Black Sesame Oatmeal Mornings (Recipe)

First, the cereal. Preferably Rice Krispies. Then a slow, steady stream of milk oppressively submerges all signs of “krackle and pop.” Finally, a dollop of Aunt Jemima’s syrup. Health in a bowl, of course.

This was my go-to breakfast as a kid. I loved cereal. On occasion, my mom would treat me to an egg sandwich – a fried egg and two strips of bacon between crustless Chinese toast. But it always fell short of filling me with the deep satisfaction I got from a bowl of sweet syrupy cereal. God, how did I live past age twelve?  

My nutrition-less breakfasts had the ultimate makeover when Po-Po introduced me to her elixir of youth - black sesame oatmeal - which she’s eaten every day for the last thirty years.  While traditional oatmeal toppings include dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and maple syrup, Po-Po’s version contains egg, ground black sesame, milk, and honey.

 

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Freedom within the casino walls (Thoughts)

Every two to three days, Po-Po will hop on a tour bus headed to a casino that’s an hour from her home in Chino Hills, California. At 8am, one of my three uncles will drive her to a designated pick-up/drop-off point, usually a nearby Chinese supermarket. And by 5pm she is homeward bound, pockets either empty or full of winnings. 

It might sound like Po-Po is struggling with a gambling addiction. Which is surprising because she couldn’t be more frugal, actually. Under her watch, my younger self was rationed one toilet paper-square per bathroom visit. During our meals, not a bowl, pot, or plate would go unscraped. “Even the burnt, brown bits?” I’d whine. Yes, even the brownest of the brown bits. 

Po-Po is definitely not an addict. These frequent casino visits give her a sense of independence at her old age. Inside the casino’s desolate and kind of depressing landscape, where dealers come in and out from their cigarette breaks and the jobless go to waste time, she is free. Wandering around unsupervised, earning money if she’s lucky at the slots, buying lunch for drifters she’s adopted as pseudo bodyguards - she loves all of it. (This last one scares me a bit, I’ll admit.) Once, Po-Po snuck me a huge stack of napkins swiped from the casino buffet. "These are very thick and high-quality,” she proclaimed, proud to share the hard-earned napkins with me. “I’ll get you more next time.” My mom told me that another time, Po-Po used her winnings to purchase fried chicken from the casino’s cafeteria for each member of our family. though I'm not sure if anyone actually ate the chicken.  

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Surprise is a black sesame ball explosion (Recipe)

Life is full of surprises. Humans, inevitably, are too. 

People never fail to surprise or shock me. In good ways or ways no amount of memory loss will ever allow me to forget. Like the time in 8th grade when I learned - on a three-way call no less - that my secretboyfriendforevercrush was going to the school dance with one of my good female friends. Betrayed and so obviously dissed, I wondered how I’d ever trust people - or myself - again. 

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Tartine Cookies Get the Black Sesame Treatment (Recipe)

I bake to tame my inner, sometimes irrepressibly volatile beast. When I’m on the edge of an emotional decline, like when I start stalking an ex on Instagram or trolling the net for Robert Pattinson/FKA Twigs pics, I turn to baking for comfort. It’s like keeping a zen garden, only with more delicious results.

Neither my mom nor my Po-Po baked. The oven was for storing clean pots and dishes. It was as foreign to me as the hand mixer, which I’d use as a pretend space gun.

In the 4th grade, word had spread that the Costco frozen section had pre-made cookie dough. Inspired by bestie’s description of this magical product, my mom and I headed to the grocery store where I mistakenly bought a tub of  cookie dough ice cream instead. After opening the lid, my mom said matter-of-factly, “This is ice cream.” Stubborn and eager to prove her wrong, I convinced her to let me proceed.

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Soup, Spices, and a little Sorrow (Recipe)

Dad and I sat comfortably on the couch together. Our shoulders touched and our knees probably did too. This was our sitcom family moment, 20 years too late. 

I visit with my father a few times a year and toggle between my “broken woman” and “dutiful daughter” personas, a little pissed about his absence during those complex and sometimes mortifying teenage years. (I’ll never forget the times my friends would ask about my dad, and I would say he’s a traveling business man. I mean, he’s an electrician.) Before I leave his house, I dutifully quiz him on his diet and finances. He’s always consuming too much canned foods or spending too lavishly. A “few times a year,” is probably enough for both of us. 

But here we were, half-pretending to be close and half-experiencing an unusual father/daughter bond. He was ecstatically bragging about the beef noodle soup recipe he recently perfected, born from an old family recipe. I was happy to see him so enthusiastic, especially around me. 

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A Recipe for the New Year (Recipe)

Last night was Chinese New Years, so my friends and I made our way to a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan to hear the clamor of other Chinese people and the clinking of china. Like the obedient Chinese kids we are, we ordered all of the auspicious foods traditionally eaten during New Years. Our table overflowed with noodles (long life), fish (luck and prosperity), chicken (family coming together), oranges (wealth), dumplings (fortune), and more. We're gonna be rich, bitch! 

This is the fifth year that I’ve celebrated Chinese New Year without my family. so I've been trying to recreate family dinners – minus the home-cooked dishes and sadly, minus Po-Po.

If I had gone home this year, however, things would have been a little different. First of all, I’m too old to collect red envelopes filled with cash from my elders. As a gainfully employed 30-year-old, I AM one of the elders. I would have jealously side-eyed my niece as she received hers. After all, those little red envelopes are a rich part of Chinese tradition, and they do so much to validate one’s youth and naiveté. 

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The Key Ingredient (Recipe)

We were sitting adjacent in a booth, with a view of the entire restaurant, lights dim as is the trend in most Brooklyn restaurants so we couldn’t really see anything but each other. We could barely even read the menu. He was holding the small tea light up against the menu. I was doing the same. We were on the same page, no pun intended. 

This was our second date. Our first one had gone so well that naturally, our second spontaneous daytime hang out spilled over into the evening. Our nonstop conversation did as well. 

He was the first guy I met who seemed normal and kind of interesting. We both swiped right on Tinder, engaged in some witty banter, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. Here we were, at my favorite restaurant in Greenpoint, knowing full well that dinner was just a precursor to “dessert” at his apartment later. 

“We should share plates,” he suggested. At this point, I was swooning - hard. 

“And why don’t you pick for us?” he continued. 

It was like he entered my brain, looked around, and exited through my heart. And my heart was bursting with a million butterflies. 

“How about the broccoli and fava bean salad?” I asked.

“Sounds good.” 

“The radish appetizer sounds amazing too, doesn’t it”

“Let’s get that too.” 

Two for two so far. I was on a roll. 

“Let’s try the rabbit,” I said confidently.

There was long pause. 

He finally spoke. “Hmm. It has cilantro. I don’t eat cilantro.” 

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Have a bowl of patience (Recipe)

When I landed my editorial assistant job at Bon Appétit Magazine, I thought my life was going to change forever. It did, sort of. But not in the way I expected it to. 

I was a week away from graduating college. And unlike a lot of my peers, I was leaving school with a “cool” job. Coolness can be a misplaced ambition sometimes, but in my early twenties, it drove me to take risks. I was coming off of hosting my own college radio show, blogging and assistant styling for Nylon Magazine, and hitting the Los Angeles party scene in my mom’s Volkswagon Jetta with my then DJ boyfriend. It was only natural that I’d find myself working at a respected, national food magazine. Cool. 

The Devil Wears Prada had just come out. While everyone was flipping out that I’d be bossed around and tortured like Anne Hathaway’s character was, I was fantasizing about becoming the next editrix. My ambitions were not entirely sadistically motivated, however. Ego played a big part. I wanted to see my name climb the masthead until it was 2 font sizes bigger. By the time I turn 30, I thought, I’ll be a well-traveled editor-in-chief of some amazing publication. Cool. 

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Choices (Thoughts)

My grandparents have been married for over 70 years. Technically, my grandpa (or Gong-Gong) passed away about 24 years ago, but they’re still married. I’ve encouraged her to hit up the geriatric dating scene. But, “Gong-Gong and I will reunite in the after life,” Po-Po insists. Theirs was true love. Not the foggy-brained, dewy eyed, passionate kind of love that dissolves into deceitful, late night Tinder rabbit holes, but a partnership that’s weathered life’s unexpected tragedies. Shortly after Gong-Gong’s death, I awoke to Po-Po weeping in the corner of her bedroom. I felt it necessary to console her as best as a six year old possibly could. By asking a ton of questions. “What’s wrong, Po-Po?” I asked.

“Nothing. I’m just sad. But it’ll be ok,” Po-Po responded, trying to stifle her tears. The sun was rising and a soft glow crept through the window blinds. Her eyes looked so heartbreakingly sad. 

But I obnoxiously pressed on. “What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, just about your Gong-Gong. I’m thinking about how we had no choice but to leave our families in China during the war. Just the two of us in Taiwan. He was the only family I had.” 

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American-ish Chinese-ish (Recipe)

While I was born in the U.S., my upbringing was anything but typical American. But what does it mean to be a typical American anyway? Immihelp.com says that, “People from all over the world have immigrated to the United States. Therefore, it is very difficult to define a typical American, as there is no such thing. However, a majority of the current Americans are of European descent; therefore, the description below is primarily with that in mind.” 

This explains why sitcoms, movies, and books I grew up with in the mid ‘80s and ‘90s reverberated with cultural themes that I had a hard time identifying with. There’s a memorable scene from Full House that confused the shit out of me when I was ten years old. 

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Salty Sweet (Thoughts)

“I think our faux-breakups makes us closer,” I said to my boyfriend this morning. We had just polished off breakfast – he had fried eggs and leftover pad thai; I had bacon and yogurt – and we were watching this TED Talk about “the secret to desire in a long term relationship.” It’s not unusual that a perfectly monotonous occasion like breakfast would become an event tinged with emotion and deep discussion. That's how we do. Luckily, my epiphany made him chuckle. "You're drama," he responded.  

Our relationship has had some growing pains lately. There's been some yelling and crying, followed by making up and making out.  I think we both relish in a little bit of drama. We occasionally need the long soliloquies in the middle of an empty street, the reflection of moonlight bouncing off of our tears, and the painful exchange of personal hygiene products, keys, or whatever else is symbolic of goodbye. And when the reality of finality hits, we embrace and end up filling the bedroom with loud, desperate but loving grunts. (TMI?)

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The day Po-Po retired from cooking (Thoughts)

When your soon-to-be 97 year old Po-Po tells you that she is retiring from cooking, all you can do is stubbornly fight the inevitable and lose. That’s what happened on my recent trip to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. And while everyone took to the news with much relief (“It’s about time she stopped slaving away in the kitchen”), I was saddened.

Yes – it’s selfish of me to want my Po-Po to continue whipping up my favorite stuffed chili peppers, fish in black bean sauce, and everything else from her repository of insanely ancient and insanely good recipes.

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Po-Po’s debuts at the Tradesman

few weeks in planning and finally it happened: Po-Po's debuted at the Tradesman, a bar in East Williamsburg. I’m happy to report that what was dreamed up over brunch ended up being more successful than I could have imagined. We had no intentions of selling more than 30 beef rolls, but ended up cranking out 90+ orders. "Sold out" never sounded so good. 

How it began 

About a month ago, while at dinner with my pals Amy and Amanda, I suggested that the three of us host a pop-up restaurant. Amy and Amanda – both of whom are professional cooks –  very candidly expressed their concerns with the complexity of a sit-down course by course event.  They encouraged me instead, to focus on one dish. That one dish turned out to be my “Chinese burrito," which frequently makes an appearance at my dinner parties. 

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Bathtub brewing

Last year I rushed home to Los Angeles on the last day of Coachella weekend—missing the hologram Tupac resurrection—for a beginner’s course in making Chinese wine brew aka fermented sweet rice aka 甜酒釀 (tian jiu niang). The instructor for this course was none other than Po-Po, who insists on making everything from scratch and refuses to substitute even the most insignificant amount of an ingredient with its store-bought counterpart. Since fermented sweet rice has a supporting role in many of her dishes, it’s become an essential DIY project and a tradition she’s generously passed onto me. 

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When two becomes one

When I went abroad for the first time in my life at age 15, I traveled with Po-Po to Taipei, Taiwan. My parents were still illegal U.S. inhabitants at the time, which meant they couldn’t go in and out of the country without serious repercussions. Po-Po thought it’d be fun to make me her travel partner and I fixated on the thought of non-stop boba milk tea and Hello Kitty consumption. 

Taiwan is a tiny island that lies on the Tropic of Cancer. It’s humid and occasionally smells of hot garbage. It’s also one of my favorite places to visit because the food is out-of-control delicious and encompasses diverse regional Chinese cooking. Not sure if I have to thank Chiang Kai Shek or Mao for that—but the mass exodus of Mainland Chinese people pre-Cultural Revolution resulted in a new—and not always welcomed—Taiwanese culture and cuisine. 

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Let the feast commence

Po-Po’s dinners are events that I’ve always looked forward to. Po-Po is Mandarin for grandma – and it’s what I call my mom’s mom. I don’t really know her by any other name, outside of Janet, which is what I named her back in the early 90s (when I was 6), after my then-idol, Janet Jackson. I named my grandpa “Michael” after Michael Jackson. Neither names stuck—not too surprising. 

Po-Po is 98 years old now and has been hosting her epic dinners for over 67 years. I’ve been lucky enough to attend them since birth. That’s 30 years of Chinese food feasts. These dinners date back to the late 1940s, when my grandparents fled China during the Cultural Revolution and ended up in Taiwan with the rest of the KMT.  Like many of their peers, they figured out a way to raise too many children with not enough money, all the while continuing to host elaborate dinner parties for colleagues and neighbors. 

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