Chef Ming Tsai: A Three-Generational Eating Adventure
When I was 10 years old, friends of my parents appeared at the door of our home in Dayton, Ohio, culinary capital of the world. They were not expected and my parents were not home. I hugged them as if they were my long-lost "uncle and auntie" and asked, "Have you eaten?" No, they said, but they were starving. So I invited them into the kitchen and decided I'd whip up some fried rice.
I had never cooked fried rice in my life: I was 10. But I had seen my parents and grandparents cook it hundreds of times. How hard could it be? Like every good Chinese household, ours had leftover rice in the fridge (drier, day-old rice fries up best) and, of course, the necessary eggs, garlic, ginger, and scallions.
I got to chopping. I was decent with a cleaver even then because I liked to hang out with Ye-Ye—my dad's dad—and practice slicing and dicing. I scrambled the eggs over high heat with tons of oil, set that aside, added the veg and rice to the wok, tossed, added back the eggs, and drizzled in soy sauce. To be honest, it was probably not much better than a 6 out of 10—a bit too oily from the eggs and a touch too salty from a heavy hand with the soy sauce. But my new uncle and auntie loved it, and it made them smile.
I could make people happy through food: How cool was that?
Food, Always Food
"Chi le ma?" "Have you eaten?" In my family, this is the proper greeting when you see friends or family. We are not as concerned about how you are, but whether you are hungry. All present need an opportunity to eat together as soon as possible.
I was lucky to be born to Chinese parents who were avid travelers and always took me and my brother along for the ride. Food was the most important thing on any itinerary. We would talk about the next meal while enjoying the current meal. For my dad, literally a rocket scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, whom I have always called Pops, point A to point B would always necessitate a huge detour if point C was an Asian market, a great restaurant, or, best of all, a Chinatown. We once crossed the U.S. border on the way back from Toronto's Chinatown with the entire back of our station wagon filled with pink boxes of dim sum. My mom shared food with the incredulous guards. We had no difficulty getting through.
We were not rich growing up, but our family travels did include Asia and Europe. We would always stay in Hotel "Rinky Dinks" (our family name for cheap lodging) in Paris, where the door would smack up against one of the two double beds in the room when opened, and the bathroom was always down the hall. We would do this in order to afford a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Lasserre or Taillevent. Over the years, we visited Les Crayères in Reims, Chez Divellec (best seafood restaurant in Paris), and Senderens (Alain Senderens is one of the founders of Nouvelle Cuisine).
Often, on a trip in the States or abroad, we found our entire family at a Chinese restaurant. My parents did not believe in a kids' table, nor in food that was kid-friendly, thank God. From the start, I would eat anything, try anything—including snake, chicken feet (a personal favorite), insects, offal, stinky tofu, stinky cheese, pig brain sashimi (yes, really, in Tokyo, and it was amazing), and anything spicy. My older brother was a little more conservative, but the house rule was this: Everyone try once. If you don't like it, no worries. Mom (now called Nai-Nai by my kids) was the fish-head, eyeball, and tail expert—she would fight with my grandmothers for those beady eyes! There are only two things in the world I actually cannot eat: the notorious Southeast Asian fruit durian (tastes and smells like vomit, as far as I'm concerned) and natto, a slippery soybean goo.
My own kids, David, 12, and Henry, 10, have always lived by the same rules that I grew up with. David was born with serious food allergies (soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs, although they subsided), and today David is the more adventuresome eater: He even loves chicken feet. Henry knows what he likes, and he likes a lot: anything with soy sauce, my restaurant's crispy calamari, pot stickers, Nai-Nai's spring rolls, any vegetable (as long as it is cooked with garlic and/or onions), all stir-fried noodles and rice dishes, and all land creatures. He has an amazing palate, which begins with his ultra-sensitive nose: Once, at age 6, Henry smelled a wine I was swirling and sniffing, and pronounced that he detected "cooked cherries." Yes, the pinot noir did have a cooked-cherry aroma, but Henry had never smelled cooked cherries! He had extrapolated from eating the raw fruit. I like to think he has a chef's soul.
Truth be told, I would love it if either of my sons chose to be a chef, but it has been much more important to teach them what my parents taught me—to enjoy life with an open palate. Everything happens at the dinner table. And a lot happens when the dinner table is halfway around the world.
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.
On to Hong Kong
The place where we ate our first meal in Hong Kong was a first for my family: an "eating club" called Ning Po Residents Association. No squash courts, no pool, no workout room. Just a restaurant with more than 20,000 members. One joins by invitation only, for as little as $25 or as much as $2,500 a year. VIPs pay the big money for a guaranteed table. Prestige is a factor, but the real point is guaranteed access to a dish like the impossibly delicious 1,000 Sliced Braised Pork. My mom, dad, and I argued about how exactly this dish was cooked, and the waiter would not or could not divulge. (As a side note, the only time I have ever seen my parents argue is in the kitchen: They would go back and forth on a technique or process, and I would eventually jump in and tell them to sit down, have a glass of wine, and I would cook. It took me about 10 years to finally realize this was an act designed to get me to cook!)
My best guess is that pork shoulder is fried, then braised, then frozen for slicing, then steamed. At any rate, these were the thinnest, most tender, most delicious pieces of pork any of us had ever eaten. We also had crispy and moist sesame pie, sautéed eels, perfect bean sprouts, amazing tea-smoked duck eggs, pot stickers for Henry, and the stinkiest of stinky tofu. Fermented tofu is the Limburger of soybean products, and when it hit the table, Henry, who has the superpower nose, turned away from the table and begged to have it removed. Pops gobbled it with glee, while the best I could do was "like" it out of respect. The remaining two pushed it around their plates with a pained look on their faces. Our verdict on Ning Po Residents Association: We would join in an instant if we lived in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is famous for its dim sum, little plates of delectable bites, traditionally wheeled around the restaurant in carts for the diners to choose. But at Jumbo, you actually order and it is delivered fresh and hot (perhaps a better system for quality).
Jumbo Kingdom is the most famous dim sum restaurant in the middle of Hong Kong harbor, built on huge barges, a floating amusement complex that is swarmed by tourists and locals alike. It's a little cheesy to eat here, and a lot fantastic. For sheer variety of tastes, dim sum is our family's favorite way to eat—everything plunked on the greatest restaurant innovation, the lazy Susan. If you don't like the sticky rice, Henry, no big deal: Here come the steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, soup dumplings, pork buns, crispy shrimp flowers, spring rolls, crispy Shanghai sesame cakes, crispy pork belly, twice-fried noodles, wok-tossed pea tendrils, and, my own favorite, braised chicken feet—slippery, knuckly, delicious. Now, my mom and David love chicken feet as well, but Polly and Henry can't quite get past the visual of those chickens strutting around the farm, stepping in their own stuff. We were eating, laughing, talking with our mouths full, and just loving life. There is nothing better than a family dining with this much joy.
Hong Kong markets burst with fresh seafood, mountains of produce, dazzling arrays of dried foods. Pops, David, and I went on a market walk that was also a hunt for the city's best bowl of noodle soup. We arrived at Bowrington Market, already packed on Saturday morning, and gawked at the produce, meats, and seafood, the latter live, of course. It was a culinary zoo of squirming creatures, fascinating to David: funky-looking shrimp, all types of fish, crabs, eels, frogs, snails. Pops kept picking up the creatures to show David, getting chastised by the vendors, but he didn't care. He would show us another strange bit of sea life and explain how he would cook it. The striking thing, in contrast to an American market, is the abundance of foods that are dried, both for cooking and medicinal purposes: fish, scallops, shrimp, oysters, fish maw, mushrooms, seaweed, roots, bird's nest (nature's Viagra, the Chinese believe, fashioned by swallows from their saliva, and one of the most expensive foods in the world per pound). The street butchers were hard at their open-air work, breaking down whole sides of beef and pork, selling everything: heart, liver, kidney, intestine, penis, spleen, the whole show happening in 85-degree heat. The smell of roasting ducks and pigs was in the air, gloriously attacking our nostrils as soon as we started walking around, eventually breaking our will. Sure, it's a touristy thing to do: Most locals would not be eating roast pig out of a plastic bag on a charge through the market. Did we care?
Now it was time to hit three noodle shops, each with its own noodle focus. Kau Kee featured only beef brisket noodle soup, with or without curry. Incredibly rich and thick broth with tender brisket, potatoes, and onions. I preferred the curry; Pops and David liked the plain. All three bowls were cleaned. Next was Soho Noodle Shop: plastic chairs, authentic and cheap. Pork wonton noodle soup was their signature, and we also ordered double crispy chicken noodles, which David devoured. The soup was delicious with gingery, tender wontons. This was heaven for Pops, as he loves all types of noodle soups, but also for me: Three generations were happily slurping away (slurping with gusto is the polite way to eat in Hong Kong), a magical moment. Last and best, though, was Mak's Noodle. Very famous in Hong Kong with an amazing following, this small chain features a clear, pure broth over wonton noodles that were cooked twice, once for 5 seconds, followed by a plunge into ice water, then another 10-second boil. This yields incredibly tender noodles that still have a "toothy" goodness. The shrimp wontons were light and airy and full of seafood umami. Pops, the soup expert, kept asking how they made their broth and eventually pried from them a formula of pork bones, shrimp powder, fish bones, and white peppercorn. Simply the best broth ever in a part of the world where soup broth is as much a matter of obsessive particularity as barbecue is in the American South.
We were then off to Ocean Park, the amusement park where the Hong Kong equivalent of elephant ears and turkey legs included crispy sweet fried dough balls, hot rice sticks, corn on the cob, and grilled squid. There is a restaurant with hanging roast ducks and chickens, dumplings in chile-garlic oil, beef noodle soup, and stir-fried noodles. Even the arcade prizes were edible: Knock over a milk bottle with a baseball and win a little bag of rice, an egg custard, a spring roll, or a large, fluffy pork bun.
Family-Style Meals Inherent in Culture
At this point you may ask why we are not a family the size of elephants. Or, for that matter, why a people as obsessed with eating as the Chinese have not traditionally suffered from obesity. For one thing, taking deep joy in eating involves a respect for food—and for sharing it with family—that I believe is inherently healthy. It is why we were in Beijing and Hong Kong, to show that respect, to understand our roots, and to share. For another, a whirlwind food-lover's tour—a dive into the greatest pleasures a great food city has to offer—isn't everyday eating. We don't have three bowls of noodle soup on an average Saturday afternoon back home! We don't eat Peking duck two days in a row, normally. Chinese cuisine traditionally pushes those treats to the side of the meal, to the edge of the week, while vegetables, noodles, and rice form the bulk of the diet. This is how I cook at home, as well: tons of vegetables and salads, whole grains like brown rice. (I do a 50/50 mix with white rice for the kids. And I do the same at Blue Ginger and don't even tell the diners.) We always share a large rib-eye steak or rack of lamb: The protein (as chefs call meat) is just not the focus; it's the flavor. But going even deeper is this: In my experience, it is the cultures most deeply immersed in food that seem to suffer the least from their diets, at least the traditional versions of their diets: the Japanese, Chinese, Indians, French, Italians...
Chinese culture also associates medicine with foods, herbs, and balance, and these values persist today, even as a city like Hong Kong charges into the future. And it was interesting to see modern ideas of a healthy diet popping into view: There was an active organic market in the ferry station. Modern grocery stores are lined with organic produce, sauces, and whole grains, right next to shelves of Chinese medicines and tinctures. Billboards preach "healthy and natural foods." I also ran into one very cool old-meets-new concept, called Herbal Tea and Soup Square, a kiosk that combined Chinese medicinal philosophies with the convenience of frozen meal kits, bottled herb teas, soups, and "power" bars to prevent disease—very tidy, modern packaging using ancient ingredients, prepared in the traditional manner! There is something here.
Our trip was ending, so many delicious highlights. But I was scheduled to eat a meal alone—another great pleasure. This would be lunch at the Michelin-starred restaurant Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental Hotel. It proved to be the best dim sum meal I have had in my life, and a top 10 meal ever (which is saying something!). Thirteen courses of sheer bliss: braised abalone on crispy taro net, baked chicken and truffles, golden prawn and turnip puff pastry, stuffed crab shell (an indulgence consisting of three crabs' worth of meat in one shell), frog legs with spicy salt, and a most delicate mushroom and string bean dumpling.
And then it was over: Time to go home. On the plane, I reflected on the fact that I am often asked what I think success is. My answer: "If I can give my kids at least what my parents gave me, I am a true success." So far, so good—and so tasty.