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Book review, author Q&A, and salt and pepper shrimp

Ann Mah's novel, 'Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself' celebrates life changes, Chinese culture, and most importantly, regional Chinese dishes. This special blog post contains an interview with the author, and one of her favorite recipes.

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Oh, of course! Isabelle is based loosely on my own experiences but ultimately I decided to write a novel because it allowed me to explore ideas of ethnicity and self-discovery more metaphorically. Isabelle is much braver than I am, especially when it comes to eating everything and traveling in the primitive Chinese countryside. And, unlike me, she’s lucky enough to have a sister.

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Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Patricia Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens and has been published in numerous national and regional publications. Pat is also the creator of the “Asian Ingredients 101” iPhone and Android app, a glossary on-the-go that’s the perfect companion on a trip to the Asian market. Her first book, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens, will be available in paperback in September 2012.

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You spent a year in Bologna, Italy, on a James Beard Foundation scholarship, and after living in Paris for several years you are now working on a book about regional French cuisine. But you are ethnically Chinese and grew up eating Chinese food. How important was it for you to write this book and to spotlight China and Chinese cuisine?

I love Chinese food but in my Chinese-American home, I grew up eating it every day so I thought I knew everything about it. But when I got to China, I was shocked to discover an enormous landscape of regional cuisines – everything from numbing peppercorns to Chinese cheese – stuff wildly different from the food in my parents’ house. Food became the bridge that drew me into China. But the tale that burned inside of me was of a young American woman – who happens to be Chinese – living in Beijing. Food is the metaphor that allows the main character to make peace with her circumstances.

Growing up in Southern California, were you raised with strict Chinese traditions? Did living in China and/or the process of writing this book connect you to your culture? What are your reflections on both?

My father is ethnically Chinese but he was born in the States and as a result I had a very American childhood and grew up with a very American perspective. Living in China actually made me feel more American than Chinese because I felt more accepted by my compatriots, who understood that the conflict of outer appearance and inner identity. It also made me appreciate the struggles faced by my grandparents, who must have experienced the same fish-out-of-water challenges in 1920s California that I faced in 21st century Beijing. And, after leaving China, I have to say I missed Chinese food for the first time in my entire life. I still do.

Unlike many households, your dad did most of the cooking. Did you find this odd? Can you share a favorite recipe your dad taught you?

My dad grew up in central California, the son of Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant. When he moved to North Carolina for his first job, he missed his mom’s food so much he taught himself how to cook it. I love to imagine him growing bitter melons and gailan (Chinese broccoli) – he even made his own tofu (once). Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the counter while he chopped garlic; he remains one of my favorite cooking partners. For his legendary dinner parties, he always makes a dish of salt and pepper shrimp – they’re so delicious, they can make even the most squeamish of eaters start to suck shrimp shells.

SPOILER ALERT– If you don’t want to know what happens in the end, stop reading now!

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