Saturday, April 29, 2006

"A fascinating glimpse into Chinese-Canadian culinary history," says Prairie Books Now

Chow Down
Cookbook a Fascinating Glimpse into Chinese-Canadian History

Born a two-pound preemie in 1917, Dennis Wong may have begun his love of food after spending the first months of his life keeping warm in his mother's "oven."

Miraculously surviving his tenuous beginning, Dennis went on to pursue a culinary career, opening two Chinese-Canadian caf├ęs in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and running them for several decades.
In Chow: From China to Canada: Memories of Food and Family, his daughter Janice Wong tells her father's tale through heart-rending stories and traditional Chinese village recipes.

Reminiscing about his cooking enticed her to collect his recipes into a book intended originally just for her family to enjoy. Chow contains 60 recipes from her father, whose best cooking was done once the restaurant was closed for the night--when he was free to cook more traditional Chinese delicacies for his family and loved ones.

In her introduction, Wong reveals that her father did not follow recipes. "His notes, written for me and my siblings, were his best estimate of the ingredients and procedures that he knew by heart."
At the top of each recipe, Wong includes personal notes, adding intimacy to the lists of ingredients and preparation instructions.

This intimacy pervades the book, which also serves as a fascinating window into the journey of the Wong family, through the early mid-twentieth century. Interspersed among the recipes are a century of family photographs, reproductions of documents such as immigration papers, 1940s restaurant menus, and handwritten recipes. In short vignettes, Wong creates a memoir of her parents' courtship, marriage, and the family they created.

Janice Wong's favourite recipes from Chow include steamed fish, crab and prawns with dow see, soy chicken wings, green bean variations, and steamed minced pork.

For Wong, a third generation Chinese-Canadian, food has always been an important family bond. "The first thing that comes to mind is family gatherings with my cousins. We have a habit of enjoying one meal while exhuberantly talking about the next one," she says.

A visual artist whose work has received numerous awards, Wong provided a beautiful collection of still-life photographs of food and culinary items for the book. Getting the photos was more difficult than she expected. "I shot the images at the end of January when we went through several gloomy, rainy weeks. I was intent on using only natural light and there were only three hours of decent light each day."

Despite this obstacle, Wong says, "I really enjoyed creating the images, shopping for the food items, and setting up the shots. I am very happy with the results."

Chow draws attention to the influence of early Chinese restaurants in Canada.
"These restaurants really were the first 'ethnic' restaurants," Wong says. "For people growing up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, this was likely their first experience of Asian food. Because of Canada's multicultural history, we're fortunte to have such a great variety of cuisines to enjoy." Chow: From China to Canada: Memories of Food and Family by Janice Wong, Whitecap Books, $24.95.

-Polly Washburn, Prairie Books Now, October, 2005

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