ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Tane Ong Chan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was growing up in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, delicacies for Chinese New Year included stir-fried American cabbage and bacon.
Much has changed for Chan, who runs an internationally known Wok Shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but not her taste for the simple dish from her mother’s kitchen.
“That’s our comfort food,” she says.
To her, it’s a symbol of her mother’s courage in a new land, where she learned to make do with what she had, substituting American ingredients in Chinese dishes.
Lin Ong’s cabbage and bacon recipe is part of “Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” by New York cookbook author Grace Young.
Young says she included the recipe because it demonstrates the adaptability of stir-frying and the ingenuity of Chinese immigrants.
“I love the fact that even though Tane’s mother couldn’t find Chinese produce in New Mexico in the 1940s, it didn’t stop her from stir-frying,” Young says. “Unable to cook a traditional stir-fry with Napa cabbage, Chinese bacon and ginger, she used local vegetables like cabbage and garlic and stir-fried them with American bacon. It’s an example of the ability of the Chinese-Americans to make do with what they had.”
Young, who was born in San Francisco, says her family makes Chinese bacon by marinating pork belly with rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, black soy sauce, brown sugar, salt and pepper, then air-curing it in the cold winter months.
“Tane’s cabbage and bacon recipe could be served for New Year’s,” Young says. The pork represents bounty.
The new year
Although family dinners had New Mexico staples of chile, beans and tortillas, Chinese New Year was special. The lunar new year begins Friday, and the coming year is the Year of the Horse. The symbol of the horse in Chinese astrology is independent and successful, but stubborn.
Chan remembers other special dishes adapted with available ingredients, served for the new year at her family’s restaurant, which later became a blended family enterprise as New Chinatown, which opened around 1950, a landmark for many years on East Central.
“Being in Albuquerque, the Chinese dishes had to be very palatable for the Western taste and some ingredients were not readily available,” Chan says.
The New Year’s Eve meal, which would be served Thursday evening, is the most important of the entire year, Young says. “It’s a time to give thanks, a time of reunion to celebrate the sacredness of family and a time of renewal and new beginnings. Every dish eaten has symbolic meaning.”
For example, Young’s stir-fry chicken lo mein recipe is auspicious because noodles represent longevity. Longer is better, she says. Whole chicken is a symbol of the wholeness of life on earth. The mushrooms represent prosperity because they grow quickly. The Chinese word for scallion is a homonym for the Chinese word for intelligence, she adds.
Other Chinese New Year symbolic foods could include stir-fried clams with black bean sauce, because clams are the shape of old Chinese coins. Fish represents a proper beginning and end to the year. A sweet-and-sour pork dish is favored in some families, because the Chinese word for sour sounds like the Chinese word for grandchild. And stir-fried lettuce is more than green for wealth because the Chinese word for lettuce sounds and is written like the Chinese word for growing fortune, Young says.
It’s also a good time to buy a new wok, Young says, because the new year is a time to start fresh. A new wok signifies a new beginning and a new life of healthy eating with a tradition that is 2,000 years old, Young says, bringing the new year celebration symbolically back to Chan’s Wok Shop.
From pan to wok
Chan says its ironic that her claim to fame is the wok, because growing up in Albuquerque, her mother had to stir-fry in a frying pan.
Chan was a middle sister in a family of nine siblings. She remembers working at her father’s restaurant and her mother’s neighborhood grocery store: “That’s very typical of Chinese-American families. Children are employees. We did everything.”
The family had settled in Barelas. “It was affordable and we felt embraced by our Hispanic neighbors.
“We were accepted. But we didn’t hang out with kids from the upper class, from the Country Club,” she continues. “As one of the only Chinese-American families, we stuck out like a sore thumb. We could not bring shame on our family.”
She attended Albuquerque High School, from which she graduated in 1956. She remembers some taunting along ethnic lines, but the advice of her mother and father carried her through. “They told us we were Chinese and different from the general public. They told us to just ignore it and do the best you can. They told us not to take offense. They told us, ‘Don’t fight back. That’s small. Be bigger than that. Be friendly and helpful.’ ”
She adds, “I had the best childhood. I had the best parents.”
From China to N.M.
Her mother had been a picture bride, in an arranged marriage in 1928 to her father, Wing Ong.
Her father had immigrated to Colorado to work with his father in Colorado but, after his father died in a railroad explosion, Wing moved to New Mexico to be with people from his village in China.
Wing went to China and brought his bride across the Pacific through San Francisco’s Chinatown, before arriving in dusty Albuquerque.
Stepping off the train, her mother, an urban, educated woman, was disappointed. She and others in China had heard about the prosperity in the United States, but this wasn’t what she imagined.
“It was culture shock. She stepped into a desolate desert town. She said all she saw were huts,” Chan says.
Although her mother was loyal to her husband and Albuquerque life, Chan wanted to see the world.
“I went against my mother’s wishes,” she recalls, remembering that she wanted to explore her Chinese roots. She went to San Francisco to college and later opened a gift shop called Yum Yum.
Her nephew, local photographer Kim Jew, remembers summers with his aunt in San Francisco, learning to capture the fog on film.
She also taught him to save money: “I always remember growing up she taught me to never pay retail for anything. There will always be a wholesale price somewhere,” Jew says.
Chan married and raised three children, but she came back often to her hometown.
“I never regret growing up there. I wanted my children to have the same experiences, so I would take them home to Albuquerque,” Chan says.
The San Francisco Chronicle says Chan’s Asian cookware store has one of the largest selections of woks outside Hong Kong and China. Along with store sales, she has a thriving online business, earning her the title in a recent Chronicle story of “culinary ambassador.”
She sells about 200 woks, from $10 to $150, every week. She has classes and a YouTube video to help her customers learn what she discovered through trial and error, she says.
She added Asian cookware, especially woks, to her inventory after President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 when America became enamored of Asian cooking, she says.
Everyone wanted to buy a wok, but then, the authentic pan was only available in Chinese grocery stores, where non-Chinese speakers encountered a language barrier, so she added woks to her store more than 40 years ago. She says: “I was turning away business. Who knew it would be this lucrative?”
This recipe is simple to make and has a nice peppery flavor from red pepper flakes, white pepper and ginger.
Chicken Lo Mein with Ginger Mushrooms
Serves 3 as a main dish or 4 as part of a meal
12 ounces fresh Chinese thick, round egg noodles
2 teaspoons sesame oil
12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken thigh, cut into ¼-inch bite-sized slices
1 tablespoon finely shredded ginger
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 cups thinly sliced Napa cabbage (about 5 ounces)
4 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
½ cup finely shredded scallions
In a 3-quart saucepan bring 2 quarts water to a boil over high heat. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the noodles. Return to a rolling boil and boil according to package directions until al dente.
Carefully pour the noodles into a colander and rinse several times with cold water. Drain the noodles, shaking well to remove excess water. Return the noodles to the unwashed pot, add the sesame oil, and toss until well combined. Set aside.
Put the chicken in a shallow bowl and add the ginger, 1 teaspoon of the rice wine, cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the soy sauce, ¼ teaspoon of the salt and pepper. In a small bowl combine the remaining 1 tablespoon rice wine and 1 tablespoon soy sauce.
Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil, add the red pepper flakes, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the pepper flakes are fragrant. Push the pepper flakes to the sides of the wok, carefully add the chicken mixture and spread it evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the chicken begin to sear. Stir-fry 30 seconds or until the chicken begins to brown. Add the cabbage and mushrooms and stir-fry 1 minute or until the cabbage is just wilted but the chicken is not cooked through. Transfer the chicken and vegetables to a plate.
Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil into the wok. Add the noodles and stir-fry 15 seconds. Restir the soy sauce mixture, swirl it into the wok, add the scallions and chicken mixture, and sprinkle on the remaining ¾ teaspoon salt. Stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and noodles are heated through.
COOK’S NOTE: Find a variety of fresh noodles in the refrigerator section of most Chinese food markets. The best noodles for lo mein are about ¼-inch thick and sold in one-pound packages. If fresh shiitake mushrooms are not available, use button mushrooms. Bean sprouts can be substituted for the Napa cabbage.
Tane Ong Chan remembers her mom making this dish when she was growing up in Albuquerque in the 1940s. Unable to find Napa cabbage or Chinese bacon, Chan’s mom substituted regular cabbage and American-style bacon. Years later, when ginger and dry sherry became available, her mom added those ingredients to enhance the flavor.
Chinese American Stir-Fried Cabbage with Bacon
Serves 4 as a vegetable side dish
4 slices bacon, cut into ½-inch-wide pieces (about 3 ounces)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 pound green cabbage, cored and cut crosswise into ¼-inch-wide shreds (about 8 cups)
¼ cup chicken broth or water
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Spread the bacon pieces in an even layer in a cold 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet. Cook over medium heat undisturbed 1 minute or until the bacon begins to release its fat. Then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry on medium heat 2 minutes or until the bacon begins to brown and more fat has been released. Add the garlic and stir-fry 10 seconds or until the garlic is fragrant. Add the cabbage and stir-fry 2 minutes or until the cabbage just begins to wilt. If mixture is dry, add 1 to 2 more tablespoons oil. Swirl in the broth, cover the wok, and cook 30 seconds. Uncover, add the soy sauce, sprinkle on the salt and pepper, and stir-fry one minute or until the cabbage is crisp-tender.
COOK’S NOTE: If the bacon is very lean and does not release much fat, the cabbage will be too dry to stir-fry and may begin to stick to the pan. Just add 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil and continue stir-frying. The amount of salt added will depend on the saltiness of the bacon. Cut the cabbage as you would for coleslaw.
– Both recipes from “Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge”