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The Asian Grandmother Cookbook

Grandmothers  are  the  embodiment  of  love,  comfort,  and  security.  Many  of  us  have fond  memories  of  her  kindly  words  of  advice  (elbows  off  the  table!),  the  red  packets filled  with  money  she  gave  us  at  Lunar  New  year  and
birthdays  (how  else  could  we fund  our  Barbie  doll  habit?),  and  the  chicken  rice porridge  that  gave  us  sustenance when  we  lay  sick  in  bed  (or  just  feigned  illness  to stay  home  from  school).  In  Asian cultures,  the  grandmother’s  role  is  manifold,  but one is  of  utmost  importance:  to ensure  that  grandchildren  learn  and  preserve  the  many aspects  of  their  ancestral  culture.  This is especially true in immigrant communities. As an  Indonesian  Chinese  living  my  formative  years  in  an  adopted  country, food was  a very  vital  link  to  my  culture  and  heritage.  In  my  case,  my  mother  was  the missing link as  my  sole  surviving  grandmother  lived  in  a  different  country.

Hence, for  me  and many  others,  grandmothers,  mothers,  and  aunts  are  all  custodians of home-cooked traditions. More  often  than  not,  these  women  cook  by  instinct  and their  recipes  are not recorded  on  paper.  They  hand  down  the  secrets  of  the  art  of cooking  verbally, and  by example, from  one  generation  to  the  next. By  running  around their  knees  or loitering at  their  elbows,  generations  of  children  and  grandchildren  have learned foodways and  captured  vivid  memories  of  the  how’s  and  why’s  of  cooking  via osmosis—from the  snap,  crackle,  and  pop  of  spices  roasting  in  the  pan  to  the  subtle balance  of  hot, sour,  sweet,  and  salty  on  the  tongue.  These  women  link  us  to  our heritage,  particularly through food. Today,  life  has  changed.  Instead  of  popping  over  to Grandma’s  place  (she  might even  live  on  a  different  continent)  or  pulling  out  the  wok to  recreate  our  favorite family  recipe,  we  head  to  any  one  of  the  Japanese restaurants down  the  block  when we  hanker  for  a  savory  sukiyaki.  If  we  feel  like  a  snack  of crispy  wontons,  Chinatown beckons.

Craving  some  pho  (beef  noodle  soup)?  Then  we head  for  one  of  the  vietnamese restaurants  that  are  competing  for  storefront  space with  coffee  shops  and  yet another Thai eatery. Just  when  did  the  restaurant  become the  keeper  of  our  Asian  food heritage? Perhaps  the  forced  incarceration  of  Japanese Americans  during  World  War  II led subsequent  generations  of  Asian  Americans  to distance  themselves  from  their heritage.  Maybe  it  was  in  the  1960s  and  ’70s,  when mothers  fed  the  work  force instead of  their  children. Or  perhaps  it  was  when migration—whether  voluntary  or forced— splintered  families,  scattering  them  around the world.  The  phenomenon  could be perpetuated  by  nuclear  families  splitting  apart thanks  to  increasing  divorce  rates.

We  could  also  chalk  it  up  to  the  inevitable  watering-down  of  culture  and  heritage that comes  with  living  in  an  adopted  homeland  over  many  generations.  And  who can blame  refugee  children  for  wanting  to  eat  meatloaf  instead  of  canh  (vietnamese soup) in an effort to embrace all things American and develop a sense of  belonging? Whatever  the  reason,  modern  times  are  making  Asian  home  cooking  a  lost  art in  the United  States,  and  many  of  the  new  generation  of  Asian  Americans  are  now ignorant of  these  skills.  That  missing  link  to  the  past  is  a  void  that  needs  to  be  filled. For this cookbook,  I  have  interviewed,  cooked  with,  and  connected  with  grandmothers, mothers,  aunties,  and  numerous  people  who  have  generously  contributed their  time, recipes,  and  stories.  These  recipes  are  family  favorites  that  have  been passed  from mother  to  daughter  to  granddaughter, adapted, interpreted, and  improvised  according  to the  availability  of  ingredients  and  evolving  palates.  Some  of  the recipes  are  not  to  be found  in  print  anywhere  else.  I’ve  also  included  little  tidbits  of culinary  wisdom  that only  a  grandma  can  impart  after  years  of  cooking,  as  well  as special family stories connected to the recipes. Through  research  and  a  little  detective  work,  I  have  also uncovered  recipes  from the  annals  of  time  that  have  been  hiding  in  old  church  and community  cookbooks. Often  unattributed,  but  no  less  important,  these  recipes  are also  representative  of our  food  heritage.  The  recipes  meant  a  lot  to  the  people  who shared  them  and  I  want to record them before they disappear into the past forever. I  have compiled  family  recipes  and  stories  from  Asian  communities  across  the spectrum.

you’ll  find  recipes  from  China,  Japan,  Korea,  India,  Pakistan,  Nepal,  Indonesia, Malaysia,  Singapore,  Laos,  Cambodia,  vietnam,  and  Thailand.  Many  of  these recipes have  evolved  from  their  original  incarnation  several  fold, such  as  Indian  curry from Guyana,  Chinese-style  shrimp  toast  from  vietnam,  and  a  Dutch-influenced sweet (klappertaart)  from  Indonesia.  Regardless  of  where  in  Asia  they  come  from, these recipes represent a universal theme—they tell the story of  our immigrant past. In  lieu  of  a real,  live,  and  kicking  person, I  hope  this  book  by  your  side  will  be  like spending the day cooking with your very own Asian grandmother.

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