Popo's Kitchen on Gold Mountain
Pioneer in Paradise
From the deck of the S.S. Nile, the petite Chinese woman shivers with excitement as the ship pulls into view of San Francisco, the entry to Gold Mountain, the Chinese nickname for California. Fear tempers her joy as the ship anchors at the cove of Angel Island, where the immigration station for the Chinese is located. Her dream could end here.
Moist clouds of fog billow in as the immigration authorities lead the Chinese arrivals up the hill to the detention hall. The guards separate the men from the women. She is shunted into the women's barracks. Wind whistles through the cracks of the thin wood walls. Beds are stacked floor to ceiling, side by side. There are no walls, no privacy, no space to breathe. Some women have been here for years. They advise her to make sure she knows her facts. As the days pass, she replays in her mind every detail of her life in China. Finally, seven days later, she is called.
"What is your name?" barks a white man with a dark bushy mustache. She cringes at his rough, loud manner.
"Au Shee," she stammers.
As the interpreter translates, she feels herself floating outside of her body, viewing the surreal scene as a stranger. What is this tiny woman from a small village in southern China doing in this room with white ghosts screaming questions at her?
"When and where were you married?" cuts through her thoughts.
She shakes herself out of her fog. She must concentrate. She must remember every detail of her village. Her answers must match her husband's. If she falters, she could be forced to stay in this prison-like detention camp much longer, or even be deported. In this land with a law to ban Chinese, she knows she is not welcome.
"August 18, 1919, in Hong Kong," she answers.
She barely knew her betrothed before the wedding, more than a year ago. Koo Chong was fifty, twenty years her senior. He had gone to America in 1881, just one year before the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed. Thirty-eight years later, he had come back to find a wife. According to the matchmaker, he had all the important qualifications. He was from a nearby village, Suey Nom, located in the foothills of Guangdong Province. Like Au Shee, he was Hakka, and they spoke the same dialect. He was a merchant in Gold Mountain and known to be a hard worker. What more could she want?
"What is your mother's name?" came the voice.
"Tai Shee," she murmurs. The hole in her heart grows larger.
At age thirty, Au Shee no longer cared about marriage. People had already labeled her a spinster. Her life as a teacher suited her. She was happy not to answer to a man. But her mother had begged her to consider his marriage offer. War and famine were sweeping through China. She knew her mother was right. There was no future in China for her, and Koo Chong offered her a way out. She agreed to the marriage. She would learn to live with him.
"Where was your home in the village?"
"It is the first house on the left side." Would she ever see her mother or home again, she wonders.
"Can you sign your name?" When will this end? She has already answered endless, insignificant questions.
"Yes," she tiredly replies.
"Admitted." Suddenly the interrogation ends.
On February 28, 1921, the bride and groom are allowed entry to Gold Mountain. Au Shee learns that her husband's careful planning in establishing merchant status before returning to China was crucial to her acceptance. Merchants composed one of the few exempt classes to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As the wife of a merchant, Au Shee was one of only about 150 Chinese women legally permitted to enter the United States during the period from 1906 to 1924.
After being admitted, Au Shee and Koo Chong went to Sacramento, where he had a job at the Lincoln Market as a bookkeeper. He later opened a barbershop. Although they were not rich, they belonged to the entrepreneur class, the petty bourgeois of Chinese American society. Au Shee acquired a new English name to fit her new American life: Jadina Ou. In 1922, about a year after the young couple left Angel Island, my mother, Lillian, was born; a sister and a brother soon followed. When my mother turned eight, her family moved to Stockton, where they ran a barbershop. Later they owned a cigar store and the American Restaurant on El Dorado Street.
I entered the world in 1947, becoming Au Shee's first granddaughter in Gold Mountain. She became my Popo. At that time, we lived in Oroville, about a three-hour drive from Stockton. My mother didn't drive and my father worked six days a week. When my father wasn't too tired or when he needed to buy ingredients for the restaurant in Sacramento, we sometimes visited my grandparents. Other times, my brother and I might ride the Greyhound bus that crawled from town to town. We usually found Popo working in their café, a gathering place for Filipinos looking for cheap, filling meals.
We delighted in the big metal basins filled with chunks of fried pork belly with crunchy bubbly skin and golden layers of fat and lean. Grass jelly, a jello-like dessert made from a special grass, was another treat for the sweltering Stockton summers. When sweat beaded on my nose, Popo scooped quivering spoonfuls of the dark jelly into bowls and poured sweet syrup over the top. The soft lumps coolly slithered down my throat. One of her jolly Filipino friends, Annie Bang Bang, always said, "Your grandma makes the best grass jelly." She was right.
Our visits were short and few. I didn't spend much time with Popo until the mid-1950s, when she came to live with us in Paradise, a small town about twenty miles north of Oroville. Popo epitomized a true Hakka woman. In the '50s and '60s, when divorce was taboo and men were king, she was a feminist living in a conservative small town. When her marriage fell apart, she left her husband and adult son in Stockton. She came to live with us and offered financial and moral support to my mom, who was having problems with her own marriage.
Popo soon became the matriarch in our family. At four feet ten, she was a small woman with a big presence. She chose commonsense comfort over vanity. While most women of her generation wore floral housedresses and permed their hair, Popo preferred aloha shirts and loose pants. She slicked back her barbershop clipper-cut hair with pomade, like a man. She ruled with a strict hand and a bamboo feather duster, ready to administer a sharp crack to the head if my brother or I showed disrespect. And she was smart with money. When it finally became legal for Asians to buy land in California in 1948, she eagerly bought investment property. Yet she generously rewarded us, especially when we received good grades. You didn't cross Popo. If she felt someone was not treating her loved ones fairly, she cut that person out of her life, even if they were another relative.
"You should be proud to be Hakka," Popo would say. Hakka identity was so important to her that she had insisted my mom marry my dad because he was Hakka. But her Hakka pride washed right over my brother and me. We were already oddities in our all-white community. None of our friends spoke Chinese, let alone Hakka. And at that age we didn't really want to be even more different; we just wanted to fit in.
Popo insisted she would teach us to speak Hakka. Every day, after American school, we climbed the back stairway to reach Popo's kitchen for our Chinese lessons. She had been a teacher in China and tried in vain to teach us how to speak our dialect. We could understand what was being said most of the time, but neither of us ever spoke the dialect fluently. Our vocabulary was limited to essential phrases: food, bathroom, and thank you. The lesson started with calligraphy, as we traced Chinese characters with ink-filled brushes on tissue paper, and was followed by reading from Chinese picture books.
After our Chinese lessons, Popo would clear the oilcloth-covered table and prepare dinner. She beat eggs with broth to make a delicate steamed custard, sometimes with bits of gelatinous black thousand-year-old eggs embedded inside. She directed us how to cook rice: "Wash the rice until the water runs clear. Add water until it reaches the first joint of your finger." Every time she ate tangerines, she would save the peels and dry them near the heater vent until they hardened. When she made soups, she might drop one or two pieces of dried tangerine peel into the broth to add a faint fruity aroma. She filled gallon jars with salt, water, and eggs to make salted eggs. We ate stir-fried garden vegetables, soups made from a chicken or pot of bones, sometimes steamed fish or braised meat. Popo's dishes were humble, savory, satisfying Chinese comfort food.
Popo loved to putter in the garden, coaxing green seedlings from the iron-rich red dirt. She raised chickens in the backyard and planted gourd seeds near their cage. As the chicken manure enriched the soil, the vines scrambled up the wire cages into the apple trees and soon pale green gourds hung heavy from above. Popo would slice the voluptuous gourds and stir-fry them with pork. She taught me to appreciate the crunch of stir-fried broccoli and the smooth, slippery texture of perfectly steeped chicken.
I learned to love food through Popo. Now I realize that I learnedmuch more. She taught me to be Hakka; I just didn't know it at the time. She preached through example, by being self-reliant, hard working, frugal, practical, and painfully honest. Popo was a true Hakka pioneer. Indeed, she was someone to be proud of.
Like her thrifty Hakka ancestors, Popo was a master at foraging. One day, when we were driving through the flat farmlands near Oroville, Popo suddenly shouted for us to pull off the road. She had spied a stand of tall green plants growing in an irrigation ditch along the road and knew wild potatoes lay underneath. We plunged our hands into the cold water and dug into the muddy silt to search for bulbs attached to the green stems. We yanked them out and loaded them into the trunk. That night, Popo cooked the bulbs we had gathered, making a potato-like stew that filled the kitchen with a sweet, spicy perfume that both my brother and I remember to this day. We were amazed that she had created such a delicious meal with food we had literally found for free.
Five-Spice Potatoes and Chinese Bacon
This dish is a Hakka version of meat and potatoes. Although Popo used arrowhead (ci gu) on a day when we found it by the irrigation ditch, she typically used readily available potatoes. Arrowhead, a bulb that resembles a tan-colored fresh water chestnut, has a crunchier texture than potatoes and a slightly bitter finish. You can sometimes find it in Asian markets, usually in the winter. In my attempts to recreate this dish, I found that I prefer potatoes. Maybe it's my American-bred taste buds, but I like the way the potatoes soften, thicken the juices slightly, and absorb the smoky-sweet spices of the dry Chinese bacon.
Makes 2 or 3 servings as a main dish or 4 or 5 servings as part of a multicourse meal
1 strip Chinese bacon (6 to 8 ounces)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cups water, or as needed
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 pound small red or white boiling potatoes, each about 11/2 inches wide, or arrowhead (see note)
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions, including green tops
1 Cut the bacon crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick strips. Set a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add the bacon and stir occasionally until it is lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and discard all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan, leaving the bacon. Stir in the garlic and ginger; cook until the garlic begins to brown, about 30 seconds. Add the water, soy sauce, wine, sugar, and five-spice powder, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is almost tender when pierced, 20 to 30 minutes.
2 Meanwhile, peel the potatoes or arrowhead. If using arrowhead, trim off and discard the ends and any spongy parts. Cut the potatoes or arrowhead crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
3 If the liquid in the pan is very thick and has reduced substantially, add enough additional water to bring the total volume to 1 cup. Add the potatoes to the bacon mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender when pierced (arrowhead will have a firmer texture than potatoes), 20 to 30 minutes. Add more water if the potatoes begin to stick; if using a frying pan, watch closely, as the liquid will evaporate more quickly. You should have at least 1 cup liquid during cooking. When done, you want 3/4 to 1 cup liquid in the pan; if needed, add more water or boil the juices, uncovered, to make this amount. Stir in the green onions, and spoon into a serving bowl.
Note: I found that the results for the arrowhead varied. Sometimes the arrowhead was just as mild and tender as potatoes; other times, it took much longer to cook and had a firmer, crunchier texture and slightly bitter taste. For best results, look for very fresh, large, firm arrowhead in Asian markets; avoid any that are spongy.
Stir-Fried Long Beans and Pork
Popo loved to garden. One of my favorite vegetables that she grew were the Chinese long beans that dangled almost two feet from the vines. I was always puzzled as to why Popo cut those beautiful, slender beans into tiny pieces. Now, I realize that the small bits absorb more of the dark savory sauce she coated them in. Chinese long beans possess a heartier bean flavor than regular green beans, because they're related to cowpeas or black-eyed peas. If you can't find long beans, you can substitute common fresh green beans; the dish will have a crunchier texture and less intense flavor.
Makes 2 servings as a main dish or 4 servings as part of a multicourse meal
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (shaoxing) or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
8 ounces long beans or green beans
4 to 8 ounces boneless pork butt or pork shoulder, trimmed of fat
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground bean sauce or hoisin sauce (see notes)
1/3 cup water, or as needed
1 For the sauce: In a small bowl, mix the water, wine, soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch.
2 For the stir-fry: Trim off the stem ends from the long beans, and cut the beans into 1/2-inch lengths. Cut the pork into 1/2-inch chunks.
3 Set a 14-inch wok or 12-inch frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, after about 1 minute, add the oil and rotate the pan to spread. Add the onion and garlic; stir-fry until the onion is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add the pork and stir-fry until the meat is browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the bean sauce to coat the pork. Add the water and long beans. Cover and cook until the long beans are barely tender to the bite, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the pan. Stir-fry until the sauce boils and thickens, about 30 seconds. With a frying pan, the sauce may be thicker. If the sauce is too thick, stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons more water. Transfer to a serving dish.
Notes: The bean sauce will produce a more intense, robust bean flavor than the hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce contains bean paste with added sugar, vinegar, and spices.
For a shortcut, substitute ground pork for the pork butt and crumble into the pan.