My childhood introduction to Chinese food was ~ well, just awful. La Choy canned chop suey. Do you remember that stuff? Meat (?) and slimy vegetables in a gooey, thick sauce, heated up, served over rice (Uncle Ben’s instant rice at that, bleh!) and topped with crunchy chow mein noodles that came in an attached can. Sunday dinner ~ Mama! what was she thinking? Daddy said the chop suey was made up of rats and cockroaches ~ it surely looked like it could be! Seriously, I had trouble gagging that stuff down.
When I was eleven I took a trip to New York City to visit my sweet Aunt Gwen. Just me! On a Grayhound Bus. She showed me exciting adventures far beyond anything I knew. The world from atop the Empire State Building; Rockefeller Center; a movie (A Hole in the Head with Frank Sinatra) at Radio City Music Hall; going aboard a humongous ocean liner to say goodbye to her missionary friends; riding the Subway (Flatbush Station), the Automat; pizza; – and the bright lights of Chinatown at night. As we strolled through Chinatown, she pointed out unusual treats in shop windows ~ I remember chocolate covered ants and grasshoppers. No thank you. We stopped for supper ~ a rice and spinach dish of some sort as I recall ~ no offense, Aunt Gwen but I wasn’t smitten ~ maybe the association with Daddy’s rats and cockroach chop suey prejudiced me or maybe it was just my undeveloped palate.
But now? One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese.
47 years ago, just married, living in an apartment far, far from home, my next adventure with Chinese food began with a recipe in the Chicago Tribune food section ~ a stir fry of beef and snow peas. I have no idea what attracted me to this recipe ~ perhaps the sirloin steak ~ maybe the prospect of cooking at table. It was a good dish! We liked it! A lot! I typed the recipe into my file and it was a regular dish on our family table for a long time.
The recipe suggested the dish be cooked in a wok, electric skillet, or regular skillet. Wok? What is a wok? The recipe called for Chinese pea pods? After an extensive search, we did find frozen pea pods ~ who could know those limp pods would eventually be replaced by crisp, fresh pods as grocers began to stock a wider array of vegetables in later years.
The wok remained a mystery. I used an electric skillet to cook the dish at table BECAUSE cooking at the table was tres chic at the time and I was all about the drama don’t you know!
I continued to be curious about this wok thing. And so began the hunt. Marshall Fields, Carson Pirie Scot & Co., Wieboldt’s, Sears ~ all those large housewares departments and not a wok to be found. The Captain gave me a tempura pan one Christmas. Close! but it would not work for stir fry.
Now y’all! I have to say I had no idea at the time that Chicago has a Chinatown. There would have been a field trip right then and there. Did my husband not know about Chinatown in his hometown? It would have been so easy to zip into the city for a wok. But then again, I’ve learned that even in San Francisco’s large community of Chinese families, woks were not easily found back in the day. They made do with skillets too so we hear.
. . . until the 70s when a couple of San Francisco artists, Spaulding Taylor and Win Ng, introduced the wok to the western world via their hand crafts store (now closed). The two contributed greatly to bringing Asian cuisine to this country with woks and utensils, cookbooks, and other things Asian. Wok cooking became a very hot trend in the seventies.
. . . . . and when Crate and Barrel opened a store in Oak Brook in 1971? Being a fan of the funky little store in Old Town, I was excited to explore their wares at a nearby mall. And goodness sakes alive, don’t you know that’s where I found my first Taylor and Ng wok ~ still my favorite! And Taylor and Ng cookbooks. Oh my how I poured over the recipes, the art work, the photographs, and the stories of Chinese traditions and superstitions. A love affair with Chinese cooking began in earnest. I took a class or two. Our library grew.
picture from Hong Kong & China Gas Chinese Cookbook
We took field trips ~ loved Dim Sum in Chinatown. We tasted new ingredients and stocked our pantry ~ soy sauce, glass noodles, tree ears, dried black mushrooms, salted black beans, lotus leaves, lap cheong, oyster sauce, hot bean sauce, and so much more. (But NO ants, grasshoppers, rats, or cockroaches.)
Our batterie de cuisine grew to include steamers, sand pots, Mongolian hot pots, and multiple woks. Woks for stir frying, steaming, smoking, and deep frying.
We’ve gathered a file of favorite family recipes ~ Ants Climbing a Tree, Lions Head, Smoked Tea Chicken, Yang Chow Fried Rice, Shao-Mei, Hot and Sour Cucumbers, Tangy Noodles, Chinese Barbecued Pork …
I could go on and on! We have barely scratched the surface of Chinese food at the Sidewalk House. The journey will continue ~ for the New Year and all throughout the year.
Emma stirs up Yangchow Fried Rice
Tell us, what is your favorite Chinese dish? Do you prefer Chinese carry-out or home cooked? Please share in the comments section.
May the Year of the Fire Monkey give you the curiosity of a monkey and the impulsive energy of fire whether you are a Fire Monkey or not! Hugs, Jackie, A Fire Dog enjoying a long Journey