Yum. The sweet smoky aroma of barbecued ribs fills the backyard and slowly drifts into the house. The backyard has uneven, rough stone tiles and a Big Green Egg Kamado (Japanese barbecue smoker) under the potato tree. Grass and roses are growing to the side.
The chef learned how to cook so well from her mother. The chef expresses herself through cooking. She says, “Cooking is my way of art and creativity.” The chef is CC Zhang, my mom. CC Zhang has black hair, dark eyes, a high bridged nose, is slender, and is tall. Mom looks like a typical Northern Chinese woman. Mom has a confident gait and is not afraid to say no. She wears a smile but has little patience for nonsense. Mom is extremely disciplined and mentally strong. Before she came to America, my grandpa told her, “Work hard, and be the best.” When she came to America, she didn’t have money, didn’t speak a word of English, but remembered her parents’ words. She was an honor student at her college and for years was titled, “The Most Productive Employee of the Year.”
Mom was born in Beijing, China. She has three older sisters and two older brothers. They have a close relationship. I asked, “Do you have a favorite memory with them?”
Mom replied, “Oh, every day.” Mom has never gotten into an argument with her older siblings. My grandma and grandpa used to tell them to be nice to each other. They used to live near Tiananmen Square. On the weekends, they would play together in the park and fly kites from time to time. They would also go to the movies. After that, they would go to a fancy restaurant. There were only a few fancy restaurants in Beijing back then. Mom said, “From then on, I was fascinated by food.” Her cooking is the best. I have had it every day, and there was never a time where I went “blah.”
My mom also was surrounded by cooking when she was little. Grandma used to host parties often. First, Mom would watch. Later on, she started to help cook. Eventually, she cooked entire meals under Grandma’s watch. Mom is extremely focused when she cooks. She is very aware of what is happening in the kitchen and organized. Once, I told her, “You look very intense when you cook!”
My mom answered, “It looks intense, but cooking is very therapeutic for me.”
I continued to question her, “Why did you come to the United States?”
She answered with a smile, “To go to a university.”
A couple times a week, after Mom drops me off at school, she goes grocery shopping. She is picky about the quality of the produce: fresh and tasty. Mom often shops at a locally popular store. Her creativity is reflected when she is cooking. She almost never uses a cookbook and all is from her vast imagination. Once she said, “Real chefs create their own recipes, but a cook uses the recipes.”
Since kindergarten, we have had a house rule where there is no TV watching during the weekdays. However, on the weekends, when my mom gets a chance to watch TV, she only watches the cooking show. The cooking show gives her inspiration, but she does not copy the recipes.
She often tells me, “Presentation of the food is equally important to the taste because the presentation and color of the food give the person an appetite.”
Last Thanksgiving, we hosted a party. All the dishes were different colors. It was like looking at a rainbow. There was dark amber, orange, magenta, green, and white! One of the guests cried, “It is too pretty to eat!”
When I was a baby, my mom told me that I never had baby food from the grocery store. It was always homemade from scratch. The first time my mom bought baby food and tasted it, it was horrible. Since then, the family menu changed. Everything is made from scratch. This includes soup, meat, vegetables, and even marmalade. When I like a dish or dishes from a restaurant, she says, “I’m going to try and make it at home.” She always does it perfectly.
Mom’s dishes always have a lavish look and are utopian delights! The presentation is exquisite and artistic. Dad said, “She has a very good appetite.” One of my favorite dishes is barbecued ribs, and when mom made them, they were juicy on the inside and crunchy on the outside. The color shades ranged from dark brown to light brown. The meat came off the bone easily. The taste was out of this world.
Mom always cooks multiple dishes at once, a skill that I admire. I think it is very hard to do multiple tasks at once, but she seems to do it with ease when it comes to cooking. Mom uses a variety of different ingredients, sometimes making variations of previous dishes.
When I look at her, I see the culture of China. Food is the center of life. In China, instead of asking, “How are you doing?” people on the street ask, “Have you eaten yet?” The funny thing is, when I am eating breakfast with my grandma, she asks me what I want for lunch and dinner.
Mom knows every sound in the kitchen. If she hears bubbling and popping sounds, then she knows the water is boiling. If she hears a sizzling sound, she knows the pan is hot enough and it is time to put the food on the pan. When she smells the food, she knows the food is done. She knows this by heart, a skill accumulated through her years of cooking.
Now I have a great gourmet sense of food. I can thank my mom for that. Food is the culture, and the culture is the food. Dad says, “Mom’s cooking has a unique combination of flavors, and I love it.” He continues, “She has a different style of cooking that I like.”
One dish reflects Dad’s saying, “Mom’s cooking has a unique combination of flavors and I love it.” It has American and Asian ingredients that make a unique dish. For example, instead of making traditional coleslaw, she uses red cabbage, green onion, golden raisins, and cilantro. Her dressing is also exceptionally distinguished. Instead of using the traditional mayonnaise and vinegar, it includes salt, pepper, olive oil, and a touch of Asian ingredients: sweet chili sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil.
Mom is a swift and agile food cutter. Once, I was sitting at the counter doing my homework and I became fascinated by mom’s cutting skills. She cuts food big and small, in one shape or another, so I asked her why.
She replied, “In the same dish, different ingredients need to be cut the same size, so it will look pretty and cook evenly. Julienne style cutting is thin slices and is good for stir-fried and salad. If you make a stew, you need to cut big chunks, or the food will melt in the pot.”
My mom has mastered the arts of cooking. Not only does she excel at inventing recipes, she recognizes every sound and ingredient, as well as how to cut food properly. Being a gourmand requires skill, passion, and knowledge for cooking. Mom truly is an Iron Chef!