Wendy Wang, born in 1985 in Dalian, (Northern) China lived there until she was 10 when her family moved to Japan. She studied there until age 16 when her family immigrated to the USA, and she started high school in Los Angeles as a non-English speaker. We met in 2019 at our local Y and became fast friends when I invited her to my annual multicultural Thanksgiving dinner table. During the pandemic in 2020 we swapped recipes and meals and in 2021 we joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and shared ideas for using up all the vegetables and fruits in our weekly bags. The following story comes from an interview conducted by Anita Ordóñez, retired Multicultural Student Services Director at Skagit Valley College, as part of the Center for Washington Cultural Traditions course entitled Cultural Documentation Field School-Foodways.
What do I miss about growing up in China? Food—it's just so different. I like the portion sizes because they're smaller, and I get to eat more than one kind. The flavors, the smells, the colors, the shapes and the textures are very important for me, as well as the symbolism of certain foods. Food brings back memories of my family life back in China.
In my hometown of Dalian, China, I remember going with my grandparents out for street food. One of my favorites is Beantown Hodo that you eat during the cold, cold winter. It's made from hawthorn, a red, round berry that’s super sour. It’s so tart that you can't eat it by itself. But with a thin coat of sugar on the outside and put on a stick like a kebab, you can eat it. I like the sweet and the sour flavors and that it's crispy-crunchy outside, almost like crème brûleé’s outer layer. When I was little, I liked the coating so much I used to just eat the outside sugar and leave all the fruit. Even though they are so sour, they are good for your heart and one of my favorite snacks.
Chestnuts are another street food in China, served to you wrapped in newspaper. They are stir-fried or stir roasted in big woks in hot heat with sprinkled sugar over them. They don't cut them for you. You basically peel the shell with your mouth like trying to bite it and you could still taste the sugar coating.
The best lamb sticks are made on the street by Muslims. Not the giant chunky meat—they're tiny and cooked over charcoal. You could order super spicy, medium or light. But the key point is the cumin powder that is sprinkled over the lamb. It goes so well and it's just amazing. They use metal sticks and make kebabs so tiny that you order hundreds of sticks. The more you buy the more bonus-a deal! So we used to buy 90 and get 10 free. Honestly, I could eat 100 sticks!
Grandpa did the cooking at home. I didn't like meat when growing up so he would stir fry vegetables like Bok choi and Napa cabbage with seafood. Since we lived by the water, seafood was very fresh. He would cook the whole fish (like yellow mackerel) with ginger sauce and green onions. You just have to know how to eat it because the fish tended to have lots of bones. Most of the time they don't even pick out the bones, you just chew it and swallow. Shrimp and abalone were very popular. A seafood that I cannot stand is sea cucumber, but it's popular in my city. Now it's so pricey, but it's got very good nutrition, and back then it was affordable and my grandparents used to eat it all the time.
Meat was pricey for sure. Beef was hard to find. We ate a lot of pork blood. When the blood is cold it forms like a jelly cube, like tofu. You slice it and then stir fry it quickly with bell pepper and spices—another favorite! I would eat the whole dish! And then my parents would say, “Don't eat too much blood!”
Food is so important for holidays. I love New Year’s Day because I would wake up to the smell of something being cooked in hot oil. It smells fishy. Ah, it’s prawn crackers that are dropped into the hot oil and puff up in all different colors—pink, green, yellow. After that snack, my family starts making dumplings. The dumplings’ shape represents gold ingots which symbolize wealth. So back then—I don't know a lot about history, but the gold ingots—that's how you paid when you were rich in China. You make the dumpling shape by filling a circle of flattened dough with leeks and pork and sometimes shrimp and vegetables. Then you fold the dough in half and then you squeeze it and the bottom puffs up and then the top. Since it is New Year’s Day, my family puts coins inside some dumplings. Oh, not every single dumpling, though. Whoever gets the one with the coin- that brings luck for the New Year. I remember I’d bite every single one just to look for the coin. [laughing] Now I’m thinking “I hope they washed the coin!” My mom liked to dip the dumplings in strong white vinegar and after a while her lips turned white. You can eat the dumplings with raw whole garlic, and if you like spicy, just a whole pepper.
Noodle dishes are important in Chinese culture. We eat them in soup or stir fried. But for birthdays we make homemade noodles because they’re long and represent long life, especially for elders. They’re always served as the last dish at the end of the party because they bring good luck and wishes for you to have a long happy life.
In China now mooncakes are popular, but back then we didn't bake. Everything was either steamed or cooked in the wok on the stove. My mom recently started to make mooncakes during the pandemic. She became a baker and she learned quite a bit from YouTube. She bought those molds with symbols of happiness or luck on them. She’d finish baking them and say, “You can’t eat them right away. You’ve got to let them sit for a few days for the oil to start to kind of soak into the skin.” Mooncakes symbolize the round full moon during the harvest season. They also mean that you've got to gather with family around you all together. That's why during the Mooncake Festival, you eat anything that has a round shape. My friend told me, “You’ve got to eat some grapes.” Why grapes? Because they’re round! Eat anything round that you can think of and you will have good luck and happiness.
When I came to the United States my family moved to Los Angeles, and now that I am married, I live with my husband and daughter in Mount Vernon, Washington. I've been to Chinatown in Seattle and dim sum was very good. But I have to say though, it can't compete with LA. I've never tried it in Hong Kong where it's from or southern China. But you can’t compare. LA does a really good job. Maybe because they have a high population of Chinese or because they're closer to the supply. The restaurants there just make everything very good and the food tastes like home.
When you go into Asian peoples’ houses and restaurants, you will see symbols that mean good luck, good fortune, long life and happiness. All of these symbols are represented in Chinese food through their flavors, smells, colors, shapes, and textures. We say that food brings people together, right? And that’s what brought you and me together!