Most of us love to go out for (or buy take-out) Chinese food. We don't often try cooking it at home because of the assumption that Chinese cuisine is complicated and requires exotic ingredients and equipment, like a wok.
Mother-daughter team Leeann and Katie Chin have heard those objections and made a culinary career of putting them to rest. "I think so many people got a wok for Christmas 15 years ago, and it's been sitting in their closet ever since," says Katie, who runs the Los Angeles-based catering company Double Happiness with her mother, Leeann. "My mother has taught me that a nonstick skillet is fine." Through their books, such as Everyday Chinese Cooking, and a PBS cooking show called Double Happiness, the Chins have taught people that creating simple, authentic-tasting Chinese dishes is easy-even without a wok.
"Much of Cantonese cooking consists of simple stir-fries, noodles with vegetables and small amounts of meat, or dishes that start on the stove and finish in the oven," Leeann says. Keeping a few basic ingredients on hand such as rice, cornstarch, frozen shrimp, and soy and oyster sauces makes it quick to prepare recipes like Garlic Pork with Tomato and Basil.
Ultimately, preparing Chinese cuisine in an American kitchen was a matter of necessity for Leeann. She was raised in an affluent family in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, at a time when girls of her background were not supposed to cook. But she often sneaked into the kitchen anyway.
After immigrating to the United States in 1956, she got her chance to cook when she and her husband, Tony, settled in Minneapolis in 1956. The Cantonese greeting "Sik fan mei?" literally means "Have you eaten?" Tony was fond of asking friends this question and then inviting them unannounced to dinner, Leeann recalls. Katie says that's how her mother learned to cook authentic-tasting Chinese food quickly with ingredients she had on hand and with what was available in local stores. Back then, it was impossible to find items such as bok choy and Chinese broccoli.
Eventually, Leeann taught cooking classes, started a catering business that involved her six children, and later opened a popular restaurant named Leeann Chin Chinese Cuisine Restaurant in Minnesota. The chain has grown to include more than 40 locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Katie once had a successful and hectic career in marketing and promotions for major movie studios, and her mother's tips helped her find time to cook Chinese dishes in her own home. In 2000, she left her Hollywood career to create cooking shows, write books, and cater with her mother, recalling that the two of them were closest when they cooked together. "My mother's favorite thing to do is cook, so the more time I spent in the kitchen, the more we talked to each other," Katie says.
Leeann, who has semiretired in Palm Springs, California, says she enjoys teaching other people to create Chinese food at home. "It's really healthy and flexible," she says. "You can spend a lot of money or a little-either way it tastes good."