by Grace Young
In a few days I will go home to celebrate Chinese New Years with my mother and family. Mama is 88 years old, extremely frail and has dementia. If you ask her what should be served for Chinese New Years she can no longer tell you. If you ask her for her signature steamed bass with scallions and ginger, a dish she insisted on serving every year for 50 years because it symbolizes good fortune, she cannot tell a thing. All of that knowledge, tradition, and food memory is lost.
In her prime Mama was obsessed with eating well, in particular, her beloved Cantonese homestyle dishes. In the mid-1990s I made many trips to cook with Mama. She was in her 70s and was an extraordinary home cook. As I recorded the recipes and family stories I decided it was important to turn this into a cookbook so that future generations would not lose the traditions. In 1999, Simon & Schuster published my memoir cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.
In the last few years I have been cooking my mother’s Chinese New Year’s feast for her. It’s odd and wonderful to open the cookbook to the chapter on Chinese New Years to find all the recipes for her menu are there. When she sees the dishes and tastes the food her face lights up in delight, awakening the food memories buried in her. In a million years I never dreamed I would give her cooking back to her.
Sometimes I wonder if any medical studies were conducted to show the connection between food and memory. In 2003, when my mother was 77 she suffered a stroke. When I arrived at the hospital she was unable to speak. I watched her poke at the ghastly meatloaf and mashed potatoes she was served. After a day of helplessly watching Mama in her diminished state, I drove home and made one of her favorite dishes, a stir-fry of chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and ginger that is finished cooking over steaming hot rice in a pot. I made a small portion and brought the piping saucepan into her hospital room. As I entered the room I could tell Mama recognized the familiar aroma. She devoured the entire meal.
On February 18th, to properly start the Year of the Ram, I will cook Mama’s traditional Chinese New Year’s feast. We will have stir-fried clams in black bean sauce, poached chicken with ginger sauce, stir-fried snow pea shoots, glazed roast squab, stir-fried garlic lettuce, oyster vegetable lettuce wraps, Buddha’s Delight, and steaming hot rice. And we will finish the meal with a steamed sea bass. It is essential to prepare more than enough fish, so that some of it remains on the plate at the close of the New Year’s Eve dinner. This symbolizes taking a reserve of food, or surplus, into the New Year.
I think my mother’s story is a reminder that if your family has great recipes and stories you should learn them from the older generation to preserve them to preserve your culinary legacy. Someday these recipes could be the one link to reach our loved ones.
Grace shared her recipes for Jing Lou You (Cantonese Steamed Bass) and Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp with Rum with us this week.
- The Wisdom of The Chinese Kitchen from Amazon or Indiebound.
- Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge from Amazon or Indiebound.
- The Breath of a Wok from Amazon or Indiebound.
Grace Young grew up in San Francisco surrounded, on the one hand, by the immigrant Chinese traditions of my family and relatives, and, on the other, by an innovative American culinary culture. Her Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge won the James Beard Foundation’s Best International Cookbook and was a finalist for the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
More information about Grace including her blog and appearance schedule appears on her web site, GraceYoung.com.