Amy Tan and the Joy of Chinese Food Club
Amy Tan, who has written so evocatively about growing up Chinese-American, is a good friend, and we often share childhood reminiscences. Food is as central a part of family life for her as it has always been for me.
She was born in Oakland, California, but lived for a while in Fresno, in the Central Valley, where her father was the minister of the First Chinese Baptist Church. Christian though she was, her world was Chinese through and through.
Like my mother, Amy’s mother had grown up in a family with cooks and servants to attend to the kitchen work. Both her mother and her grandmother were expert cooks and extremely knowledgeable about Chinese cuisine. Her grandmother maintained she had so sensitive a palate that she could tell the precise area a certain type of noodle came from. Certainly both her grandmother and mother, Amy says, drew upon their experiences and memories of China to guide their cooking in America.
Amy’s mother never took a cooking lesson. She knew what had to be done because she had learned ‘by osmosis’ and cooking was part of the essential experience of living. She used only the freshest ingredients, and she knew instinctively how to balance tastes and colours carefully, never making the mistake of using too many or too few seasonings and spices. Whenever the family ate out in Chinese restaurants, she would invariably complain that the food was too salty or too spicy, too sweet or too sour, that the fish was overcooked, too much soy sauce had been used, and the soup was not hot enough. Clear, distinct tastes are the hallmarks of good Chinese cooking, especially of the southern China-Hong Kong style. But as I have mentioned before, restaurateurs in the US had quickly caught on to the fact that the heavy, sweet mixed sauces of the Chinese restaurants in those days were what the Western palate preferred – and in the restaurant business, as elsewhere, the customer is always right.
Amy recalls that the typical family meal at her house consisted of five separate dishes, the way they ate in China. The family would enjoy at least one vegetable dish, fresh fish or prawns, one or two meat dishes and, of course, rice. Usually a soup – something like a simple egg drop soup with tomato – would accompany the meal.
In retrospect, she often wonders how her mother managed the shopping, all the preparation and the actual cooking of these meals. Her mother worked nights as a nurse, and she must have had to rush about every day to find the various fresh ingredients she insisted on.
Although Amy’s father loved to cook, too, his pastoral duties kept him busy seven days a week, and he didn’t have much spare time.
Each meal would begin with a prayer of thanks to God and a remembrance of both the living and the dead. Once these formalities were over, the good food was fully enjoyed, along with family news and gossip.
One special dish that Amy recalls her mother making for a festival or anniversary was dried shredded pork, prepared by cooking down over two days a large chunk of leg of pork and then seasoning, drying and shredding it – the whole process taking days. Her mother would make her own pickled spicy cabbage - called ‘la-la’ by the children – and radishes pickled with vinegar and chilli.
Birthdays, naturally, were special occasions, but the meals were a trial: her mother would always prepare live fresh crabs, and Amy as a child could not bear to see those crabs being slowly cooked to death. She felt the same way when live fresh fish were brought home and she would watch them flopping about on the kitchen table before being dispatched. In this regard, Amy and I agree that she was acting much more American than Chinese: in China there is no empathy for any living thing designated as food – an understandable attitude in a society that has known devastating famines and chronic food shortages throughout its history.
Amy’s mother had always wanted to open a restaurant, a speciality place that offered only pot stickers or
jiao zi (poached dumplings). And, indeed, her dumplings were famous among family and friends. She would make the dough from scratch, roll it out into a long roll, then cut off pieces and roll them out into doughy circles. These she would fill with pork, shredded squash, ginger and other ingredients. She had no recipes. She simply tasted, looked, smelled, felt and hefted the dough to decide whether it was right. And it always was, even if it was a little different each time.
Although Amy claims she is not a good cook, eating good Chinese food three times a day every day as a child taught her nose and palate unforgettable lessons. Until she entered high school, Amy ate every meal at home, including lunch, so her memories of food are almost totally Chinese. She even recalls the smell of wet newspaper as an essential element: the newspaper would be spread out on the kitchen table, around which Mother, the girls, Auntie and family friends would gather to prepare the foods, snapping off the ends of yellowy soya bean sprouts (out of 3–4 lb of whole sprouts, only 1 lb of edible sprouts was obtained), cleaning fish and seafood (deveining the prawns, cracking the crabs), splashing seasonings and pickled vegetables over many kinds of foods – making for an unforgettable wet-newspaper smell.
In 1956, an aunt and uncle were permitted to leave China with their four children and came to stay with Amy’s parents for two years. Amy remembers it as a time of total immersion for her in Chinese customs and in the Shanghai dialect. Auntie and Mother would decide (not always easily or without rancour) on the meals of the day, and the preparations were carried out with all the children participating. Amy remembers vividly the loud talk, the delightful snacks and sweets,
shee fan or jook (rice porridge) at midnight, the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, the delicious family meals, the warm, loving relationships, the extended celebrations of the Chinese New Year – in short, a happy childhood.
Amy remembers how uneasy she was as a teenager, by which time the family’s circle of friends had expanded to include a few non-Chinese, when American friends would come to dinner. Most Americans, she found, were rather timid about unusual food; they still had a steak-and-potatoes mentality then and knew nothing about bean curd, cooked squid or jellyfish, whole fish on a platter with eyes glaring out in what seemed a reproach. ‘It was as if we had served a whole cow.’
Naturally, for those used to a diet of hamburgers or fish fingers, what Mrs Tan served inevitably raised a few eyebrows. Recently, at a book signing, Amy recognized one of her high-school friends, who said, ‘I am so glad you remember me. I remember the frog heads and other weird things your mother used to make.’ Hardly a dish that Mrs Tan ever made, but this kind of remark brings back the acute embarrassment that Amy felt as a youngster.
Like many Chinese-American children,
Amy Tan found that, try as she might to adapt to other cuisines, her Chinese roots were too strong. When she lived in Europe in the late 1960s and it was difficult to get the proper Chinese ingredients for home cooking, the Chinese restaurants she ate in were mostly Indonesian or Vietnamese and lacked the authentic flavours of her mother’s cooking.
Today her favourite foods remain Chinese. She loves the comfort foods of home: dumplings, wontons, oysters with ginger, spring onions and garlic; salt plums, salted watermelon, salted anything; clean tastes, no heavy gravies; fresh vegetables, the black Chinese mushrooms. In short, the stuff of her childhood.
These tastes and predilections were enhanced when she and her mother visited her sisters in Shanghai in the 1980s. Like Mother Tan in the good old days, the sisters shopped every morning for such delicacies as live eels and fresh fish and seafood. Amy loved the early morning breakfasts they enjoyed together at the market: rich and tasty broth with brown bread and dim sum treats. Then the family would go home, spread newspapers on the kitchen table and prepare the day’s meals. Once again, that smell of wet newspaper, the peeling of fruits and vegetables and the slicing of meats and fish, the talk, the ordered chaos, the good food, the warmth, love, affection and close family ties. I like to call it
Amy Tans Joy of Chinese Food Club.