In an early video posted to Lisa’s Instagram account, Lan stands in her tiny San Francisco kitchen, sporting her favorite floral print apron and pink plastic slippers. She’s making an enormous sticky rice casserole, laced with homemade Chinese bacon, dried shrimp and vegetables. As she cooks, she explains the recipe in Taishanese, the dialect she grew up speaking in Taishan, a city in South China’s coastal Guangdong province. Lisa leans over her mother’s shoulder, recording the video on her phone. “I asked my mom how much rice is in here, and she said seven cups,” Lisa, a lawyer turned food blogger, translates. “But she apparently used this cup to measure it.” Lan, or Mama Lin as her daughter affectionately calls her, holds up a tiny plastic cup she was handed on her flight to America 32 years ago. It has been her standard of measurement ever since.
Lan never relies on exact measurements or precise cooking times, so Lisa retests her mother’s recipes before posting a simplified version to her blog. For many of Lisa’s 66,000 Instagram followers, cooking along is an afterthought, anyway. They watch Lan’s videos for a sense of belonging, a reminder of grandmothers still in China, dishes they haven’t eaten since childhood, recipes they never thought to learn to make before moving across the world.
On this November day, in her daughter’s Sacramento apartment, where she’s spending the weekend, Lan is wearing new pink slippers and a polka dot apron as she pours sweet rice flour into a metal bowl to make tang yuan, or black sesame dumplings. Lan, Lisa and their family always make some version of these glutinous rice dumplings for Chinese New Year, crowding around Lan’s counter and taking care not to stain their hands and clothes with the jet black filling as they form each ball. At first, Lan weighs the flour on a small kitchen scale and sprinkles in tablespoons of hot water, keeping her measurements exact, while she stirs with a chopstick.
“This doesn’t feel right,” she says, putting the chopstick aside and poking the dough with her fingers. “I’ve been making this without measuring anything for years.” Lan can tell the dough is too dry. Lisa’s efforts at a concise recipe have been defeated, the measuring spoons are thrown in the sink, and Lan smiles as she pours boiling water straight from her kettle into the bowl.
Despite what her daughter tells her, Lan isn’t convinced that any of Lisa’s followers actually watch her videos. “Don’t you think it’s weird that people like watching an old lady and hearing an old woman’s story?” she asks as we sit around Lisa’s island counter eating light, pillowy turnip cakes Lan has fried for lunch.
“She doesn’t really understand the whole Instagram thing,” Lisa, 32, says of her mother. “Sometimes I don’t understand why people enjoy watching us cook, either.”
When Lisa recorded the first video, she didn’t intend to share it. Lan had just turned 70, and Lisa realized she had limited time to learn from her mother. She wanted to post a version of her mother’s peanut candy to her food blog but was struggling to replicate its snappy texture and amber hue. So she asked Lan to make it while she recorded. When Lisa shared the video on Instagram, hundreds of excited followers reached out. “That’s when I knew, this was different,” she recalls.
Jiar Fong, one of Lisa’s followers, came across the videos early last year and felt pangs of homesickness. Fong, 29, had just moved from Malaysia to New York City. “When you live in your home country, all this food that you love is so easy [to find] that you never learn how to make it,” she says. “The minute you move, you wish you remember how your mom made it, how your grandma made it.” Watching Lisa’s videos, she was overwhelmed. “I teared up, being so far away from home. Now that I watch these videos, maybe when I go back home I’ll record my mom cooking, so that I can keep the recipes in my family.”
When she’s filming, Lisa often pauses her translations, to show her mother’s eccentricities. In one video, she pans to the busy, patterned apron Lan found in San Francisco’s Chinatown for 99 cents. In another, she points out her mom’s little pink radio, balanced on the counter and blasting Chinese opera while Lan cooks. “I kind of know these are Asian mom quirks in the back of my head,” Lisa says. “I can spot it immediately. And I present it so other people whose parents are similar can relate to that. I feel like we have a personal connection.”
Gillian Der, another of Lisa’s followers, couldn’t believe what she was hearing when she first came across a video of Lan and Lisa chattering in Taishanese as they shaped and fried sesame balls. “It meant so much that when I was watching those videos and seeing her make this food with her mom, I was also hearing these familiar sounds that I grew up with,” she said. Der, 22, was born and raised in Toronto, and only heard Taishanese spoken in her own home. “Growing up, I didn’t have access to amazing cooks like Lisa’s mom, or even my own grandmother,” she says. “Now I can go to Lisa’s account and watch these videos and see her learning, and it reflects my own learning. When I hear the language and when I see the beautiful food that those two make, it feels like home.”
In 1986, when Lan moved to Portland, Ore., from China, she cooked in her brother-in-law’s restaurant. But she didn’t think of it as a real profession. “Cooking was more of a survival thing,” she told me. Thirty-two years after Lan stepped off her flight with her plastic airline teacup in hand, cooking has become a central part of her life. When she isn’t in Sacramento with Lisa, she spends her time cooking for her husband and assorted children and grandchildren who stream through her kitchen, staying for dinner or picking up plastic containers of food on their way home. “She won’t say this,” Lisa tells me, “but I know that it’s hard work. But she is very willing to help her children. And there are certain dishes that, if my mom doesn’t pass over to the next generation, will just be gone.”
Lisa takes her mother’s recipes, which often have a dozen spices and other hard-to-find ingredients, and adjusts them for her followers. “I’m targeting an audience that isn’t my mom, but people like me who grew up with these foods but don’t necessarily know how to cook them,” Lisa explains. “I’m thinking about people who might not necessarily have access to the Asian supermarket. I try to simplify.”
Fuchsia Dunlop, the British food writer and cookbook author famous for introducing Western audiences to regional Chinese cooking, knows that sometimes traditional recipes have to evolve and become more accessible as they’re passed down through generations. “Cuisines are living cultures, and they’re always changing,” she says. Dunlop was the first westerner to train at the prestigious Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in 1995, and has since adapted and translated hundreds of Chinese recipes for an English audience. “One shouldn’t be too conservative. You just have to accept that things change, from mother to daughter and father to son.”
Still, Dunlop, whose latest cookbook is 2016’s “Land of Fish and Rice,” sometimes finds that Chinese cooking phrases or techniques can’t be directly translated into English.
Lisa knows this challenge all too well. In her videos, she regularly trails a few steps behind her mother as she tries to translate, sometimes losing track of what Lan is doing, unable to identify a spice her mother has thrown in the wok.
When Lan is finished adding boiling water to the rice flour, and the sweet sesame paste is set to chill in the freezer, she pulls a black binder from Lisa’s bookcase. In it are hundreds of pages of Lan’s handwritten notes, with little sketches accompanying every recipe they’ve made together. The notes and drawings illustrate how to properly fold dumplings, wrap sticky rice in bamboo leaves, rehydrate dried shrimp and properly mix a variety of doughs.
Lan often shakes her head in exasperation when they’re done filming, Lisa tells me. “It would be best if you were still a lawyer,” she’ll say, “I wouldn’t even have to teach you any of this.” No amount of explaining can convince Lan that running a food blog, in this day and age, constitutes a real profession.
After all her kneading is done, and the rice balls are filled with the sesame mixture, Lan drops the tang yuan, one by one, into a small pot of sugary water, a few slices of ginger bobbing on its surface. She stands over the stove stirring the gelatinous balls with a chopstick until they float to the top, then she spoons them into serving bowls. The dumplings are supple and stretchy, the filling buttery, molten and sweet.
When we’re finished eating, Lan sits on her daughter’s couch and rests the black binder on her lap. Opening to one of the last blank pages, she begins to sketch and neatly label each step of her process. Soon, she’ll hand the notes off to Lisa. And as Lan’s admirers begin to meticulously measure out their own tang yuan dough, she’ll be back in her own kitchen, measuring rice and water and sauce with the same tiny plastic cup she has used for 32 years.
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