Thursday, November 30, 2006

"An affectionate important glimpse and microhistory into a time that has since disappeared," says Victoria's Monday magazine

Playing Chopsticks
Chinese food must rank as one of the world’s most popular foods. Excluding the Chinese themselves—who naturally would agree—cities like Paris have more than 1,500 Chinese restaurants. Paris?

Janice Wong knows of this love affair with Chinese cooking. Her father Dennis, born in Victoria, moved his young family to Saskatchewan, opening his first Chinese eatery in Prince Albert. Wong writes that Chow: From China to Canada: Memories of Food & Family is both a cookbook and the 80-year-old story of two Chinese-Canadian families (her father’s and her mother’s) who lived and worked in B.C. and Saskatchewan from the early 1900s on.

An old shoebox was all Wong had left of a few of her father’s treasured restaurant recipes, as he cooked from memory. Part visual record, part scrap book, part recollections, part cookbook, Chow is a handsome book suffused throughout with family photos and the arty things that come from a talented cook’s kitchen. The beauty of the book rests with Wong herself, an awarding-winning visual artist who lives in Vancouver. It is an heirloom piece to a younger generation (the nieces and nephews, Wong says) in the clan who didn’t get to know the great-grandparents and grandparents and still pester Wong for stories about “What was it like?” in the China of generations past. Chow is also an affectionate bridge between growing up eating her father’s “village” Chinese cooking and being the quintessential Canadian kid at Christmas stuffing herself on Nanaimo bars and shortbread.

Wong is only half-teasing when she says her dad probably loved food all his life because he was born early, a preemie that clocked in at less than two pounds and spent his first months “inside the warming oven of his mother’s wood stove” rubbed down in olive oil and swaddled in flannel. Wherever the love of food and cooking came from, her father’s recipes are carefully recreated here (some with handwritten notes), along with a whack of good old fashioned baking recipes for tarts, squares and cakes. East meets West in the steamy kitchen of the Wings Café and later on, the Lotus Café. The presentation for many of the recipes and stories put the food in context for when or why a dish was made or how it was created and eaten. Recipes include Dungeness crab with dow see (black bean sauce), Chinese barbecue duck (easier than you think) and three different ways to prepare green beans. There’s also an inspired Chinese gravy and even a recipe for Welsh cakes. I tried the garlicky-good recipe for the baked chicken wings, substituting chicken thighs, and made a complete finger-licking mess of myself with the baked glaze on the meat. I also tried the barbecued spareribs (no barbecue needed) and with the exception of the marinating time, the recipe is a cinch and tasty.

Wong has documented not only a loving tribute to her hard-working family (seventeen-hour days in the cafés were normal for her dad), but an important glimpse and microhistory into a time that has since disappeared—the eager new arrivals standing on the boardwalk of a western frontier town.

Whether Victoria or Paris, Prince Albert or Guangzhou, the greeting’s the same. “Nay sik fan ma?” (“Have you had your rice?”)

-Dana McNairn, Monday Magazine, Nov 29, 2006
photograph: Mary Mar and Dennis Wong, Vancouver 1940s

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