How to Build a Chinese-American Cookbook

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Tienlon Ho | Pete Lee Writer Tienlon Ho talks about collaborating with chef
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Tienlon Ho sits at a table, wearing a pink shirt, with a red wall behind her.Tienlon Ho | Pete Lee

Writer Tienlon Ho talks about collaborating with chef Brandon Jew on their new cookbook, “Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown,” and the challenges of documenting this moment in time in Chinese-American food

In the two pages set aside for acknowledgments in Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, the cookbook’s chef-author thanks Tienlon Ho “for writing this book with me, for qualifying our ideas and for pouring your heart into enriching these pages with Chinatown’s fascinating history.” His name — Brandon Jew — appears on the cover, as you’d expect. But Ho’s does too, which you might not. Jew is the headliner; it’s his restaurant, his story, his cookbook. But at least we know Ho had something to do with writing it. The ghostwriter, or the named writer whose contribution is never really spelled out or fully credited, might be the most exploited of all the talent in the publishing process. But you rarely read about that: A finished book doesn’t tell you the story of its making, and how hard-won the triumph was (or if it even felt like a triumph at all).

On the cover of Mister Jiu’s Chinatown cookbook, a table is set with a feast.

I was thinking about this when I received the pre-publication copy for Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown. It’s a sumptuous, archival book that provides a panoramic portrait of one of America’s most vital, storied communities — but it does so through the eyes of a Chinese-American chef who is part of that community and has synthesized its influences and history into both his cooking and his restaurant. Of course, he couldn’t have done it without Ho, who I became friends with when she contributed an essay to the anthology I edited. She is a deeply and precisely thoughtful person, something you can see in her breathtaking prose and hear in any conversation you have with her.

So as soon as the galley arrived, I emailed her. She had lots to say, and I asked if we could pick up our phones for a conversation about how cookbooks get made and, more specifically, what that experience is like from a co-writer’s point of view.

Eater: We can start with the obvious: How did you come to work on this project?

Tienlon Ho: Connecting with Brandon was all thanks to his agent. There were a couple other people who she thought of … I’m pretty sure I was the only Chinese-American person. And then it turned out our whole team (chef, photographer, recipe developer, and me) ended up being Asian American, which is really rare in cookbooks these days.

What really resonated for me was [Brandon] was one of the first young chefs I’ve talked to who takes this idea of grounding his work in tradition really seriously … I’m always worried about this idea of trying to present yourself as this pioneer, and that chef-hero thing that’s like, “I’m the first one to ever do this.” In one of those early conversations, he said something like, “I’m part of this really long lineage. I see myself in this long line of history and I want to somehow get people to understand that.”

At the same time, one of the things that struck me, that was important to both of us, was this idea that you can be grounded in tradition, but also be really innovative. People who cook haute cuisine, [there’s an idea that] they’re inventing things out of nowhere, leading the way with all these new ideas. In the same way that, as a writer of color, I have to ground everything in a personal story, chefs of color are asked to do that all the time, like, “Oh, this had to come from your grandmother. This is exactly how your mom made it.”

“I’m always worried about this idea of trying to present yourself as this pioneer, and that chef-hero thing that’s like, ‘I’m the first one to ever do this.’”

I wanted to make sure to protect that aspect of him, which was that he is a creative person, and just because you respect tradition doesn’t mean you’re not thinking of new things and coming up with things that are inspiring and expressive of yourself.

Why do you think he chose you?

We connected in terms of this idea of telling the truth about Chinese-American cooking. We struggled with this and debated, “Is it Chinese food still?” which is what Cecilia Chiang said it was. Or is it just American food? Because we’re all Americans. Brandon’s a third-generation American. There was a way to make this very Chinese — Chinese Chinese. But what he does isn’t Chinese Chinese. It’s Chinese American, and we wanted to make sure that was clear.

But we wanted to show, in a way that maybe only people who are connected to old countries and very old cultures can understand, that you can be American but know so much more about another culture and have that be so much a part of your identity, as well.

What happened with Chinese-American food is that the first people that were able to come here and cook for everyone were from a very teeny, tiny place, Toisan. So what they cooked didn’t represent all of China. In fact, it didn’t even represent all of the province [Guangdong] they were in.

When they got here, and when they were cooking their style of food with the equipment that they had and the ingredients that were available, which were very limited, that whole menu became representative of Chinese-American cuisine. It still is today. It was defined by outsiders and they drew these borders where they didn’t need to. It became called “Cantonese” because it was [from] Canton, they said. So Cantonese food came to represent everybody. There was no other way to try other food because so few people were allowed to emigrate from other parts of China for so long because of Chinese exclusionary laws. … Brandon is Toisanese. His background is a mix, but he remembers a lot of his Toisan roots through his family’s cooking. (I’m a mix of southern, like Brandon, and northern in the same way Cecilia Chiang was, and western — so between us, we’re representing a lot of Chinese cultures.)

We wanted to make sure we described the diversity [in Chinese food] in the way people look at even the same dishes, how they would approach them very, very differently depending on where they were born in China or in the diaspora. There’s no way to represent 200 dialects and so many regions, and the diaspora and all the creativity that’s happened even within [San Francisco] Chinatown itself. But we want to at least show that reality that there’s so much more than you (and we) ever imagined.

What was the initial vision for the book?

We wanted to document this moment in time in Chinese-American food. This is the first book out of Chinatown that focuses on San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in North America. It’s the first book in [almost] 60 years, as far as I can tell.

What was the cookbook that came before it?

Eight Immortal Flavors. [It was by] Johnny Kan and his co-writer, Charles L. Leong, a pioneering Chinese-American journalist. Kan was this wonderful chef-entrepreneur who basically revolutionized Chinese-American food as we know it. He died in 1972. He grew up with James Beard, in Portland, but he was a poor Chinese kid, and his mom actually cooked for James Beard, and that’s how he got to know James, [who] wrote his intro to this book.

[Kan] came up with the idea of delivery. Before, around Chinatown, the way you would get food delivered is the waiters would carry these heated trays. Kan was like, “You know what, we should take credit cards and have a fleet of cars that are refrigerated. We’d keep everything warm.” He set up delivery all around San Francisco really early on, so he was the takeout revolutionary. And then, he was the one who said, “We should have kitchens open for people to see with windows,” because, at the time, Chinese food was considered really mysterious and people still made jokes (they still do) about rats’ tails and mystery meats and things that they just didn’t understand. [Kan] said, “Why don’t we just show them how we do a technique, show them how clean we work, show them how much goes into this,” and so his restaurants were the first that had open kitchens.

Wow, that’s so cool!

I know, he did so many things … he also was a huge influence on Cecilia Chiang. His whole thing was about service … people who never would have gone to Chinese restaurants flocked to his restaurant. It was a place to be seen.

That was something that we wanted to capture: to talk about the heyday of Chinatown, and all the triumphs, because so much of it is about suffering, because there was so much suffering. But there was so much celebration, too, and innovation, and things that aren’t really remembered because of how history gets written down.

Can you talk a little bit about how you originally planned to structure the book?

Brandon really wanted to have this feeling of understanding where Mister Jiu’s fit into the community of Chinatown. In the proposal, we said we wanted to have all these stories of these people we know, who in some cases did make it into the book.

How much would you say the manuscript resembles what was laid out in the proposal? Is it completely different or is there a through line?

The proposal actually was very much unlike how this book turned out. But the through line is there: It is definitely, like, this is a restaurant in Chinatown and it couldn’t have existed anywhere else because it’s inspired by and rooted in the Chinese-American experience, and that’s what Chinatown is all about.

“That was something that we wanted to capture: to talk about the heyday of Chinatown, and all the triumphs, because so much of it is about suffering.”

You basically have three different narrative strains or themes: Chinatown, the restaurant, and Brandon as a chef. How do you make them all fit into a unified whole?

I was thinking about what I had in front of me and how I could see each dish. It was like, “What is the Chinese-American story behind each dish?” And then, “How did Brandon build on that?” Then I started realizing what it really was, was that he’s a representative of his Chinese-American experience and his Chinese-American food is his own Chinese-American food. That is the individual lens through which to look at this larger story of how Chinese food became American food and how we call him a Chinese-American chef, because people before would have just called him a Chinese chef. But we’re in an age now where people recognize a little bit more, I think, I hope, this difference.

Did you receive any pushback from Ten Speed along the way?

The cover. We really didn’t want it to be a dish. We wanted it to be a setting, something that represented the aesthetic of Mister Jiu’s within the context of Chinatown. And we had lots of ideas for that. I mean, what’s more iconic of Chinatown than the window with the barbecue hanging in front of it? … They really wanted a dish. And even then, it was funny. They wanted the fried chicken wings, which is a snack. And it’s a delicious dish, but Brandon was like, “That does not represent in any way.” To him it seemed so cliche and obvious when there were so many other dishes that are slightly more complex. … And chicken wings just wouldn’t cut it. The publishers totally understood that.

And we had some pushback on recipes, on how you cover the “greatest hits” of Chinese-American cuisine. The publisher really wanted to make sure we had potstickers and maybe egg rolls and things like that … these dishes that exist in America but are not cooked by Chinese people, or just wouldn’t be cooked at home. [Brandon] didn’t want to do that either. He wanted to just really represent the food of his restaurant. It might not be stuff that you would normally make at home, but now you can.

If you look at what is most ordered around this country, its General Tso’s. It’s kung pao chicken. It’s sweet-and-sour chicken and sesame chicken. … [Brandon] doesn’t make General Tso’s chicken. But he makes another orange chicken where he boils the gastrique down for two or three hours and it’s that way in this book. You start with, like, a gallon of it —

Oh my gosh.

Yeah. At one point I challenged him on it. I said, “This is not for home cooks. This is really intense.” And he’s like, “Well, that’s why it tastes so good.” I couldn’t really argue with that. To cheapen that would be …. like nearly every other book [written in America] about Chinese food and Chinese-American food.

But isn’t this the paradox of every restaurant cookbook that’s ever been written, which is that one of the reasons you go to a restaurant is to eat food that you wouldn’t make at home, or that’s better than it would be at home? And then here’s this restaurant being like, “Hey, here’s the recipe if you want to make it at home.” I get frustrated when a cookbook isn’t cookable, because I think it’s no longer a cookbook, it’s a book about cooking.

I think we talked about this early on, and I remember you being like, “I’m pushing back because so many of these things you wouldn’t cook at home.”

We decided on a certain percentage. There’s a group, and they’re not labeled this way, but they’re master recipes. He does them at the restaurant exactly [the same way]. … Some of them take at least 10 days.

Oh my god.

Yeah. Well, that’s how long the [roast] duck takes. … I was like, “How should we explain why we’re doing this? Why do you have these master recipes in here?” And he said, “It’s my mission in some ways just to show you the technique that went into this so that there’s an audience for this food in the future.” Because if we all think we can make whatever … you become accustomed to [riffing and taking short cuts], or you find that acceptable, then we lose what little support we have for artisanship in this country. He’s very much a believer of that.

[Brandon’s] role in this restaurant is to keep minds and palates open. [These techniques] don’t have to be lost because no one finds them useful or palatable or there’s no market for them at all. What he fears for Chinatown in general is that people only expect the greatest hits. And it’s impossible, on these small margins, anyway, for these little restaurants to keep going so that they all just make all the same things. People complain about that. They’re like, “Chinatown is just for tourists.” But it’s the tourists who made it that way.

What’s great about this book is that it shows you there’s more to it than the just-for-tourists part. It’s there, if you want to find it. But there’s stuff in here that doesn’t take days to make, right? It’s not all major-undertaking recipes…

The vast majority [are not] … [there] are things that you can do in 10 minutes. I felt like that was really important. He did start to understand too. Sizzling fish is a really good example of an easy recipe that is totally legit … it represents Southern Chinese cooking so well, and yet it’s not that complicated, even though some people might find it intimidating, because it’s a whole fish, but that’s what Chinese cooking is. There’s such a beautiful picture of it; [Brandon] wanted to put that on the cover. [But the publishers] were like, “No, one will buy it, because it has a fish.” Is that true? Did you hear that too?

Yep! It’s a thing. I know you guys worked so hard to make sure you were telling a different story from what we usually see in cookbooks and food media, in correcting the narrative of the colonial hero figure who comes swooping in to “save” or “ennoble” a cuisine and reveal its hidden greatness. But then, the emailed PR text that accompanied the PDF of the galley kind of reduced it to exactly that. It literally included the phrase “realizing its untapped potential.” This happens so often, the disconnect between how the publishers market the book and what’s going on in the book itself. Were you able to have any input there?

We were asked to review it and I did. And I marked it up, and not all the changes were made so I don’t really know.

That seems in keeping with the opacity of the publishing process. There’s a lot authors aren’t privy to, or that isn’t really explained. Related to the marketing stuff, who was your target audience? And how do you imagine people will interact with and use the book? You guys were clearly going for something that isn’t necessarily just like, we want people to take this book home and make all the food in it.

Right. No. And I’ve been thinking about your distinction between cookbooks and a book about cooking. And I think some of these recipes fall squarely in the cookbook idea, but you’re right. It is a book about cooking and I’m not really sure that’s a bad thing.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.

Part of the problem is that there’s so little context for Chinese-American food. People don’t know a lot of this history and why and what the Chinese American experience has been, and by having cookbooks that just have the recipes over and over and over, it becomes so much easier to have those problems that we are all trying to be so careful about, like cultural appropriation and this whole idea of disconnecting a food from the people who care about it most and disrespecting that connection. I think we have that connection.

We wanted to offer a foundation for understanding the food as well as making it. That’s why it was important for [Brandon] to have the complexity, and the things that might not work out the first time but that require attention and experience and detail.

At some point, Brandon mentioned some of his chef friends who are extremely skilled but don’t understand Chinese food. And he said, “If they could read this and get something out of it too, I’d be so pleased.” Because he’s tired of having to explain it. And also was just tired of defending it. … He wanted it to be very plain to people who care about what goes into food. To really delight and enlighten at the same time.

“For me, it was important to capture this moment in time. And I wanted to write that down from our perspective of being in Chinatown, rather than wait for someone to write about it.”

Ultimately, we struggled, because … [the publisher wanted] to really try to make this for home cooks. I mean, we did make it for home cooks, but for enthusiastic home cooks who would be the same people who would come to eat at his restaurant.

Something else that you touched on before — there’s the idea that [Brandon] wanted to reach Chinese Americans with the book as much as he wanted to reach people who are not of Chinese heritage, because for a lot of Chinese Americans, a lot of this stuff has been lost. And most of the time, the expectation is that you’re doing a cookbook so that people who aren’t like you can understand your food. So I love this idea that it’s very much for exactly people like him.

Yeah, for posterity, for his children, for people who were disconnected for whatever reason from their past or their roots. There’s a weird thing that happened in Chinatown after the earthquake and the fires: All the records were lost. We usually talk about the records in terms of citizenship papers, but all the newspapers were lost and all the books and all the things that were published in Chinatown.

It’s really hard to find records of the early restaurants that aren’t written by outsiders, by English writers, or non-Chinese Americans or Chinese people, because those are the only ones that survived. That was one of the challenges of doing this too: How do you have these histories that are clearly written by outsiders rather than the people who lived in it, and how would it have been different?

For me, it was important to capture this moment in time. And I wanted to write that down from our perspective of being in Chinatown, rather than wait for someone to write about it.

Yes, and it has an added significance now that Chinatown is once again in danger of disappearing.

Yeah. Already, last January, Brandon and all the restaurants and businesses there felt a change when people stopped coming to Chinatown. By Chinese New Year, it was very clear that there were no crowds and people were not coming — unless they were Chinese American or lived in the community. And then by March, it was shelter in place. The Chinatowns all over the United States have been hit much harder than any other community in terms of impact on their businesses. Some 233,000 Asian-American-owned small businesses closed between February and April, when everything had only just started, at a much higher rate than similar white-owned businesses.

But Brandon was really trying to be optimistic. So for a while, he didn’t want to add anything [about the pandemic] to this book. And then as it became clear that there’s a disparate impact on Chinese Americans in Chinatown, and as more anti-Chinese rhetoric came out, we really felt it was even more important to acknowledge the total change that the neighborhood and restaurant were experiencing, in a short note at the end of the book. But it didn’t make sense to write everything.

But that’s okay too, because then it becomes a record of pre-COVID.

Exactly. We were all so glad that we had this snapshot in time … I mean, his restaurant, the vibe is so energetic. Under normal circumstances, it’s packed. And that’s the whole point of the Chinese banquet meal: to have a big room full of people with lazy Susans, everyone shares these dishes. So, it was a bit of a mourning thing, because [we could] imagine that it could be lost for a long, long time.

That’s the problem with all this white supremacist rhetoric: You forget in all the ways that we are connected and how in being connected, the world’s new ideas come out. Chinatown isn’t just Chinese. But it was because there were so many outside influences, people coming in and wanting a certain dish and Chinese chefs adapting and saying, “Oh, I thought you would like this.”

Can you imagine a world where we didn’t have this connection? And we thought that everything that we did in our own individual silos was good enough? Finishing the book when we did, I thought, this is a record of how great people are when they are together. Not when they’re apart.

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