Culture

What Chinese-Canadian chef Jackie Kai Ellis learned from cooking with her grandmother

In an excerpt from her memoir ‘The Measure of my Powers’ Jackie Kai Ellis shares the special relationship that shaped her connection to Chinese cuisine.
(Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

You may have at least one recipe from childhood that stirs all sorts of nostalgic feelings whenever the familiar smell appears. Many of us can also recall a family meal that elicits much less positive emotions — like embarrassment, malaise or even pure disgust — based on the memories that surround it. For Chinese-Canadian pastry chef Jackie Kai Ellis, and likely many others across the country, those visceral feelings about her family's food don't fit cleanly into those two distinct boxes.

In this chapter from her powerful memoir The Measure of My Powers, Kai Ellis shares how forging a connection with her grandmother through cooking helped erase the shame she once felt for being sent to school with food far removed from the bologna sandwich lunches her peers were eating. Scroll down to hear her tell it in her own words and then check out her family's recipe for Pork and Chive Dumplings.

From 'Pork and Chive Dumplings {1921-2014} in The Measure of my Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris

By Jackie Kai Ellis

I wasn't raised on casseroles and grilled cheese sandwiches. Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, the concept of Ants on a Log utterly confused me. My classmates came to elementary school toting cheddar snack packs and carrot sticks with ranch dip, snacks that were completely foreign to me. I envied them because they were "normal" and I, nibbling on my pork floss with dried seaweed, wasn't. So out of a curiosity for a culture I felt alien to, I used my hard-earned allowance to buy peanut butter, celery, and raisins to recreate a recipe dictated to me by a seven-year-old: "You take peanut butter, stick it in the middle of the celery, and put raisins on top, like ants . . . on a log." Obviously.

To my all-encompassing delight, the celery, with its refreshing crunch and the way it made a convenient cradle; the sweet, chewy raisins; and the unctuous, fragrant peanut butter, were all, frankly, heavenly. I ate Ants on a Log obsessively for weeks afterward.

Before this revelation, my experiences with after-school snacks were of ethereal scallion crêpes, so wide they hung over the rim of our largest dinner plates, or whole-wheat buns, piping hot from the bamboo steamer. I would methodically peel the dried bamboo leaf from the underside and cut the bun into slices. Wholly un-Chinese, I also slathered it with pats of butter so generous that they would melt on the hot bread and drip down my fingers. Even at a young age I knew butter was a beautiful substance.

I was very lucky to have my grandmother live with me as a child. Ah Lau or Lau, as we called her, was a talented cook with a critical palate, trained in the school of necessity from raising her nine hungry children. She would not have known Ants on a Log.

My large family consisted of my parents, my grandparents, two uncles, an aunt, two cousins, and my sister. We lived snugly, cooking and eating together at the dinner table every night. Weekends were reserved for grocery shopping as a group in Chinatown. I followed the adults, both mesmerized and repelled by the dried seahorses in herbal shops, picking at bins of dried lily bulbs and overhearing consultations on matters such as how to pick the sweetest watermelon. (It should "hit back" when you slap it with your palm.)

--

Lau cared for me with tenderness and practicality, and she raised me with food. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the staccato rhythm of a hefty Chinese cleaver chopping vegetables on a butcher's block as she and my mom made dinner. I would often watch from the side, trying to absorb all the smells and wanting to know what came next, but staying well out of the way.

Lau also taught me my first lessons on food. As she mumbled aloud to herself, she dropped hints and tips like a breadcrumb trail that I listened to as I played beside her: how to balance the flavors and textures of noodles and soups; how to smell saltiness in a dish without tasting it. I felt moments suspend as I touched dough to sense how much water it needed to make perfect dumplings. I learned that chopsticks bubble in oil when the wok has come to temperature, and that only the thinnest streams of egg will create wisps like smoke when dropped into corn soup. I was surrounded by food all the time, and I absorbed as much of it as I could.

I was amazed at how Lau's blunt hands were equally adroit at using an embroidery needle on fine fabric as they were with a cleaver cutting thick bones. But of all the seemingly impossible feats she performed, as a toddler, I marveled most at how she could tie me onto her back with nothing more than a bedsheet. It was like magic how the fabric folded so my little body hung there carefree with my cheek against her back, drifting off to the sound of her beating heart as she bustled in the kitchen.

--

For almost every special occasion throughout my life—Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthdays, and especially each Chinese New Year—my family made dumplings. Come to think of it, we made dumplings for many regular occasions as well. My family had roots in northern China, known for being the best cooks, and dumplings were our specialty. We made all sorts of dumplings: pork and chive, fish and cilantro, vermicelli and wood ear mushroom for the years in high school when I decided I was a vegetarian.

Making dumplings was a day-long affair that started at the markets, where sui choy, meat, shrimp, chives, and cilantro were bought. Then the entire family would gather in the kitchen, half hotly debating whether the dough needed more water, the other half deep in a fury of chopping. The meat was always cut by hand, never pre-ground, as the slight inconsistencies gave a better texture to the filling. The shrimp were peeled and the sui choy was finely diced, heavily salted in a bowl and squeezed of its excess moisture, using the palms as a muscly press. After all the ingredients were thrown into a bowl, seasoned, and whisked using a bundle of chopsticks, the entire family, men and women, would surround the filling, smelling it, inspecting it, and arguing about whether there was the right amount of salt. When I put my nose into the bowl, it was aromatic with mingling scents of toasted sesame oil and green onions stinging my nostrils.

"It's enough!" someone would say.

"How would you know? You always make everything so bland!" someone else would rebut.

With a coy smile, another would pick a side. "I think your nose is just for decoration; you can barely smell a thing."

"Who needs to smell if I can taste better than anyone?"

After a few more playful jabs, my grandmother would chime in with the final word: "It's fine." And then we'd start.

As a young child, I would watch this production of dumplings intently for hours, hoping that one day they would let me help, too. They would roll the dough into long snake-like ropes that wiggled on the floured table. Then, as though they were swiftly tearing off the snake's head, they would pull little bits of dough off until they reached its tail, each piece pressed with the base of the palm into a little round. Two others would rock slim rolling pins over the edge of each round, turning it as they moved until it was thin and smooth like a sand dollar. As the wrappers were made, others dropped in dollops of filling, and stretched the ends together. In one orchestrated movement, thumbs and fingers would wrap tightly around the package to form frilly crowns of dough atop plump bellies.

My favorite part was right at the end. Nothing went to waste: with the leftover dough they would make flaky scallion pancakes. I preferred when my uncle made the pancakes because he would add little salty gems of Chinese bacon, making them doubly delicious.

When the table was finally set, we ate rounds of dumplings, steaming hot and dipped in black vinegar mixed with minced raw garlic alongside. The table also held dishes of pig ears braised in soy sauce, cucumber jellyfish salad, fried chicken wings, and soup made of dried oysters and hair moss. Conversations were always loud and rose even noisier with boisterous laughing or debating, and at the end of the evening I was always full, satiated.

--

Shortly after I returned from Paris, Lau suddenly became ill. I walked into her hospital room, apprehensive of what I might see. I had been so heartbroken by my cousin C's death. I remembered how strange and watery C's body looked in her coffin, a sharp contrast to the sparkling soul secured with vibrant eyes and virile black hair she had when she was alive.

Lau was in her nineties, and the doctors prepared us for the inevitable. My family explained death to me as if I were a child and referred to it as "falling asleep" in order to cushion the pain, like my heartsick aunt did when C died. But in my aunt's case, she had done it to soothe herself and not me.

For weeks, I stayed by my grandmother's side, holding her hands still in mine as she deliriously made sewing motions and mumbled to herself about things that happened long before I was born. Forced into poverty during World War II, she had worked as a seamstress after immigrating to Hong Kong, and so these movements, like deeply trodden paths, resurfaced in her unconscious state. Whenever her eyes opened, she would recognize few people, instead seeing in us loved ones from her memories. She remembered me; I don't know why. And when she was restless or anxious from hallucinations, I would place my thumb in the little space between her eyebrows and stroke her smooth skin until her eyes closed to peaceful sleep.

Day after day I did this, along with many other members of my family, silently and patiently waiting for death to take Lau. And then one day, she opened her eyes. I could see that she was lucid. She began to speak again with that sassy, devil-may-care attitude. She repeated the exact same things she'd said to me since I was little: she told me to cut my hair and then wondered why I had such a dark tan. She explained that only peasants working in fields have dark tans—which I guess was true in China when she was young.

I went home and made her a chicken ginseng soup, which she refused to eat, as her appetite hadn't returned. The next day as I was putting spoonfuls into her mouth, she looked up at me with a characteristic scowl and said, "Why is this so bitter?" I hadn't realized the effect that reboiling the soup had on its pure flavor. Lau had just come back from the brink of death, and she was still critiquing my cooking.

--

After Lau left the hospital, we quickly developed a daily routine. I would arrive at the seniors' home in time to take her out of bed, help her get dressed, and wheel her out to the common room for breakfast. I would feed her oatmeal mixed with warm milk and scrambled eggs with toast and jam. She would complain about the thickened water she had to drink, and I knew she longed for a cup of hot Chinese tea.

As I fed her, I would exercise my diminishing Chinese and relay all the gossip I had heard about anyone. At times I would embellish the story if I knew it would make her laugh.

This went on for many months: me taking her for walks and engaging her mind. It gave me an excuse to be out of the house. The tension between G and me had escalated, and our marriage was nearly broken. By this point we had barely spoken to each other for months, not for lack of wanting to—we just didn't know what else to say. I didn't tell Lau, but maybe she could sense something was wrong, as she would give me ancient marriage advice that seemed to have emerged from some time capsule.

"When will you have children?" she would ask daily, forgetting our conversation from the day before.

"He told me he no longer wants to have kids. What am I to do?"

"Just 'remove the block' and have one anyway. He will love it all the same when it comes out."

I laughed. "I can't do that. It's different nowadays."

"Then what will you do without children?"

"Maybe I won't have them."

"Crazy," she dismissed.

I would then ask her about my grandfather, Lau Ye, and how they met. She told me that after her marriage was arranged at sixteen, she snuck into a neighboring village to spy on him. She needed to know if he was ugly or handsome.

"Were you scared?" I asked.

"Of what?"

"That he would be mean, or that you would hate him."

"I had no choice, so why think of those things?"

And day after day, we had this same conversation, until one day I changed my response. It had become so clear that with G, with or without children, I would never be able to live the life I desperately wanted—my own. I had grown so much, so far away from him, and I knew the only way to bridge the gap was to move toward him and away from myself. But I didn't want to lose myself again, and unlike Lau, I had a choice.

"When will you have children?"

"I'm going to leave him."

--

Ah Lau went in and out of the hospital, in and out of death for a couple years. Each time, I would rush to her, running as fast as my legs could move, even though it felt as if I was fighting through water. Family from around the world would fly in and surround her bed with mournful looks and naked sobs, and I would arrive, panting, my chest burning. I'd wait by her bed for days. She would come to life again, but then we would watch every other part of her body and mind decline into death.

Each time, I held her hand and said goodbye; and each time I let her go, my heart shattered into many pieces. Then one day after she had recovered from the brink of death again, my heart just couldn't—it couldn't break anymore. So I walked away and left her before she had left me. I stopped visiting her, stopped seeing her, and in my mind, I pretended she was gone because I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye again.

The night she actually died, I drove to the hospital more slowly than usual, knowing she would be gone before I arrived. I walked up to her darkened room, along the shadowed hallways, lit by the odd flickering fluorescent light. When I saw her in her bed, she was departed, her eyes closed and mouth agape, my aunt still holding her hand. I walked into a dark corner and cried.

Each time someone close to me dies, I see them in my dreams shortly after just like Lau Ye, to say I'm sorry and to say goodbye. With Lau, I waited night after night for her to come, but she never came, so I cried for that too.

This chapter has been condensed with the permission of the publisher.


Excerpted from The Measure of my Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris by Jackie Kai Ellis. Copyright © 2017 JKE Media Inc. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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