(by Olive Ho)
When I visit my family in Hong Kong, my mother sometimes puts Chinese ingredients—dried scallops, exotic mushrooms—in my suitcase for my return to New York City. Although she surely knows that the city where I live now is a bazaar of food cultures from all over the world, I think it may be her way of saying: Remember where you came from.
The United States has been my home for a decade now. I left Hong Kong at age 15 as part of an exchange student program—first living in New Mexico, then Washington State, then Wisconsin, where I graduated with a degree in marketing and finance before settling in Manhattan. It wasn’t easy for my parents to see me go off on this American odyssey: In Hong Kong, most young people live with their families until they are married. For a while, they called me every day. But they always supported my dreams, my goals, my sense of adventure.
Neither my mother nor I were ever that interested in cooking. We’re a lot alike—both impatient. We’re the kind of people who, when we have to deal with a company’s telephone customer service, we memorize the numbers that have to be pushed so that the next time, we can get through without waiting for the prompts. Mom is an accountant. When I was growing up, she had to get breakfast on the table before leaving for work and dinner when she returned (although sometimes she and my dad would switch meal-prep modes). She sticks to traditional Chinese food—she’s not one to venture into Italian cooking. I think the most ambitious she ever got was pressure cooker oxtail stew. For my birthday parties, she was inclined to order pizza and a Western-style cake. She mostly wanted to get out of the kitchen quickly and easily. So do I. Quick-and-easy is in our genes.
In the places where I first lived in the United States, I grew homesick for the familiar comfort foods of my culture. Believe me, bubble tea was a mysterious concept to my host family in New Mexico. Finally New York felt like the place that had everything I could want—similar to Hong Kong in its diversity but with easy access to Cantonese-style egg tarts or fish balls, even at midnight. All things are possible for a Chinese girl looking for a taste of home.
I’m learning how to cook a little more—one day I may even use those care packages that my mom puts in my suitcase when I visit. And I return the favor. On my trips to Hong Kong, my suitcase is filled with my mother’s favorite convenience food: American cake mixes.
Easy does it.
Chicken Wings with Potato Stew 1/2 t. sugar
1 t. dark soy sauce
1 t. Maggi Seasoning or additional soy sauce
1 1/2 lb. chicken wings
1 T. peanut oil or other flavorless vegetable oil, divided 6 potatoes, peeled, cut into pieces 1 T. minced garlic
1 shallot, peeled and sliced 1 T. diced green onion 2 slices ginger root 1/2 medium size onion, diced
1/4 t. salt 2/3 c. hot water 1 T. cornstarch mixed with 2 T. cold water
Combine sugar, dark soy sauce and Maggi Seasoning.
Marinate chicken wings in the mixture for 15 minutes.
Heat 1/2 t. oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat.
Remove chicken wings from marinade (reserve) and pan-fry until both sides are browned.
Remove chicken to a sieve over a bowl and set aside.
Add potatoes to the same pan and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Set aside. Clean and dry the pan well.
Heat pan again with 1 1/2 t. oil over high heat.
Add garlic, shallot, ginger, green onion, onion, and salt.
Stir-fry until onion is soft (about 2 - 3 minutes).
Add potatoes and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the chicken wings and hot water.
Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until the potato is soft.
Add the marinade back to the pan, mixing in well.
Stir in the cornstarch mixture slowly and cook until the sauce is thickened.