Anita Lo stood in the tiny kitchen of her Greenwich Village apartment, exasperated, seeming to strain to hear a whisper. Finally, she sighed. “Memory’s a weird thing, especially at this age,” she said.
Lo is only 53, but it has been at least 30 years since she last ate this crazy combination of ingredients, what she calls “an iconic dish of my childhood.” When she was trying to remember how to make it, she emailed her siblings: “Does anyone remember anything about that salad Mommy used to make? I think it was just blanched asparagus, cut up with a sauce of crunchy peanut butter and Tabasco? Was it based on some other dish or did Mommy make it up? It seems vaguely Southeast Asian, but sticks out as something weird in her repertoire.”
The dish did taste odd, as if the asparagus signed up for a blind date gone wrong. “My sister googled it and said the recipe came from the side of a Jif jar,” Lo noted. “But we were a Skippy house.”
She shook her head, her sense of order and knack for detail disturbed. “Even as a kid, I knew this recipe didn’t make sense,” she continued. “But the dish represents many themes important to my career. It was probably one of my earliest experiences seeing something creative in the kitchen. It was something different, an example of what immigrants do with flavors they grew up with and how food evolves, how it doesn’t have borders, per se. It is also Midwestern and of that era of the 1960s when quick recipes were taken off the sides of convenience foods like peanut butter.”
Lo was born in Detroit and raised in Birmingham, Mich., the daughter of Chinese immigrants. How she became one the most prominent chefs in New York with her restaurant Annisa, which held a Michelin star for nine consecutive years, is a great story. (Not to mention defeating Mario Batali in the first season of “Iron Chef America” and being the first female guest chef to cook a state dinner at the White House, for Chinese President Xi Jinping.)
I was surprised, though, to discover that Lo is a reticent storyteller when the story is herself, because as a writer, she is forthright, funny and sly. Her newest book, which Eater named its 2018 Cookbook of the Year, is “Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One” (Knopf, $29). It begins this way: “I put the ‘Lo’ in ‘solo.’ The A Lo in ‘alone.’ I’ve been dumped almost as many times as I’ve been in relationships — and I can count those on less than two hands. Spread over my fifty-year life span, that’s a lot of solo meals.” In her recipe for Valentine’s Day, “A Single, Broken Egg on a Bed of Torn, Wilted, Bitter Greens with Blue Cheese,” the last ingredient is “A healthy dose of self-pity.” “I always include something for the lonely person,” she writes.
Lo’s loneliness began early. When she was 3, her father, Lien-Fu Lo, died in an electrical accident when their home flooded; her sister was 5 and her brother was 8. Lien-Fu had been a pathologist, as was Lo’s mother, Molly Hayden. She continued working at a hospital outside Detroit, where Lo noted, “she made one-quarter of what my father made for the same job.”
Her mother remarried the next year, and by the time Lo was a sophomore in high school, she found herself boarding at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. “I kind of got kicked out of my house,” she said with a shrug. “I didn’t get along with my stepfather. My mother did well at providing for us, she pushed us in the right direction morally. But she was emotionally unavailable. Her one true love died and left her with three little kids, and all three of us were watching. It was a hard time. She shut down after that.”
Sitting at her small kitchen table, Lo spoke quietly, positioning herself behind her laptop screen as if for protection. As both writer and chef, she channels her passions offstage, and this kind of personal revelation seemed difficult, and different, for her.
After high school, Lo followed her siblings to Columbia. Before earning her degree in French literature, she spent the summer after her junior year in Paris. “At the time, I thought I would end up translating English to French at the U.N.,” she recalled. Then she spent a month at the legendary cooking school La Varenne. “I was learning to cook and loving it,” she said. “I went back the next year to earn a Grand Diplome at L’Ecole Ritz-Escoffier. It wasn’t necessary, but it was fun and for me, a breeze. I think cooking chooses you. You either have it or you don’t. And because French was translated to English there, I heard all the instructions twice.” She worked as an intern for both Guy Savoy and Michel Rostang before returning to New York, where she worked for David Bouley, then David Waltuck at Chanterelle.
In 2000, she opened Annisa with Jennifer Scism, her girlfriend at the time. Lo made food that was rooted in French technique while incorporating other cultures. Her seared foie gras with soup dumplings and jicama became a classic, alongside her pan-roasted chicken with sherry, white truffles and pig feet. In 2009, the restaurant was destroyed in a fire and reopened the following year. It closed for good in 2017 once costs got too high. Also, Lo’s years on the line took their toll, and she had a knee replaced.
“I don’t want to own another restaurant,” she said, as her cat, Mika, strode across the table, neatly avoiding the laptop. “I’d love some long-term consulting. It would be great to open a restaurant and create a menu, then step away and check in every once in a while.”
Lo will stay in New York, though. “It’s home for me,” she said, “one of the easier places to be who I am. In the monochromatic culture of Michigan I was one of two Asian kids in a very large school, along with one African American. I grew up trying to distance myself from my Asian upbringing and Chinese culture. I came back to it through food, learning to enhance that part of me through cooking.”
She got up and stood before her patch of counter, tasting the asparagus she’d made. Again. “It was a dish we all remember yet such a sore thumb,” she mused. She added some soy sauce: “I don’t like the Tabasco in there, honestly. But it was hard getting Asian ingredients in Birmingham, Michigan, in the 1970s. I can buy gochujang at my supermarket now.”
She blanched a second bunch of asparagus and improvised a new sauce, keeping the peanut butter while adding tahini, soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin and a Japanese spice mix. She hunted through her packed utility drawers, searching for measuring spoons. “Mary, Mary,” she muttered, before finally locating them. (Mary Attea was chef de cuisine at Annisa when it closed; she and Lo have been in a relationship for the past six years.)
She dipped her pinkie in the bowl. “I’m not quite sure I’m liking this, either,” she said. “Peanut butter and asparagus. You have the Midwest to thank for that. Though it does feel like a cousin to gardo gardo, which is basically an Indonesian salad where you dip vegetables in sesame sauce.” I tasted the new version. It had crunch and a kick and a bit of sweetness. When I took it home, I ate it with a buffalo burger and finished it all.
Would she ever make this for herself? “Probably not,” she said. “I mean, I don’t mind it. I could make a more Chinese version with hoisin and peanut butter, more like a sesame noodle sauce.” She tasted it again. “Maybe it’s not the right recipe. My sister remembered a hot sauce bottle with an oval white label, and that’s not Tabasco, but that’s the one sauce I remember having.”
Well, some childhood memories just can’t be conjured. Lo seemed philosophical about letting this one go. After all, she learned early to be her own best company. “Although I have a soft spot for the depressed, jilted single,” she writes, “ ‘Solo’ is also for those who are happiest on their own, or those who are part of a fractured family, in whatever form. . . . This book is also for those who have different tastes from their family or partner — why shouldn’t they eat what they crave?”
Witchel is a former staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia.”
2 to 4 servings, Healthy
This quick preparation was inspired by a dish chef Anita Lo’s mother used to make.
Shichimi togarashi is a Japanese seasoning blend, available on the international aisle of larger grocery stores.
1 pound fresh asparagus, preferably thick (woody ends discarded)
1 heaping tablespoon chunky peanut butter
1 heaping tablespoon well-stirred tahini
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons mirin (may substitute sweet sake)
½ teaspoon sesame oil
2 pinches shichimi togarashi, or more as needed (see headnote; may substitute ground cayenne pepper)
Scallion greens sliced on the diagonal, for garnish
Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil over high heat. Cut the asparagus on the diagonal into 1-inch lengths.
Add the asparagus to the water; cook/blanch for 1 to 2 minutes, just until the green color is heightened. Drain.
Whisk together the peanut butter, tahini, soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, sugar and shichimi togarashi in a mixing bowl, until well blended. Add the blanched asparagus and toss to coat evenly. Taste, and add more of the shichimi, as needed.
To serve, top with the scallion greens.
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