For Hsiao-Ching’s Chinese Soul Food:
Ogden Nash wrote this in Primrose Path in 1936: “Her picture’s in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.”
While reading Hsiao-Ching’s book, I thought about the quote because her message, ultimately, is that cooking Chinese food in a Western kitchen is not as hard as it may seem. Most Chinese people go into their kitchens without ever consulting cookbook. I didn’t. My mother certainly didn’t.
The very first dish ever cooked for myself was a bowl of rice noodle soup with daikon radish strips and a few pieces of dried shrimp for flavor. It was only because my mother was not home that day and I had to feed myself. The kitchen normally was off limits to me. The wok was there and the stove was there, but mother never let me to touch them. Her biggest regret was that her circumstances prevented her from attending school, so she her dream was for me to complete my formal education. She didn’t want me wasting my time in the kitchen. So, even though I had no ambition for becoming an academic, I reached graduate school and earned a master’s degree for her.
My father was a military man with a limited income. Luckily, our family received a small stipend for military dependents that helped. I was born during the Sino-Japanese War and I didn’t even have a single photo to prove my existence. Thus, my character was built on the value of not asking for too much in life and appreciating whatever I may get.
After I fulfilled my mother’s dream, I married a man I met in college. We both had steady jobs and fair incomes, so we started a family and had Hsiao-Ching first, then her brother, Shih-Hung. When my husband decided to pursue his master’s degree, we set forth on our future life in the United States.
With my husband in school and two young children in tow, I eventually gave up my career as a journalist. That was when I started taking cooking more seriously. We were in a campus apartment with some hand-me-down cookware, but no wok. But I tried every way to feed my family, including making dumpling skins with a sawed-off broomstick as rolling pin. Our third child, David Jr., was born at University Hospital near campus.
The only “cookbook” I always carried around was my memory of good eating. So I joked that I was an “impressionist” cook. It wasn’t until we opened a small carry-out restaurant that I even bought a Chinese cookbook to double check some details related to techniques.
Hsiao-Ching explains that the purpose of this book is to encourage people to get into the kitchen and start cooking. That’s what we did, and so can you. I am mostly touched by the fond family memories she has brought back with her stories. A warm kitchen is the heart of the family. And that is sweeter than cake.