MORE THAN 50 YEARS AFTER LEAVING TAIWAN, IT'S THE CHOPPING SHIH REMEMBERS. The many cleavers, rat-a-tatting on the cutting blocks, as meat and vegetables were being prepared for the huge Chinese New Year's banquet her family was planning. The noise, Shih says, would keep the children awake at night.
Shih was raised in Rukuan, the ancient capital of Taiwan during the Ch'ing Dynasty, where her parents had an imposing home, including a large gourmet kitchen with a custom-built brick oven and four huge woks. For the all-important New Year's celebration, her family would hire a chef and a team of helpers to prepare the food. Shih, fascinated, would watch as they carved vegetables and fruits into elaborate flowers and animals. "The chef's team would call me 'little doll' and give me samples to taste," she remembers.
When she got a little older, she and her mother would together prepare the pearl balls (minced pork meatballs rolled in glutinous rice and steamed) that were a favorite dish at New Year's.
At 18, she was awarded a full scholarship to study chemistry at what is now the University of Saint Mary near Kansas City, Kan. She arrived in the United States in the late 1950s, alone and speaking very little English. If she felt homesick, she won't admit it. Even now, nearing 70, she is an indomitable woman with steely resolve. Her father, a physician, wanted her to get an education and have a successful career. He said go, and she went. "Everything I am today, I owe to my father," she says.
She eventually was hired as an analytical chemist at the National Institutes of Health, got married and raised two daughters who earned degrees in optometry and business. But she maintained her connection to her homeland by cooking the dishes that reminded her of her family and heritage.
For 33 years, Shih has taught Chinese cooking classes to everyone from beginners to experienced chefs. She began in 1973 with a single basic course for the Montgomery County public schools adult education program and now offers eight levels of classes in a classroom built in her home. Six years ago, she compiled her recipes into a cookbook, The Art of the Chinese Cookery.
In many ways, her students have become like extended family, particularly since her husband passed away several years ago. At Chinese New Year's, she takes a large group to a local Chinese restaurant -- last year it was Hollywood East Cafe in Wheaton -- for a special banquet that she arranges. She talks to the chefs in the same way her mother used to supervise the chefs in Taiwan -- with great attention to detail and brooking little argument as to what is expected.
Back in the classroom, she teaches her students how to make the pearl balls she used to make with her mother. The little ground pork balls are rolled in sweet, or glutinous, rice before steaming to give them a pearly sheen. "No, too big. Too big," she says, watching one student roll Italian meatball-size portions instead of the one-inch balls that Shih wants. When the balls are finally steamed, she shows her students how to garnish each meatball with a tiny square of carrot and a tiny leaf of cilantro.
Shih has taught her daughters how to make the recipe, and she also plans to teach her four grandchildren. "They are my joy," she says. "Of course, I will teach them."
(Adapted from The Art of the Chinese Cookery by Joan Shih)
Makes about 25 meatballs (5 servings)
3/4 cup glutinous (sweet) rice
4 dried Chinese black mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced water chestnuts
1 tablespoon finely chopped scallions, white parts only
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped ginger root
1 1/2 pounds lean ground pork (may substitute ground chicken)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more for dipping
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Dash freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Cilantro or parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)
Thin slices of carrot, for garnish (optional)