HSIAO-CHING CHOU’S parents didn’t come to the United States hoping to open a Chinese restaurant. In Taipei, her mother worked as a journalist — one who was “pretty badass, back in the ’60s,” Chou says. Her father had been a career military liaison officer. But once here, “Like many other immigrant professionals, they weren’t able to do what they did back in their home country,” she relates. Even after both earned graduate degrees in journalism at the University of Missouri, opportunities failed to materialize.
Her father got a job as an assistant manager at a Dunkin’ Donuts, then “a network of other Chinese restaurant families” was there to help hers as their original American dream receded, Chou explains. Her parents opened their own place in a former Hardee’s in Columbia, Missouri, in 1980. “It really wasn’t because they had any aspirations to be professional chefs …” Chou says. “It really was a means to an end. They wanted to raise their family and try to do the best that they could.”
Starting out making wontons at age 8, Chou was raised in the restaurant. She worked there while getting her own journalism degree until she got her first newspaper job, going on to write a food column for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Her parents ran the restaurant for more than 20 years.
The dedication of Chou’s 2018 cookbook “Chinese Soul Food” heartwrenchingly begins, “For my parents, who abandoned their success stories in order to feed ours.” In its pages, she shares their real story and her own experience, alongside recipes meant to create what she now calls an “onramp” to cooking Chinese dishes, “something streamlined … but not dumbed-down.”
Her intention is made plain in the subtitle: “A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups, and More” — her helping hands there to show how “any kitchen can be a Chinese kitchen,” as she likes to say. Chou didn’t discriminate on the grounds of some definition of authenticity, either, devoting an entire “Guilty Pleasures” chapter to the kind of Americanized Chinese dishes that restaurants such as her parents’ necessarily served: General Tso’s chicken, crab rangoon, Mongolian beef.
Her sole regret about her first cookbook, Chou says, is that she didn’t include more vegetarian recipes. Her second one — “Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food” — comes right when we could use more vegetables after overdoing the COVID-19 stay-home holidays; it’s out on Jan. 19 (and available for preorder from Book Larder and Elliott Bay Book Company).
More tidbits from Chou’s background turn up in the prose, as in the intro to the rice vermicelli recipe: People unfamiliar with the noodles wouldn’t order them off the menu in her family restaurant’s early days, but, “When customer demand forced us to shift to buffet-style … that’s when people learned to love rice vermicelli.”
She again concentrates on accessible assistance: mostly straightforward recipes, wok-buying advice, a guide to pantry ingredients, a vegetable tutorial and more. Those who want to delve deeper will find the likes of “An Ode to Soy Sauce,” with detailed notes on a taste test of Kikkoman and 10 Chinese brands. (Her basic all-purpose recommendation: Kimlan, with the yellow and red label.) Those seeking a culinary challenge — or just a pandemic-time-consuming project — will find a recipe, thorough instructions and folding-demo photos for making vegetarian soup dumplings at home.
In Seattle, where Chou lives with her husband, two kids and mom, she’s known for her dumpling cooking classes, and “Vegetarian Soul Food” has more recipes for meat-free dim sum favorites, along with xiao long bao. She includes directions for both classic and gluten-free dumpling dough, and it’s part of Chou’s forgiving style that she does not at all insist on making your own — “Store-Bought Dumpling Wrappers” provides instructions on how to choose the right ones. (Tip for the not-so-pro: She recommends Rose Brand wrappers locally, while her mass-market pick is New Hong Kong Noodle Company, but really any kind you can find at your local supermarket should be fine. For harder-to-locate Chinese ingredients, she heads to Asian Family Market or 99 Ranch.)
Her wisdom here extends to “a few rules to live by in dumpling class — and beyond” that feel especially valuable these days: “Repetition teaches you the secrets,” “Sometimes you have to start over,” “Make it safe to fail.” And in good news for those who want more hand-holding with their dumpling folding, thanks to the pandemic, Chou’s classes are now available virtually everywhere through Hot Stove Society and PCC.
It’s fortunate that “Vegetarian Soul Food” comes along in time for the Lunar New Year on Feb. 12. Chou’s essay on the topic explains that, “The tradition — and expectation — is that those who live and work far from their hometowns and families will return to pay respects and celebrate the holiday” with a huge New Year’s Eve reunion feast. This might be out of reach in 2021, but Chou explains which foods are “imbued with symbolic wishes for health, wealth, prosperity, longevity and good fortune.”
We all could use lots more of all that this year, and she also includes a Lunar New Year menu for cooking and eating good luck.
Hsiao-Ching Chou’s Lucky 8 Stir-Fry
Makes 4 servings
“Eight is a lucky number in the Chinese culture, especially at Lunar New Year. The Chinese word for ‘eight’ is a homophone for prosperity … This mixed vegetable dish takes its inspiration from Buddhist vegetarian cooking and can include any combination of ingredients that represent good luck, prosperity, happiness, family wholeness and longevity. The ingredients also should have contrasting-yet-balanced flavors and textures. You can serve this on any day of the week — especially when it’s Lunar New Year. If you don’t have access to dried lily flowers, you can substitute bamboo shoot strips (which are available canned) or tofu.” — Hsiao-Ching Chou
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup bean sprouts
3 inner stalks celery hearts, cut on the bias ¼-inch thick
4 to 6 medium dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 2 to 3 hours
1 medium carrot, cut into ¼-inch-thick strips
½ cup dried lily flowers, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
½ cup dried wood ear mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes and cut into ¼-inch-thick strips
1 cup sliced Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy
8 snow peas, trimmed and cut on the bias into ½-inch-wide pieces
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine, sherry or dry Marsala wine
1 tablespoon water
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
⅛ teaspoon white pepper powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, if needed
1. Preheat a wok over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from the surface. Swirl in the vegetable oil, and heat for a few seconds until it starts to shimmer.
2. Add all of the vegetables: bean sprouts, celery, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, dried lily flowers, wood ear mushrooms, Chinese cabbage or baby bok choy, and snow peas. Stir-fry for about 90 seconds, and then add the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and water. Stir-fry for about 1 minute.
3. Add the sesame oil and white pepper powder. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds more to combine.
4. Turn off the heat. Taste for seasoning. If you think it needs a pinch of salt, add the kosher salt, and stir to combine. Transfer to a serving dish.
— From Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food