Chef Ming Tsai: A Three-Generational Eating Adventure

A dining diary of chef and TV star Ming Tsai, off to Beijing and beyond with kids and parents. Our photographer catches up with them in Hong Kong. By: Ming Tsai 
Ming Tsai

Generational Cooking

My father's study in his Palo Alto condo houses 100 three-ring binders all lined up, with the years noted on the spines: 1964 to today. Inside are photos of every significant meal our family ate. Decades before the arrival of phone-camera mania, Dad always had his Nikon with him, always took food pictures, and then orchestrated a group shot after a meal. This habit extended to restaurants, where he would roam about, looking at what customers had ordered, trying to calculate, based on dishes ordered, what we should eat. As kids, we were a bit embarrassed about Dad's picture-taking and his roaming, especially at the fancier French places.

But he was such a food enthusiast! I recall a typical incident at a Chinese restaurant in which a guest, watching my father's surveillance, turned around and sarcastically asked, "Would you like to try some?" At which point Dad had the waiters bring him a small plate and chopsticks; he was soon happily tasting their food. I was further mortified when the restaurant seated us next to this group. But, as usual, it ended well, with our new friends getting a taste of all nine of our dishes. (In our family, the number of dishes on the table was determined by the number of people dining: one per person, plus a noodle dish at the end to ensure no one left hungry.)

I inherited my father's discipline for photographing food and will also admit to a tendency to restaurant surveillance as well, but I try to work my roaming into a walk to the bathroom.

Pops was born in 1929 in Beijing and grew up at Yenching University, one of 13 U.S. missionary-supported universities in China at the time. His father, Ye-Ye, was comptroller, so they lived on campus. My mother was also born in Beijing, in 1935. However, they did not meet until they were both in New Haven (my mom's parents, Lao-Ye and Lao-Lao, both taught at Yale), and they met, yes, at a dinner table at Mom's home!

It was love at first sight.

An Eastern Food Trip for Three

Pops had the idea to do a three-generational trip to China this year, and then move on to Hong Kong. He wanted to show my kids where he grew up, show them the first Chinese central heating system and sewer system at a university that Ye-Ye installed during his tenure from the '20s to '40s. Most importantly, of course, we would be eating his favorite foods. We would eat the best Peking duck and dumplings in Beijing and the best dim sum in Hong Kong.

After an all-day journey in March, Polly, the kids, and I arrived at the Grand Hyatt Beijing late Sunday night to find that Pops, who had arrived the day before, had left scallion pancakes and meat-stuffed dumplings as a welcome card. This was our family's first Chinese meal in China together (I had been there before, but the kids had not). The food was cold, but it was welcomed and delicious.

We were staying at the Hyatt because of the food, of course: It houses one of the best Chinese restaurants in Beijing, and hence the world, called Made in China. Beautiful open kitchens: woks flaming high with Mongolian lamb, shooting forth intense aromas on gusts of steam, and a dumpling station that turns out the most unbelievable lattice pot stickers—cornstarch and pork juice form a delicate lattice over the pot stickers when turned out onto a plate. The pièce de résistance is magnificent, crispy Peking duck, served with sugar, minced garlic, cucumbers, and pancakes. The bird is carved with surgical precision at the table. David ate with his eyes closed, in ecstasy. Henry, jet-lagged, fell asleep. Mom, of course, ate, said how full she was, and then took all leftovers upstairs for later snacking.

Two days later, the family made its way to Li Qun for more Peking duck. Compared to the fancy Hyatt, this was a down-home joint, a converted hutong (a narrow alleyway formed by lines of traditional housing complexes that one to two families would share with the fire/cooking done in the middle of the courtyard). This place was as local as it gets, inexpensive, and, it turned out, produced the best Peking duck I have ever eaten. The first thing we saw after making our way down a narrow hallway was a small cherry-wood-burning oven where two sweaty, wiry men in singlets, one smoking a cigarette, were positioning ducks by the fire and quickly roasting them (it took less than 45 minutes by my watch). Then they hung the birds to drain off the remaining fat, leaving delectably crispy skin. At this point, the ducks were neck-and-neck with those at Made in China, but the carving made all the difference. Tradition calls for skin to be removed first, then the meat, with the bones used to make soup. This preserves the lacquered crackliness of the skin, but the meat can dry out. At Li Qun, they carve the duck with slices of skin and meat together, more in a French style, and the meat is fantastically juicy, yet the skin stays crisp. Then the topper: the bones hacked up and deep-fried! All the remaining skin could be gobbled up, and even the small bones were easily crunchable. Served with Szechuan peppercorn salt, the bone course was, to use a professional term, so freaking good! And it was very important for my kids to see an example of such frugal culinary genius: nothing wasted, everything delicious. And Mom, the fish-head eater, reveled in chewing the bones and skin.

Fresh means fresh in China

Even in a city of over 20 million, open-air markets predominate where the locals go and buy everything: 100 different types of vegetables—the markets seemed to be 75% vegetables—freshly butchered meat, roasted ducks and chickens, all sorts of pickles and spices, sesame breads, steamed buns, and an amazing corn crêpe sandwich, which David pronounced the best sandwich ever. The 3-to-1 ratio of vegetables to meat seen in the markets is also seen in the grocery bags hanging off bicycles, motorcycles, and Mad Max--type motorized carts. Meat flavors a dish in everyday Chinese cooking: It does not dominate it.

Fresh is also a restaurant imperative, extending to live fish at truck stops—yes, truck stops. The variety of dishes in restaurants with a single specialty can be staggering. At Niu Ge, a dumpling house, the menu lists at least 50 dumplings: pork, garlic, chive, beef, mutton. All were made fresh in front of our eyes: dough being rolled out, then small balls being rolled into superthin skins, deftly filled and formed, then boiled or pan-seared. My kids have loved dumplings since they have had teeth, and Niu Ge was heaven. Henry fell in love, for the first time, with beef noodle soup and ordered it two days in a row. Pops was so excited to see Henry respectfully slurping up his bowl of tang mein.

One day we took Pops for his favorite childhood dish, gou-bu-li bao zi, or steamed pork buns, at a place that Polly and I discovered during the Summer Olympics in 2008, off Wangfujing Street. Curiously enough, the direct translation of this dish is "not-even-a-dog-would-eat-it." Picture a soup dumpling marrying a bao, a steamed pork bun: thin steamed sweet dough encasing juicy, ginger-spiked, fatty pork served with dipping sauce and all-you-can-eat corn gruel, which is piping hot and rather bland. The kids were leery of the gruel, but Pops, reminiscing about it from his youth in China, ordered a second bowl, all smiles. This moment—of my father sharing the peasant food of seven decades before while my kids tucked into a brand-new dumpling—is perhaps my most priceless memory of Beijing.

Taking deep joy in eating involves a great respect for food—and for sharing it with your family—that I believe is inherently healthy.