My Turn: The Art of Chinese Cooking

I stood before the electric stove, poised to crack an egg on the side of a frying pan and into a mound of steamed rice. Fried rice—what could be easier? It was a dish I had eaten hundreds, maybe thousands of times, a dish my grandmother cooked with bits of chopped ham and peas, a dish my siblings and I ate when we were disgusted by Chinese banquet courses of jellyfish or sea cucumber, a dish I assumed would be simple to make when, after graduating from college, I was forced to feed myself for the first time.

I had slit open the bag of rice, unboxed my brand-new cooker and followed the directions. Twenty minutes later, the rice was starchy-fragrant, big bubbles gurgling under the glass dome. I pulled off the lid and poked the rice with my finger. It was soggy, not the perfect balance of chewy moistness I expected. I scooped the rice into the frying pan and cracked the egg on top, turning it into a gluey mess. I pushed the mass around with a wooden spoon, but it refused to crumble into the delicious bits I remembered my grandmother making. What did I do wrong?

Recall any movie with an "ethnic" cast, the scenes of families sitting around a dinner table, digging into plates of chow mein, collard greens, cannoli, baklava, whatever. Food is culture; food is shorthand for who you are. And here I failed this basic test of identity. Chinese cuisine, with its long list of ingredients, seemed better left to the experts.

It would embarrass me to have to turn to lessons from someone like Martin Yan, the celebrity chef and public-television staple. "If Yan can cook, so can you!" he'd bellow. Shouldn't I know intuitively how to cook Chinese? Wasn't I born with a pair of chopsticks in one hand and a wok in the other? My maternal grandmother, who helped raise me, was a Chinese cook of the old order. She was born in a village in southern China, raised seven children during the war and could conjure meals from the most basic ingredients: bean-thread-noodle soup, soy-sauce chicken and glossy steamed white buns.

Once I tried to help my grandmother make wontons. I might have been 8. She sat at the glass table in the kitchen of our house in the Bay Area suburbs and mixed together ground pork and chopped vegetables. I helped her spoon a clump of the meat into the wrappers and wet the edges, but when I folded the wrapper, the meat—wet and bloody—bulged through the seams and onto my fingers. I pushed it aside and scampered upstairs to watch afternoon reruns. Eventually my grandmother moved to southern California to live with my aunt. My mother—a scientist more comfortable in the lab than in the kitchen—fed us nightly with Whoppers from Burger King, pepperoni pizza from Round Table and boxes of Tyson's fried chicken. In the end, my formative culinary education came from the mother of a childhood friend, a vivacious Italian-American who taught me how to bake cookies (always with butter), how to make Thanksgiving stuffing (sauté celery and onions in butter) and how to win a man's heart (through his stomach).

When I met my husband, cooking became another way for us to spend time together. He, raised on an all-American diet of avocado halves filled with mayonnaise and ground-beef tacos with Lawry's seasoning, became an able sous-chef. We strived for bragging rights. A typical menu: an amuse-bouche of white gazpacho served in shot glasses; a single grilled scallop over which we poured butternut-squash soup; seafood paella, and ginger cake with homemade vanilla-bean ice cream. Never did it occur to me to make Chinese food.

I had been married four years before I took the first step in admitting I needed outside help. I was coming down with the flu, and nothing would satisfy me but my grandmother's soy-sauce chicken. But she had died in 2004, without teaching the family recipes to my mother—or me. And so I searched online.

The recipe called for brown sugar and sherry, which I knew for certain my grandmother did not use, and for soy sauce, which she did. I boiled and peeled four eggs, which I recalled from the childhood dish. I simmered the ingredients on my stove for 30 minutes and then scooped a chicken leg and an egg—lacquered brown and moist—onto fresh steamed rice sprinkled with cilantro. The steam bathed my face, and I inhaled. I took a hesitant first bite to taste what was not quite my past but everything my future will be. My grandmother would have been pleased.