is the second best thing.

Aisle 2 is snacks, dessert, dried fruit, canned fruit, and also all varieties of your sauces and oils. Aisle 3 I christen the aisle of stuff that won’t spoil even when you open it. Pickles, seeds, dried goods, tea. Also there are what I like to call “Western ingredients that make sense only to Asians.” These are sardines, Spam, dehydrated potatoes, ketchup, and Maggi seasoning. In certain ways, Aisle 3 is a great place for a budding food anthropologist, because it represents the crazy, random crap that Asian people love. (In other words, behind every can of Spam, there is a story.) Aisle 4 where you get the health food and Middle Eastern ingredients that are so much more expensive anywhere else. Black lentils, green lentils, yellow lentils, gram flour. Seeds of Paradise. Rose water. Also, on the other side, instant ramen and rice, but a lot of it. At the back of the market, you will find your funky Asian drinks (plum juice and milk tea) but also coconut water because, dude, we Asians have been drinking that stuff before it was good for you. Also, another freezer section with dumplings. Eat those frozen dumplings. Especially the chicken-shitake, the beef and onion, and the lamb and carrot. At the front of the shop, you will find sake, beer, and plum wine.

Last but not least, before you leave, grab yourself some egg-waffles in the front. These are made to order and scalding hot, crisp on the outside, slightly sweet and custardy within. I call them Chinese madeleines. When I was a little girl, there was one vendor in all of New York’s Chinatown who would make them, and the line would snake around the block, and during a winter weekend, I would wait happily, jumping up and down in the cold, holding a parent’s hand.

Lo Bak Go

Utamaro, “Grating a Radish”

Every Chinese person has a thing for bai luobuo, or daikon. Bai luobuo which means “white carrot” in Chinese, is translated as Chinese turnip or Chinese radish. You’ll see it in the Chinese market. It’s not the best looking vegetable. It resembles a dirty overgrown carrot that has never seen the sun. It is white, long, knobbly and slightly hairy. Fun fact: there’s 18th century Japanese daikon erotic art.

Let’s hear it for the bai luobuo. It’s a versatile tuber. It’s also delicious. Raw in salad, it tastes like sharp, bitter, and sweet. Stewed, it turns translucent and it becomes buttery soft. But what every Chinese person cannot resist is the lo bak go, which is translated to “turnip cake,” where daikon is combined with dried shrimp and rice flour, shaped and steamed into a pillow that is then sliced and fried until golden. Arguably, lo bak go is the most decadent incarnation of the Chinese turnip. There’s a gooey, molten quality to lo bak go. It melts in the mouth. It’s succulent, earthy from the daikon, redolent of the sea from the shrimp.

Another way to say radish is cai tou (菜頭), which in the Hokkien dialect, prominent in Chinese, is pronounced “chhài-thâu”  In Hokkien, it’s a homophone for fortune. Homophones are popular around New Year. 好彩頭. hó-chhái-thâu in Hokkien, means good luck. But lo bak go is too delectable to be limited to an annual event. In every Chinese restaurant for dim sum, you’ll see families demolishing plates of it. In Taiwan, where Hokkien is one of the national dialects, it’s eaten regularly for breakfast. A Chinese person can be three years old or ninety, but if they’re worth their salt they’ll go for the lo bak go first.

Photo courtesy of Thibaud Harang

But beware of being greedy. The stuff is rich. And daikon, while being nutritious and detoxifying, is also gassy. As children (and as adults) we have fallen prey to lo bak go gluttony, which has occasionally led to lo bak go indigestion. This happens when we have tried to eat the entire cake and then some.

To eat lo bak go out is wonderful. To make it at home is a revelation. Most Chinese families who have access to lo bak go don’t make their own, but here, in Ireland, where lo bak go is rare, many, many people, especially the Taiwanese, will make it at home to scratch their lo bak go itch. The home-style version is usually more astringent and full of radish and other good things. If you prefer the softer, silky dim sum version, just add more rice flour to the recipe below.

We ask you to get a daikon that weighs half a kilo. This is how they usually are. The ones at the Asia Market were massive today. They were monster daikon. One of these would make double our recipe. Most Chinese people would have absolutely no problem with that.

Also, this is one of our all-our favourite dim sums of all time. If you’re ready, prepare yourself for some umami brunch paradise.

normal daikon


Our daikon


Notes: This isn’t going to be a recipe that will be perfect the first time. Delicious, always, but aesthetically perfect, maybe not. Centuries of Chinese people have been making lo bak go by instinct and handfuls. You’ll want more starch for a pillowy texture, more vegetable for something that’s more flavorful. We adapted our recipe from the indispensable blog, the Woks of Life, which uses more radish than usual, and also loaf pan instead of a cake pan. It will taste more of radish but also may tend to fall apart. However, loaf pan lo bak go slices nicely.

Lo Bak Go (Turnip Cake) 


  • 280g rice flour
  • 10 tbsps wheat starch
  • 470 ml water
  • 2 large white radish
  • 470 ml  water from soaking the dried shrimps (see below)
  • 1 spring onions sliced
  • 165g dried shrimps (soaked & chopped) with the water reserved.
  • 165g dried Chinese mushrooms (soaked & diced small)
  • 2 tsps sea salt
  • 2 tsps sugar
  • 2 tsps sesame oil
  • 2 tsps white pepper
  • 2 tsps sweet rice wine
  • oil for frying, such as Donegal rapeseed.


1) Heat and add oil for stir fry (spring onions, dried shrimps and dried mushroom till fragrant and until golden brown.

2) Add turnips and seasoning to taste till well combined. Cover and cook until tender and translucent for about 15 minutes.

3) Sift the rice flour and wheat starch into a bowl with soaked dried scallops and shrimp water or just plain water to make a thin batter.

4) Turn off the heat and allow the wok cool down. Pour batter and stir them until slightly thickened.

5) Pour the mixture into a well-greased foil containers or Loaf tins. Cover, and steam for 1 hour. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly. Keep refrigerated and consume within 5 days.

6) Cut into pieces. Heat a pan and oil over a medium high heat. Transfer turnip cake slices one by one to a pan until both side are deep golden brown.


Dip into the sauce of your choice. (Normally a chilli oil and soy sauce is best.) A perfect comfort food with rice porridge (congee) or just as part of a larger dimsum meal.

Tip: You can store your lo bak go in the loaf pan or take out and wrap in cling film and store in the refrigerator or freeze in slices and fry it later. It won’t last long.



Fishy Flavour

Kevin Hui’s father came to Dublin from London when his mother got a job here as a nurse. Eventually both parents were working at Chopsticks on Dame Street. In the late 1960s, they eventually opened up their own place, Lotus House, in Dun Laoghaire. “Everyone came through Lotus House,” Kevin explains. “Guys and girls dated, some of them got married and had kids who would come work there after.” In fact, Lotus House is a little like Genghis Khan of Chinese Ireland. Anyone born in Dublin with Chinese blood likely has a Lotus House connection.

Kevin, who is mild mannered, tall, and has an easy laugh, studied in London. His Irish is fluent, his Chinese, not so much. “I’m Irish,” Kevin tells me. That’s the thing that throws me, because I grew up with people who looked like me. We sulked and listened to Nirvana at the local Sunday Chinese school. Kevin was Irish and then came home and grew bean sprouts in the bathtub. “Also, I never wanted to have a restaurant,” Kevin tells me. When Kevin’s family closed Lotus House and opened up a new restaurant, Kevin had a master’s in biochemistry from London’s University College. But as the oldest child, Kevin moved home to help his parents. It’s a duty that many Chinese kids feel and many of us don’t fulfill.

It was Kevin’s idea to do a fine-dining establishment as was had in Asia, London, the States, and elsewhere. It was also Kevin’s notion to do Sichuan cooking, even though his family was from Hong Kong. Most people in Ireland who had Chinese restaurants were from Hong Kong, migrating as they did from Belfast. For better or for worse, Cantonese food here had nothing to do with the subtle, expensive, seafood flavours.


In China, Sichuan is an entirely different and marvellous place. It’s fiery food, distinguished by fresh flavours and cold dishes. Freezing cucumber and chicken that pops, plus the famous peppercorns that set the mouth alight. Another thing: many of my Chinese friends have likened the lilting Sichuan dialect to Irish, and the Sichuan culture is infused with musicality, country rhythms, and magic. Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, is where all the ghosts come to live after they die.

When China Sichuan opened in 2008, it was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but when Chinese restaurants were still serving chips and chicken balls. China Sichuan was going to be something different. “Oh yeah,” says Kevin, “Then the earthquake happened.”

Kevin had lined up Sichuan chefs when the greatest earthquake of the century hit China. Woops. They recovered. Six years later, they moved to Sandyford, to a desolate location. At the China Sichuan Sandyford, an hour from town on the LUAS, one is surrounded by empty office buildings and the wind blows fiercely. But here, Kevin tapped into the authentically Chinese mentality. Many Chinese abroad believe lao-wai (our term for foreigners) prize convenience over quality. However, a Chinese person will travel miles for a great meal. This is especially true in Hong Kong, where Chinese people will take three trains, walk through a garage, ring a buzzer, and say a secret password, if the dinner is good enough. In fact, the journey there only sharpens the savour of the food to follow.

The result? China Sichuan has been beloved in this country for many years for making authentic and luxurious Chinese food, and not compromising itself. Fresh local ingredients. No takeaways. Rabbit stirfried with green tea. Dublin prawns in salted egg yolk. The Sandyford premises are chic but not trendy, beautiful wood and a sommelier.

Kevin’s a modest guy. He talks mostly about his mistakes. He says, “One mistake that I made was trying to literally translate all our dishes. Like Yu Hsiang pork. For years, at Lotus House, it was ‘garlic sauce’ pork.” Yu-hsiang, or Yu xiang, is a tradition in Sichuan and Hunan cooking. It flavours pork, beef, chicken, and possibly most popularly, aubergine. Translated, it means “fish flavor” but yu-hsiang is never coupled with fish. Kevin decided, in the interest of authenticity to return the dish to its roots. “Once I translated it from the Chinese into Fish flavor pork, no one ordered it any more.”


Yu-hsiang sauce is chili and fermented soy bean paste. It is attributed to Sichuan and Hunan. The story goes that a wife of a fisherman had the usual sauce waiting for when he came back with his catch, and when he came home fish-free, she poured it over some meat and called it yu-hsiang.

I have another theory. “Yu” 魚is the Chinese character for fish. “Xian” 鮮 which in Chinese for centuries has been translated as fragrant but which I have always attributed to seafood, and which has a fish radical. What’s more, Xian translates to the Japanese term umami, a flavor with which many people are familiar, and both xian and umami abound in seaweed, shellfish, fish roe, and anchovies. It is also abundant in mushrooms and fermented things, in soy sauce, miso, and fermented bean paste. When we describe something as Xian or umami, we say that something has that inexplicable flavor of the sea. But some people don’t like be reminded of the fishy connection.

Fish flavor pork is umami pork. Take the hour long journey out to Sandyford to eat it.



Fried Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce/ “Fish Flavored Pork Shreds”/ Yu Xiang Rou


  • 200g pork steak


  •  1 egg white
  •  15g corn flour
  •  A pinch of salt
  •  1 tbsp water

To finish:

  • 6 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 10g finely chopped ginger
  • 10g finely chopped garlic
  •  15g Sichuan garlic sauce*
  •  15g granulated sugar
  •  2 tbsp Sichuan vinegar *
  •  2 tbsp dark soy sauce
  •  1 tbsp Shaoxing wine or white wine
  •  5 tbsp chopped scallion
  •  5 tbsp corn flour mixed with 5 tbsp Water

1: Take the pork and cut it into thin slices. Then cut the slices into very thin shreds

2: Place the pork shreds in a bowl with the marinade and mix thoroughly. Let marinate for five minutes.

3:  Heat a wok on high heat and pour in the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, (you can tell as the oil starts to smoke), add the pork and stir fry quickly for around 30 – 45 seconds, until the pork turns white in colour. (This process is called “velveting” and a common step in Chinese cuisine. When you run strips on meat in oil until it is partially cooked, it softens and silkens the meat, hence the term “to velvet.”)

4: Drain the excess oil from the wok.

5: Add the ginger, garlic and Sichuan garlic sauce until the oil turns red and you can smell the garlic and ginger.

6: Add the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and wine and stir fry for a further minute.

7: Finally add the scallions and cornstarch mixture. Stir fry for another 10 seconds and serve on to a serving dish, with some steamed rice

* China Sichuan imports their own sauce and vinegar but similar versions are available in your nearest Chinese supermarket. Kwanghi and Mei like Lao Ganma sauce, and a Chinese black vinegar like Chekiang.

Rhubarb’s Ruby Submission

Note: This won the 2013 IACP Bert Greene Journalism Award. It was a pain to write. It was about what I think of as an Irish ingredient, which I then digested in terms of my Chinese father and my English stepdad. Enjoy!

Hard, acid rhubarb reliably softens with heat. If only people did the same

When I was young, my Chinese father ate the pokeweed that was growing in our garden, insisting that it was rhubarb. He vomited for two days straight. He didn’t even like rhubarb; he was just trying to prove a point, objecting to my mother spending money on something that he believed was already in our backyard. The irony is that my mother was probably cooking so much rhubarb because she was having an affair with a man who loved it. Rhubarb is my English stepfather Jonathan’s favorite food, stewed with sugar. The episode was one of the ways in which their relationship poisoned my dad.


My mother could not have chosen to fall in love with two more different men. One was a Chinese engineer who drank Miller Lite, the other, an English historian who preferred wine. My father was blunt, with a violent temper, a maelstrom in a five-foot four frame. Jonathan is tall, gentle, and diffident. But while my father confronted the world head-on, my stepfather would rather hide from the more disquieting things in life. Now, when I see rhubarb in the market, green striped with red like a vegetal candy cane, I think of these two men in my life, and my mind hearkens to love and its accompanying astringency.

Raw rhubarb is fibrous, blisteringly acid to taste, and its leaves are toxic. 5,000 years ago, the Tibetans and the Chinese started using rhubarb as a laxative, and it hung around for several thousand years without being considered an actual food. It was only in the 18th century that the English started baking it into tarts.

Trust the English, who are in many ways the masters of both pudding and perversity, to take something so unpalatable and turn it into dessert. (I am sure that my father, who blamed England for much of what is wrong with the world, would have had something to say about the subject.) The English love rhubarb. They have rhubarb jelly, rhubarb tart, rhubarb crumble, and rhubarb jam, rhubarb boiled sweets . 1960s English radio broadcasters murmured the phrase “rhubarb-rhubarb” to duplicate the sound of a crowd. These days, in England, if someone is saying something that you don’t want to hear, you stick your fingers in your ears, and instead of saying “la-la-la,” you say, “rhubarb-rhubarb.”

I also love rhubarb, and the way that its dazzling color heralds spring. I love its ruby submission when I cut it up and simmer it gently in the pot with nutmeg, vanilla, and Burgundy. To be honest, I liked it when my mother was making deep-dish strawberry rhubarb pies all those years ago, but never understood the fuss. When I turned my back on my Chinese father, though, I adopted some of my English stepfather’s culinary tastes, and with all the toast, soft boiled eggs, kedgeree there came a passion for rhubarb.

Rhubarb is an unwieldy purchase—tall, too bulky, and I know that when I bring it home I have a lot of work to do. I tend to like to watch as it succumbs from crisp to velvet, leaking its blood red fluid. The wonderful thing about rhubarb is once you’ve accepted its spiky nature, it’s easy to prepare. You toss it with some sugar, and let the heat do the rest. I like it in my oatmeal, as a side with my meat (it is like a Western version of sweet-and-sour sauce, for it makes you pucker), as a quick crumble. I have liked it with berries, added with the rhubarb while it cooks or scattered in at the end, but these days I prefer my rhubarb pure. I also stir in a few cubes of butter, for the silkiness.

The last time I was preparing rhubarb—as a sauce for duck, and then spooned over yogurt the next morning for breakfast—I found myself singing the Pete Seeger song “Goodnight, Irene.” When I was growing up, my parents used to love those hippie folk ballads, and “Goodnight Irene” was one of the most soothing tunes I knew. It was my personal lullaby.

I would murmur the lyrics to myself before I went to sleep, without realizing that they were about suicide and despair. “Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I take the great notion/to jump in the river and drown.” Gentle melody with an underlying rue is what rhubarb is about. You may give in to rhubarb’s lushness, but you cannot escape that what you are eating was originally a hard and sour thing.

But maybe this is what I love about rhubarb: It reminds me that life is full of surprises. Who would have thought that rhubarb could mellow in the way that it does? For years, the relationship between my two fathers was a sour and nearly bloody thing. The antagonism came from my father, who would frequently threaten to shoot Jonathan, who would then hide. Then, suddenly, long after my mother had remarried, my father sweetened. We were at the wake of an old family friend and my father walked up to Jonathan with his hand extended. He still loved the woman that Jonathan had taken away, and yet at the age of fifty, he was willing to forgive them both. My father said, as he shook my stepfather’s hand, “Well, I just decided that life was too short.” And when my father was killed in a motorcycle accident, it was his former rival, Jonathan, who organized his funeral.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that, when I find myself preparing more rhubarb than usual, I also find myself about to fall in love with someone unreliable. After all, rhubarb starts appearing in spring, when the sun is out, the leaves are budding. I am not generally a fan of love; my childhood made me wary. Still, from time to time my normally acerbic self becomes wont to soften and even to bleed. With rhubarb, you can take something with so many defenses and melt it into something gentle. It rarely works in human relationships, but thank goodness that with rhubarb, there is a formula. So as for the rest of my life? Rhubarb-rhubarb, I would rather not know.


I Feared You, Cilantro, and Now I love You Too Much

Note: I wrote two pieces two years ago for, and feel like they best encapsulate my experience with growing up Chinese in a Western world. They were both nominated for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Bert Greene Journalism award. Rhubarb won.  I suppose these are vanity posts, as these are the favourite pieces I have ever written. My editor for them was the priceless Francis Lam. Kwanghi and I will post cilantro/coriander and rhubarb recipes soon. — Mei Chin

CHINESE PARENTS ARE LIARS. If for instance, you do not like carrots, your parent will not say, “Eat that carrot, maybe this time you’ll like it.” Instead you will hear: “That’s not a carrot.” Once, when a customs officer caught my father sneaking (an undeclared) wedge of pungent Camembert in his luggage, he said, without skipping a beat, “Oh, I had no idea that cheese was a food.” At the dinner table, every declaration he made was to be regarded with suspicion. “Of course that’s not spinach,” he’d say. Once, he said to me at a banquet, “Look! They’ve made that chicken look like a turtle.” (It was turtle, as I found out afterwards.)

As a child there was not a lot I wouldn’t try. Pig’s ears, tripe, onions; raw fish, kidneys, garlic – they all slid down my gullet without my complaint. The exception was cilantro. It is a very pretty herb, a more fragile, intricate version of parsley; the leaves are like snowflakes, miniature and brilliant green, nodding on pale jade stems. The Chinese name for cilantro is xiang-cai, or fragrant vegetable. For nearly 20 years, I regarded it the most evil flavor in the world.

The author, as a girl, with her father and brother
Me, my father, my brother

Although I wasn’t a picky eater, when I hated something, it was with an aversion that bordered on despair. The faintest whiff and I would run, gagging, from the room. And cilantro was everywhere. Taiwanese cooking is categorized by the punch of dried oysters and fish sauce, and laced with cilantro throughout. It has a pungent, carrying power—it transfers itself onto silverware and onto skin. I’d pick up a bunch, thinking it was parsley, and smell it on my fingers for what seemed like days afterwards. Worse, it wormed its way into my favorite dishes. Ubiquitously feathered onto roast duck and braised pig belly, it was threaded in with cool, slippery jellyfish salads, and it lurked inside shrimp wontons.

The leaves are like snowflakes, nodding on pale jade stems. I regarded it the most evil flavor in the world.

My father’s strategy was to insist that it was never there. If he went out of his way to point out that a dish had no cilantro, I could taste it—pungent, poisonous, even if there was in fact none. My mother had a poetic explanation for my dislike. She insisted that cilantro was a coming-of-age herb, and a love of its flavor came with the onset of adulthood. She said she didn’t like it herself until she was older. Cilantro, in other words, was puberty of the palate. I thought this was, too, a ruse, for the sure way to get any child to try anything was to assert that they are not grown-up enough to appreciate it.

The rest of my childhood was typical. I played and I studied. I was also cooking, whipping up bread on weekend mornings, mixing chocolate chip cookies and coffee cake in the afternoons, and making chicken cacciatore for my little brother when my parents were working late. I made a lot of messes, dreamily inhabiting the universes mapped out by Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, and the Joy of Cooking, and none of my cooking gurus had any use for cilantro. (Later, I heard that Julia Child would extract it from her plate and throw it on the floor.)

The author with her brother

Then when I was 13, I learned that my mother had been having an affair with another man. This resulted in an ugly separation process that lasted throughout my high school years: The betrayal; then the masquerade that my father insisted upon, that we carry on as a loving family. It was a masquerade endorsed by everyone, including, shockingly, by my mother. Suddenly, the adult world was a web of compromises and barely veiled lies; doors that were closed for the sake of propriety, but that could barely contain the battles behind them. Then I went to college, got drunk and slept with someone for the first time, and felt betrayed by the realization that sex and intoxication, too, would have to be acquired tastes. If this was the grown-up world, I wanted nothing to do with its flavor.

When I turned 19—incidentally, the age that my mother married my father—I read Under the Jaguar Sun, a novella by Italo Calvino. I was in my last year in college, living a life of willful restraint and uncomfortable indulgence, and I became enthralled with this story: Two people, who have long stopped speaking, rekindle their passion at the dinner table, excited by the idea of consuming each other. I had never read anything quite so sensuous, grim or gustatory, before or since. It was unspeakably romantic.

“Did you taste that? Are you tasting it?” she was asking me, with a kind of anxiety, as if at that same moment our incisors had pierced an identically composed morsel and the same drop of savor had been caught by the membranes of my tongue and hers.

If this was the grown-up world, I wanted nothing to do with its flavor.

“Is it cilantro? Can’t you taste cilantro?” she insisted, referring to an herb… of which a little thread of the morsel we were chewingsufficed to transmit to the nostrils a sweetly pungent emotion, like an impalpable intoxication.

Passion is a perverse thing, and the happiest love story was the one in which two people eat each other alive. Yet to be part of that adult, destructive realm of feelings was something, I realized upon reading Calvino, that I suddenly desired. A lot happened after reading Jaguar Sun. I started to dream about Mexican cooking—the decadent, courtly variety that had yet to find its way to New England, where I lived—of chiles en nogado and elaborate moles. I became passionate about avocados, which up until then I had always regarded as rather tasteless, until I saw what Calvino described as their “fat softness.” But mostly, as I lay in my dormitory bed, tossing under the sheets, the flavor that filled my mind was that of cilantro, sweet and pungent. Suddenly, one morning, Iwoke longing to cram fistfuls of the stuff, fresh, into my mouth. I walked over to the university market and picked up a bunch, slightly wilted, and walked home with it, clutching it in my hands like a bouquet, burying my face in its scent. I chopped it and stirred it into some mashed avocado, and ran my finger across the knife blades and sucked the shreds off of my fingertip. From being cilantro adverse, I went to being cilantro mad.

The author, today
Me as a cilantro loving adult.

The food writer Harold McGee points out that cilantro has several fat molecules called aldehydes which can also be found in lye (used to make soap) and bugs. McGee asserts that the aversion to this flavor can be overcome gradually, one dab of cilantro pesto at a time. But I was not a McGee cilantro hater. Rather, the flavor that I had despised as a child became the same exact flavor that I craved, and the transition happened, literally, overnight. Now, for the past decade, the herb stands in a glass of water in my refrigerator, perfuming the food that I keep in it. I know two cilantro haters of the McGee variety. To my shame, I smuggle it into dishes that I serve them, just as my father might have done when I was a child. When they compliment me, I nod, smug as a cat.

Cilantro, I have realized, has always held a certain power over my life; before because I feared it, and now because I love it too much. I eat cilantro mixed with celery, tofu, and sesame and scrambled into eggs for breakfast. The stems I mince and leave in cold oil to gradually heat until it yields its special flavor, and then use to coat chicken or lamb. Then I have it raw, its leaves folded over into a ball, and pop into my mouth as a snack.

And so it turns out that my mother was, in fact, right when she said that cilantro would be my coming-of-age, that in embracing adulthood and all its shades and shadows, I would love it too.  I can begin to forgive my parents for the lies they told me in my childhood, and to realize that some of the most important parts of life are not necessarily the ones that are the most moral or the most clear.

I am talking to my friend who is also Chinese. “Cilantro,” she says, “Well, sometimes there can just be too much of it, you know?” There is a pause. She says, “I guess that’s not true in your case.” In fact, I am thinking of how I will use it next. Tonight, it is cold and rainy, and I am alone. I will stew it with lentils and let the flavor heat me, and relish its fresh and always complicated savor.

I reply, “You never knew me when I was young.”