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'The Woks of Life' celebrates a Chinese American family's history through recipes


It's the holidays, and that usually means one thing - lots and lots of food. Buying food, cooking food, eating food - you get the idea. But food is also so much more than what's on the plate. It's history, culture, family. And that's something our next guests have thought a lot about. Sisters Sarah and Kaitlin Leung, along with their parents, Judy and Bill, started a food blog in 2013 called The Woks of Life. The blog documented their family history through recipes - you know, recipes passed down, quote, "from homey Cantonese classics to the Americanized Chinese food common in many restaurants." The blog was a success. The Leung family now has a cookbook out with the same name, and Sarah and Kaitlin Leung join me now to talk about it more. Hey, Sarah.

SARAH LEUNG: Hey, Andrew.

LIMBONG: Hey, Kaitlin.

KAITLIN LEUNG: Hey, Andrew. Thanks so much for having us.

LIMBONG: Yeah, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. So y'all grew up in a family of, like, chefs and excellent home cooks and all that. What was your personal relationship with food growing up? Sarah, why don't you start?

S LEUNG: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't necessarily say that we grew up in a family of chefs per se. I mean, my - on my dad's side, his father, his stepfather, they were chefs. But in our house, it was very much kind of just, like, a home-cooking vibe. And we describe in the book that, like, every sort of family experience was mediated by food. I think that it was a way to connect with our grandparents and a way for us to all connect at the end of the day around the family dinner table and for us to kind of spend time together. But I think that the thing that was missing growing up was this connection between us and, like, I guess learning how to make the food of our childhood because my sister and I loved cooking, and we cooked all the time. But we were always sort of cooking the recipes that we were seeing on, like, the Food Network or in the cookbooks that we had in the house. And not so much...

LIMBONG: Oh, yeah, just, like Rachael Ray - just, like, Food Network stuff.

K LEUNG: Yeah, yeah.


K LEUNG: Like, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Tyler Florence, all those.

LIMBONG: Yeah. No shots at them. That's all good but, yeah. Yeah.

S LEUNG: Yeah. So I think it was definitely - we loved food and we loved the food of our childhood - like, the food that our parents made for us growing up. But there was definitely this disconnect there in terms of learning how to make those dishes, which is why we started the blog.

LIMBONG: And, Kaitlin, what about you?

K LEUNG: For us, I think, like, my parents taught us how to eat - not necessarily how to cook at first, but, like, what's good and, like, how you combine foods and, like, if you - if there's a steamed fish on the table, you should eat it over rice and spoon some of the sauce over the rice. And, like, that's the best way to eat it. You know, like little things like that I think we just picked up by osmosis, like, constantly. And then it kind of resulted in us just always having a really strong appreciation for food and then, like, low-key obsession. And then one day it was like, oh, OK, like, let's start cooking and try our own hand at this. And like Sarah said, it kind of started with non-Chinese food and then, you know, one day we were like, wait a second.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) Yeah.

K LEUNG: We've been neglecting the most important part here. And the rest is history from there, I guess.

LIMBONG: Yeah. And so when did the idea of the blog come up?

S LEUNG: So we started the blog in 2013. And the context around that was I had just graduated from college, and my parents were living in China and my sister was also in college. And it was, like, during that year while my parents were abroad and my sister and I were here in the U.S. on our own that we really realized, like, wow, OK, there's this really big hole in our cooking repertoire, because all the dishes that our parents used to make for us growing up were completely inaccessible to us. That's when we kind of figured, like, oh, like, maybe it would make sense to write these down and to do it in blog form so that we could refer back to it in future, and also so that our friends and family could look at it and so that we could all contribute from the various locales we were in.

LIMBONG: Kaitlin, you self-ID in the book as a lazy girl in the kitchen. I'm curious, is there a recipe in this book that you can recommend, I don't know, maybe for, like, a holiday meal for fellow lazy cooks?

K LEUNG: A holiday meal for fellow lazy cooks. One option is shortcut Dan Dan noodles, which are kind of incredible because Dan Dan noodles are one of those dishes where, like, you see it on a restaurant menu and chances are you're like, oh, my God, I have to order that. Like, I really, you know, have a craving, whatever. It's like something that you eat out at restaurants. So it has a little bit of that special flair. But the recipe in the book radically simplifies the process of making it. So you mix up a bunch of ingredients, like chili oil, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, chicken bouillon paste, some sesame paste, a few other good things. And then you just whisk it all together and then you have this incredible sauce base. And basically, when you want a bowl of Dan Dan noodles, you can just brown some ground pork or, if you're vegetarian, you could do, like, chopped mushrooms. And then you boil noodles, you boil a little, like, leafy green, and you mix everything together with a few spoonfuls of the sauce. And that's it.

LIMBONG: Because you guys are mixing all these, like, perspectives, were you guys ever worried about getting, like, dinged for authenticity by, like, some nerd online or something?

S LEUNG: Yeah, I mean, I think that was...

K LEUNG: Yes (laughter).

S LEUNG: Yeah. I mean, I think that that was definitely something that we thought about, right? When we started the blog, after we had kind of finished with our, like, go-to, like, family recipes, like - it's like, OK, we have documented all of the sort of recipes that we made on a regular basis growing up. And now - it's like, now what? Now what are we going to cover? And we kind of thought about like, oh, should we do, like, a General Tso's chicken or should we do, like, a beef low mein? And the bottom line is my dad's father - my dad's parents opened a Chinese takeout restaurant in the '80s, and they cooked those dishes. They proudly cooked and served those dishes while they ran their restaurant. And so we were like, yeah, of course we're going to post those because they are true to our family's, you know, experience as Chinese Americans.

I remember my dad telling me stories about how, like, at the end of a long night they would pack up to take home some, like, fried chicken wings, an order of beef lo mein and a beef and broccoli, and that was their dinner. So, like, that was something that, you know, even, like, they, as a Chinese family, would make and enjoy. And I feel like it would be kind of disingenuous to not include those. And regardless of whether people consider something, like, quote-unquote, "authentic" Chinese, I think it's about authenticity to one's own experience. And that's what we've prioritized on the blog and in the book.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I think a lot of people, especially at this time of year, kind of get that bug to sort of, like, sit down with their folks and record their family history, you know? And you guys have been lucky enough to do that through the blog and now this book. Kaitlin, I'll start with you. What's been the best part of sort of, like, cataloging that heritage through food?

K LEUNG: One of the best things about writing this cookbook has been revealing more of our old memories. And I think that's - that goes for family memories that we made together, and it also goes for individual memories that, like, we might have all forgotten about, honestly. Like, my parents wrote their essays in the book. And as they were writing them, some of the stories that we had heard were more vividly on display than what we had ever heard around the dinner table, you know what I mean? Like, the medium required that we kind of render it in a lot more detail. And then it was just cool to see, like, for example, like, my dad's memories of, like, a Friday night rush at his parents' Chinese restaurant or some of my mom's recipes growing up in Shanghai and what she did with her friends after school in terms of, like, going to buy little scallion pancakes on the street. So some of those things that we heard about or lightly heard about, I guess, over the years were painted in much more vivid brush strokes.

LIMBONG: That was Sarah and Kaitlin Leung. Their cookbook, which they co-wrote with their parents, is called "The Woks Of Life: Recipes To Know And Love From A Chinese American Family," and it's out now. Sarah and Kaitlin Leung, thank you so much for joining us.

S LEUNG: Thanks, Andrew.

K LEUNG: Thank you so much, Andrew. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.