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chinese/chinese-americans: tell us about home cooking?

with all the debates on chowhound about chinese restaurants (you know, the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair when it comes to "authentic" vs. you know what, dim sum vs. banquet fare, regional variants, etc.) i'm often left wondering what chinese, or maybe specifically chinese- (north) americans, grew up eating at home. what's the good stuff that's not in the restaurants?

i guess i'm asking folks what chinese home cooking is. what did moms and grandmoms (or the boys, too) make for weekend meals, weekday dinners, and special occasions? what is left to the professionals, and what are the rest of us missing out on? what do the people with cantonese backgrounds eat at home? people from shanghai, beijing, wherever else?

and is scrambled eggs with tomato really ubiquitious across the board? so simple, but one version i had at a friend's house years ago is still on my mind.

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  1. My parents are from Beijing, growing up it was all about dumplings, baos, buns and lots of stuff made from dough that don't even really have English names.

    I also remember watching my mom make noodles with her hands, or hand-pulled noodles. While I was fortunate enough to pick up some of her talent for rolling dumpling skins and making dumplings, her noodle artistry has eluded me to this day. Sadly, that skill might just end with her generation.

    I still remember making literally thousands of dumplings for our Chinese New Years Eve celebration (and then trying to eat the one that was stuffed with sugar to bring good luck the rest of the year).

    We also made alot of tsongzi (or bamboo wrapped sticky rice) -- both sweet and savory kinds. There'd be days when one of the bath tubs would be solely reserved for soaking the bamboo leaves and then hours and hours spent filling, wrapping, tying, marking (gotta know which ones are meat and which ones are sweet, right?), and then cooking these suckers. Much too much work -- so much easier to just buy these things for like a 1.50.

    Most of these things you can get from restaurants, but somehow they just don't taste the same. I know that I have yet found a place that makes better dumplings than "mom".

    And, yes, there's little that is comparable to scrambled eggs with tomato ... I truly believe that eating enough of that stuff can cure just about anything that ails you.

    8 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      i identify with ricepad's experience as directly from my immediate family but for the most part many of my meals as a child lay somewhere between ricepad and ipsedixit's family with huge dependence on access to my paternal grandmother.

      mom and dad were big on those steamed meat cake type things of ground pork, bamboo, mushrooms etc that we took slices of and mashed into rice with an often generous helping of soy sauce. the egg tomato thing often appeared more as an incarnation with beef and was somewhat of a quick stew. congee on weekends or a variant of noodles, broth, bbq/roast meat or dumplings, and choy.

      i've learned to respect and feel ridiculously nostalgic about my grandmothers cooking though. it took a long time but the bamboo wrapped rice (purchasing it is no where near what my grandmother is capable of), soups (winter melon, papaya, ginseng, birds nest), perfectly steamed fish, multitudes of dumplings, perfectly tender stewed pork bones for congee, etc etc were what she would spend hours a day making for our home consumption.

      considering she immigrated to the french part of canada, i'm further amazed at how she accessed ingredients. granted, she did take over half of the concrete backyard and had rows and rows of melon and veg growing for her own use.

      btw. cantonese... dad's side was from china but other than speaking/being toisan, i can't give you any more specifics.

      1. re: ipsedixit

        just wondering...is it true that northern chinese people don't really eat rice? i've heard that in the north, these noodles, breads, buns, and baos are the staples. a taiwanese american friend of mine was surprised when she went to beijing and had to ask for rice, and the waitstaff at all the restaurants looked at her strangely, as if she had asked for something completeley foreign.

        plus, although i'm sure the climates are extremely different, korea and japan are located in a similar space to beijing or northern china in terms of latitude, yet korea and japan are totally rice-based cultures.

        1. re: augustiner

          My family is from the north and they eat rice. It's definitely not the staple and flour-based items are definitely more prevalent.

          Also, I wouldn't say Korean and Japanese cuisines are totally rice-based. I think that's a bit of an oversimplification, if not a bit incorrect. Think udon or soba in Japan and mandu or naengmyeon in Korea.

          I'd be very surprised any restaurant in Beijing would not serve rice, unless of course you were at a dumpling house and ordered only dumplings. Rice just doesn't go with dumplings. You'd even get odd looks here in the U.S. if you did that.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            noodles may be extremely popular, but i would still maintain that korean food is centered around rice. maybe my phrasing it as "totally" rice based is misleading. come to think of it, it makes me sound "totally" californian. or hella californian!

            i can't account for my friend, but she did express to me that she had trouble getting rice at multiple restaurants in beijing. i don't know if these were banquet level places, or street eats, or small eateries, it's just something i remember her telling me, and then i read that northern chinese people tend to eat wheat products like noodles, etc. it's actually one of the reasons i started this thread, because i was curious about the diversity of chinese home-cooking.

            so thanks for your response. but still, in a country whose language includes the word for rice when talking about eating in general, i'd say that correctly indicates a cuisine based on rice. noodles and dumplings are extremely popular, but they just don't hold the same significance.

            and, at least in my stomach, rice and dumplings definitely go together.

            1. re: augustiner

              The north/south, wheat/rice dichotomy has functioned for a long time as a shorthand way of looking at China's food culture, but in my experience it's never been a very reliable distinction. I've eaten lots of rice in northern China and plenty of wheat noodles in the south. (Taiwan, incidentally, is an exception to all of this, since it was overrun after WWII by mainlanders, many of whom brought their wheat-eating ways along, so starch of every kind is much in evidence.)

              I don't know if this applies to your friend's case, but getting a bowl of rice can sometimes be difficult nowadays in more affluent settings, simply because many Chinese now flaunt their prosperity by eating meals--especially festive or showy ones--that consist entirely of "cai" ("dishes") and no "fan" (rice or its equivalent), a reversal of the traditional formula.

              1. re: Barry Foy

                that makes sense. i wonder if in a few decades rice consumption will drop noticeably in affluent parts of some asian countries. if you don't have to eat it three meals a day because of hard living, i can see people skipping it or adopting more western practices. i sometimes cringe when my korean mother sort of puts on airs and flaunts an understanding of or access to western foods, after growing up with almost nothing to eat but rice and kimchi. although, when feeling under the weather or just out of it, all she wants to eat is rice and kimchi!

                anyways, thank you all for shedding some light on what is one of my favorite cuisines, yet one i know so little of, and one which is amazingly diverse. and please, continue talking about it. i love this thread.

                1. re: augustiner

                  In the 70s after Japan got rich people there stated eating much less rice. Since then they look at me like a barbarian (not that I'm not) when I ask for rice.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    huh. i wonder, at the same time, did the popularity of noodles rise, especially as quick one dish meals eaten on the fly? did ramen houses or soba or udon joints become more popular?

      2. Hong Kong/Hakka on the father's side and Shanghai on my mother's side.

        I typically ate with my dad's side of the family and basically it boiled down to lots of rice, lots of steamed things (fish, "custard", tofu, fish meat), braised items (brisket, sometimes curry, lotus root with pork, etc.), blanched vegetables (a choi of some sort, sometimes even iceburg lettuce), stir fries, and sometimes pan fried items (like stuffed bell pepper with fish or fish or pork chops, etc.). Special occasions usually warranted "fat choi", dried shittake, poached chicken, blanched shrimp (sort of the good luck foods). I really like S&S Pork so it was one of those special occasion dishes (and completely different from the stuff restaurants make). If we didn't go out to eat on weekend days we'd have congee (usually with turkey bones from the holiday) and stir fried noodles. My aunt/family cook also used to make "lop mei" like pork belly or duck and also daikon radish cake. And yes, I've had a lot of scrambled eggs with tomato. Okay, here comes confession time. My family usually likes to restrict the amount of fats and salt they're eating (either that or I've blunt taste buds) so I usually thought our family meals were a little bland. However, that's not to say she wasn't a great cook.

        Every once in a while I'd eat at my maternal grandmother's place, where we'd have rice, the absolute best lion's head stew, braised chicken and chestnuts, and usually a stir fry. Also made vegetable and meat dumplings for boiling, and used to make this very interesting braised vegetarian dish with tofu that we'd eat cold.

        1. I think a lot of this depends on when you grew up and where you were. We lived in Ohio and various places in the 70's where my mom had to make do with what she could find in the grocery stores (not much) and then we'd do a huge shopping trip to NYC to buy things like soy sauce and non-Uncle Ben's converted rice. So, I'm sure what we grew up with wasn't anything near what she would have made had she had access to good supplies. Being more "Americanized", we kids loved the occasional fried rice night and the biggest treat was getting American food. FWIW, we did have tomatoes, shrimp, tofu in scrambled eggs. Mostly dinner was rice, veggies and meat stir fries, less on the meat. Now she makes sticky rice in leaves, won tons, etc. but she's had to learn to do everything from scratch.

          My in-laws OTOH lived in DC where they had better access to supplies. Even now, the best meals I have are on Chinese New Years where they all spend a week preparing and have this table full of amazing food. Nothing like I grew up with. I can't begin to describe the food. The first time I saw it, I couldn't get over the amount and the quality of food. Better than any wedding banquet I've been to.

          3 Replies
          1. re: chowser

            my parents both grew up in Hawaii. mom Cantonese, dad Chinese/Hawaiian/dash of unknown. i grew up on Long Island and also vaguely remember shopping trips to NYC. dinners were mostly Americanish (baked spaghetti with strips of melted Kraft singles on top! iceberg lettuce with French dressing!) but for company they would do sweet & sour pork, tomato beef, fried rice. in the summer dad would make killer teri chicken, and he also did a mean steamed striped bass in soy that i've never had the equal of. i also remember packing bag lunches of teri beef sandwiches (they smell, after a while). we had congee (we say "jook") and long rice. scrambled eggs with shrimp (no tomato).
            cans of Spam and Vienna sausage in the pantry. and rice with everything.
            but i also grew up eating Shake&Bake pork chops, knockwurst, and sandwiches on Wonder Bread with mayo.

            1. re: rudysmom

              were my korean mother and your chinese mother friends? My mom used to make spaghetti with jarred sauce, ground beef, and she always added kraft singles to be mixed into the spaghetti

              SO GROSS...but I loved it as a kid

              1. re: bitsubeats

                My mom and dad worked two jobs each, and shared the cooking. When Dad cooked, it was a can of Chef Boyardi O's, or spaghetti with a "sauce" of mayo & ketchup. Gross, but we loved it as kids.

          2. Bona fides: Mom was born in China (Toishan Province), raised in the American Southwest, and moved to Northern California. Most traditional Chinese ingredients are available. In my family, Chinese home cooking was typically some sort of vegetable (choy) that was stir-fried with various seasonings and/or additions. It nearly always started with ginger, and included garlic. Onions, lop cheung (Chinese sausage), char siu, various kinds of mushrooms (black, straw, wood ear, cloud ear, etal), tofu, fermented tofu, fermented black beans, brown bean sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, just to name a few...all fair game to go into the wok. Meat was used, but sparingly. A fancy meal would be multi-course, and might include a whole steamed fish. A REALLY fancy meal would include bird's nest soup.

            Unfortunately, it's hard for me to 'connect' with a lot of menu items I see in many Chinese restaurants, because we never talked about what particular dishes were called...we knew them simply by their ingredients, or that it was just "dinner". For instance, I remember looking at a menu and wondering, "Who in the hell is General Tso??" And fried rice? Fried rice is for LEFTOVERS! We never had scrambled eggs with tomato, tho...could be because Mom hated tomatoes.

            4 Replies
            1. re: ricepad

              My mom and dad are both from Chaoshan and the older generation speaks Teo Chew and Cantonese. However, both parents grew up in Vietnam (Mom was born there and Dad emigrated there at the age of 6), so a lot of our food is influenced by Vietnam. Having said that, the chinese food we had at home was exacly like ricepad's. All the same foods -- we could have been siblings! One thing I should add to that description is that we always had several things for dinner - rice, a soup of some kind (usually clear broth), and a stir fry of some sort that included a veggie and some sort of protein.

              I agree with you about not understanding what the English translation of food is, but since we dined out about 1-2 times a week (like Friday nights and maybe Saturday too), I learned how to order in Cantonese and will do that when I go to Cantonese restaurants. The problem is when the waiter tries to talk to me in Cantonese. I don't know how speak it, just order food!

              1. re: lamster

                One time my brother and I, along with our respective spouses, went to a Chinese restaurant, and my brother asked if they had foo gwah (bitter melon). The waitress nodded and added it to the rest of our order, but somehow, we ended up with a crab dish! That's when it hit home how lousy our Chinese language skills were!

                1. re: ricepad

                  I've experienced mix ups like that before but yours takes the cake!

              2. re: ricepad

                Ricepad, I grew up eating very similar things as well! I was born and raised in San Francisco was raised by my paternal grandparents and father (Toishan) and mom (Hong Kong). Grandma would always cook multicourse meals when my grandpa was alive. I remember eating salted fish or lop cheung steamed with rice, steamed pork cakes, really excellent "lo faw" types of brothy soups, zong, lots of fermented black beans, the same sauces ricepad mentioned. We always had some sort of green veggie stir-fry and occasionally, a slow braised pork belly. My dad's side of the family cooked a lot of clay pot braises including lamb and pork. Grandma and dad still make their own salted eggs. We still supplement home-cooking with cha siu, roast pork, and roast duck rather frequently.

                My mom's main complaint about my paternal grandma's cooking was the browness of...everything. :P My mom has a lighter hand with most of the seasonings and did a lot of steaming...especially egg custard with Chinese donut.

              3. I am actually Chinese/Canadian. But i have to agree with most of the other comments. When you think about how large an area China covers, authentic could mean a lot of different things. For me it is the food of Hong Kong, seafood, noodles, congee...

                1 Reply
                1. re: sweetie

                  i tried to include chinese-canadians when i wrote "chinese (north) americans." i hope other chinese-canadians aren't holding back because of my US-centric language!