As a young Chinese American girl growing up in Minneapolis, I often gritted my teeth when my mom asked me to help make potstickers or roll up egg rolls in our basement. My parents had immigrated from Guangzhou, China and my mother, Leeann Chin, ran a catering business from our tiny home in the 70s. My siblings and I were her team of guileless sous chefs (it is the Chinese way, after all). We just wanted to be blonde, Norwegian and carefree like everyone else around us.
Looking back on my childhood, I’m awed by my mother’s dedication and unwavering patience when teaching us, even as toddlers, how to pleat dumplings or master the art of making velvety Cantonese stir-fry sauces. She was a perfectionist, a general whose expectations were as high for us as they were for herself. We stood at attention.
One of my most favorite memories is when she’d make a special family birthday dinner for me. As is customary in China, my mother would make noodles symbolizing long life, but also shrimp because the word for shrimp in Chinese “Har” sounds like laughter so a shrimp dish is something traditionally served at any celebration.
Her drive, talent and attention to detail led her to build a 50+ eponymous restaurant chain which still exists in Minnesota. It was a miraculous feat considering my mother never attended high school and started out as a seamstress making 50 cents an hour.
Eighteen years ago, after a successful career as a film and TV marketing exec, I did something that I never would’ve guessed I’d do. I became a chef and cookbook author, ultimately following in my mother’s footsteps.
I was throwing a dinner party for some clients and realized I had completely forgotten how to cook. I kept calling my mother for advice and the next thing I knew, she boarded a plane for Los Angeles with a carry-on of frozen lemon chicken. She cooked the entire meal but let everyone think I had cooked it. She was just that kind of mom.
On that same trip, she opened my nearly empty fridge and was mortified. I thought that by becoming a senior vice president at a major film studio I’d make her proud. But in fact, I’d done the opposite by forgetting how to cook!
I suddenly felt inspired. Cooking became a means to make sense of my cultural identity and to embrace my heritage. Getting to spend hours in the kitchen with my mom became a bridge between her past and my present and future.
I was under her tutelage once again as we formed a catering business together, co-hosted a the PBS cooking series Double Happiness, made appearances together on The Today Show and traveled to China to host a special for the Food Network. She was the toughest boss I ever had (even after spending all those years in Hollywood where I had some doozies).
My mother passed away 10 years ago. I still hear her voice in my head when I cook: “Make sure the water comes to a rolling boil before you blanch those pea pods” or “Don’t forget to test the oil with a scrap of the dumpling wrapper to make sure it’s hot enough.”
Today, as a mom to 12 year-old twins Dylan and Becca, I try to involve them in cooking as much as possible, so they too understand and develop a lifelong love of Chinese cuisine and that with every fold of a wonton and with every mince of fresh ginger, her memory lives on.
We celebrate the twins’ birthday with a shrimp dish every year to signify joy, laughter and harmony and I’m happy to share with you here today their favorite recipe, Walnut Shrimp, which has been passed down from my mother to me.