My Chinese grandmother, Tina, sits to my right at the head of our Christmas dinner table, the matriarch of the family, poised, shoulders up straight and a sincere look on her face. She quietly eats her food, listening to her family as we loudly banter.
I’m admiring her, mid-bite into a beautifully golden pork rib. My hands are sticky from the sweet glaze, and I’m busy searching the packed table of food before me for another napkin.
“Pass the sweet rice, please,” squeals my younger sister Jessica, oblivious to the bliss I’m experiencing. She playfully nudges me to hurry up.
“Hey, while you’re over there, can you give me a slice of that prime rib?” yells my dad. “Make it an end piece.”
My grandmother’s eyes shift from one family member to another, taking in the moment.
She is a tough woman. She’s a cancer survivor who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone and is the first to tell you when she’s unsatisfied with something — but you’d never know it by looking at her. Her eyes are large, round and kind, and her deepest wrinkles are those around her mouth, having formed over the years from frequent smiles.
“Grandma, why do you put that much soy sauce in there?” I asked last Christmas Eve while she whipped up a batch of her famous sweet rice in her kitchen.
“Because it tastes good,” she quickly replied.
Undefeated, I kept on with my playful interrogation. Her sweet rice is one of my favorite dishes, never failing to make an appearance on our holiday table for fear of an all-out family riot.
“OK, Grandma, but how much soy sauce do you put in it?”
“Oh, you know…. You just put it in,” she replied with a concerned look, as if knowing how much to put in was an innate skill that disappointingly skipped my generation.
Her sweet rice dish is made of a special glutinous rice she cooks by thoroughly soaking the rice, pouring boiling water over the rice, then stir-frying rather than steaming to cook. It’s a special trick she says she learned from an old cook in Los Angeles’ Chinatown — one of her cooking legends. She then mixes in chunks of caramelized lap cheong (Chinese sausage), earthy dried black mushrooms and dried shrimp. The rice clumps in your mouth, offering hints of white pepper and salty soy sauce in every bite, while the cubes of caramelized sausage are like heavenly bits of Chinese bacon.
My grandmother and her family came to the United States from the Chinese province of Canton in 1951; she was 15 years old. Her first job was selling ice cream for 95 cents an hour at the back of a bakery in Chinatown, close to where she and her family lived. She got married when she was 19 and felt it was her obligation to know how to cook for her family.
“When I got married, I learned to cook myself,” explained my grandmother matter-of-factly. “You have to.”
For as far back as I can remember, our holiday tables have resembled a multiethnic potluck. The American dishes are requested by my dad, who’s of Russian and British descent and claims an adverse reaction to spices. For him, a HoneyBaked ham normally sits in the middle of our table, accompanied by a prime rib, made by Uncle Terry — sous chef to my grandmother. I used to spend my summer vacations with Uncle Terry at my grandmother’s house. He taught me how to properly chop with a knife and would frequently watch the show “Yan Can Cook” with me and my sister, always repeating to us the line “If Yan can cook — so can you.”
A couple more varied dishes are sprinkled across the table: a green salad with a fantastically creamy homemade Thousand Island dressing from my mother’s older brother Kelly and a smoky chipotle yam gratin inspired by my love affair with Mexican cooking. Kelly’s wife, Rene, is half-Lebanese. She usually makes a giant bowl of her famous tabbouleh. And my mom’s younger brother Garry likes to bring Cuban guava and cheese rolls from Porto’s Bakery in Glendale. For dessert, it’s either a delectable apple cake or pumpkin bars baked by my mother.
The real holiday magic, though, is provided by my grandmother. Along with her sweet rice, she makes a list of family requests and dishes her mother used to make for the holidays. One family favorite is her barbecue pork ribs with a glistening honey sauce and peppery bite. The glaze is delightfully sticky, making finger licking a necessity.
If we are lucky, my grandmother will make her rice cakes, small pillows of rice that resemble fat noodles, sautéed in a dark soy sauce with bits of celery, green onion and more lap cheong.
My grandmother’s ma po doufu, a Sichuan dish resembling a giant bowl of bright red mush, is always a welcome favorite (unless you’re my dad) — a steaming bowl of silken tofu in a tear-inducing spicy chile sauce. Its flavor is a pleasant surprise given its appearance. The most comforting dish you can eat if you find yourself feeling under the weather.
It’s fun to marvel at all the different colors, flavors and smells before digging in. A little bit of sweet rice and smoky yams on top of a bite of prime rib? Why not?
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has cooked for every family gathering. My fondest holiday memories involve her standing at her kitchen stove. Watching her cook is like watching an artist paint a picture. She artfully wields her spatula, giant wok and hot fire, adding drops of oyster sauce or sesame oil and pinches of white pepper until she’s satisfied.
She’s been making the same recipes so long she can tell if something will taste right just by looking.
“I cook my own formula, my own way that it is,” my grandmother recently tried to explain. “Good cooks have something that you don’t know, that’s why my food tastes good.”
By the time my family holiday dinner winds down, everyone at the table seems to let out a unanimous, satisfied sigh. We make our way to the living room to exchange presents, everyone happier and heavier than when they arrived.
I sneak back into the kitchen for a couple of more bites of sweet rice after I’ve had a full share of my mother’s dessert. My grandmother catches me, lets out a little laugh and offers one of her sweet smiles.