A Chinese-American daughter recalls the kitchen and its chores as a safe haven from the tensions within a family trying to assimilate while maintaining traditional values.
It’s not news that ethnic cooking forges a vital link to one’s cultural heritage in the turmoil of the American melting pot. But Li (Bittersweet: A Novel, 1992), whose paternal grandfather was the first elected president of Nationalist China, conveys surprising depth of feeling in her description of food’s impact on her upbringing. Though she begins with a somewhat self-absorbed series of girlhood recollections, the narrative quickly picks up steam with the arrival from China of her grandmother to put at least the culinary side of the house in order. Watching the aging Nai-nai sharpen her cleaver “with the single-mindedness of an axe murderer” on the flagstone porch of their suburban north Bronx home or dodging traffic to access the vegetable garden she has installed on the median of a nearby expressway, the author begins to plumb the relationship of food preparation to the integrity of a Chinese household. Knowledge is imparted with every meal. The painstaking shaping and even tinting of New Year’s holiday bread to resemble a peach, for example, evokes that fruit’s connotation of longevity, although the fiercely pragmatic Nai-nai suggests that eating the peach itself would probably be better for the teeth. Authentic recipes from Nai-nai and others appear at the end of most chapters. Some seem at first starkly minimalist, but American cooks who think they know their way around a wok may find themselves realizing they’ve never tried it exactly that way. (One surprisingly recurrent ingredient: brown sugar.) It’s an unusual format, but the author artfully blends episodes of gastronomic education with often poignant recollections of a stern father who could never quite bridge the cultural divide between himself and an essentially American daughter.
An engaging family portrait enriched by an insider’s view of the Chinese kitchen.