As new immigrants from China to the Upper Midwest, Lan Samantha Chang's parents showed their inventiveness, persistence, and creativity in the kitchen.
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Chicken Spaghetti Lo Mein
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

When my mother and father moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1965, the uppermost question in their thoughts was: What is there to eat?

They were the first Asian immigrants to arrive in that small Midwestern city of under 50,000 people. Natives of Beijing and Shanghai, raised wholly on authentic northern Chinese dishes, they arrived to the Upper Midwest in an era of iceberg lettuce salads, tuna casserole with cream of mushroom soup, and peanut butter. Lots of peanut butter. Overriding the trials of the language barrier and social isolation came the daily challenge of satisfying their appetites in a place where the cuisine was utterly strange.

The Chang Family
Credit: Courtesy of Lan Samantha Chang

In 1965, they couldn't join WeChat or search ideas on the internet. They brought no supplies or cookbooks, only their Chinese palates and their unique capabilities. My mother, an inexperienced cook but a brilliant student, set her keen analytical skills to the task of putting dinner on the table. My father contributed his numerous childhood memories from poking around the kitchen, watching his grandmother and the family cook make dumplings or scallion pancakes.

Pining for napa cabbage, scallions, hot pepper, and ginger, my parents drove 200 miles to Chicago, where they filled the car with perishables and dried goods from Chinatown. They repeated this supply trip once or twice a year, stocking up on the fresh foods they craved and buying dehydrated staples: mushrooms, dried tofu skins, and tiny dried shrimp.

My parents foraged the local supermarket, hunting for anything plausible to combine with the dried goods. They purchased fantastic, waxy cucumbers and cuts of meat that they'd never tried before and then lugged these finds back home and concocted Chinese recipes that did not exist. My mother stir-fried any vegetable at hand. When over-gifted with Midwestern zucchini, she threw it into hot oil. Mystified by the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, she stir-fried it as well. The result was surprisingly delicate, crisp and fresh.

The Chang Family
Credit: Courtesy of Lan Samantha Chang

Our daily meals consisted of local produce combined with carefully rationed staples from Chicago. "They looked around to see what was available," recalls my oldest sister Tai Terry, a child when she arrived in Appleton. "And they thought, 'What can we bring from Chicago that will keep forever?'"

For example, my mother would slice a few precious dried mushrooms and stir-fry them with supermarket celery and pressed tofu from the freezer. Celery is not a naturally occurring Chinese ingredient. It's not generally used in Chinese cooking. But my family enjoyed this dish regularly for its umami crunchiness. Also, freezing changed the texture of pressed tofu, creating tiny, appealing holes in it.

As a child, I loved marinated flank steak stir-fried with yellow onions, a recipe traditionally made with green onions, or scallions; you'll often encounter it now in restaurants, served on a hot steel plate. Because she couldn't get scallions at the store, my mother substituted yellow onions, creating a delicious combination that is still my favorite dish.

Tofu skins are a typical Shanghai dish, served with fresh soybeans. My parents drove out to a farm "in the middle of nowhere," Tai recalls, and my father asked the farmer to sell him a few soybeans. My father was too proud to accept the soybeans for free, and the farmer couldn't imagine selling fewer soybeans than a bushel. So my parents came home with a bushel basket.

Stuck with an overflowing supply of soybeans, my parents embarked upon an effort to make tofu from scratch.

"That was a disaster," my mother told me, decades later. "We burned out the engines in two blenders."

I asked how the tofu turned out.

She made a face. "Just OK."

When my parents began to find American friends, my mother started keeping a file card in her recipe box with two lists of dishes: What do Americans like? What don't Americans like? She learned quickly: Americans liked beef. They devoured her hong shao niu rou (red-stewed beef) and preferred their soy sauce with a little sugar in it. They liked peanut butter—even combined with soy sauce. But they were confused and put off by a Chinese staple with a similar texture: fermented tofu.

Singing praises of her cooking, my father's coworkers proposed the Chinese dishes they had heard about, and my mother obliged. Spring rolls? Sure. Beef with broccoli? No problem. Sweet-and- sour fish? My mother delicately deep-fried nuggets of cod that had been plunged into a thin pancake batter. How about chop suey? Chop what? What is that? This was where my mother drew the line.

Then, Vietnam entered everyone's consciousness. There were anti-war protests in Appleton, where we lived, and a Students for a Democratic Society chapter at the local private college. Even Appleton became more global, its residents more curious about what other cultures ate. My parents rejoiced when fresh ginger first appeared at the local supermarket. Bok choy, napa cabbage, bean sprouts, and scallions appeared in the early 1970s, and their dumplings became tastier, their meatballs more flavorful. The quality of our meals took a delicious leap. Pan-fried Midwestern trout heaped with ginger and scallions. Stir-fried mu shu pancakes made with napa cabbage, bean threads, and thinly sliced supermarket tortillas.

They reconstructed my father's childhood memories of scallion pancakes. Their recipe differs from those I've seen before in two key ways. The first is in its use of Crisco. Scallion pancakes are traditionally made with lard. It is important to remember that the Chinese term for scallion pancakes, cong you bing, means, literally, "onion grease pancake." Oil is an essential ingredient, required for texture and flavor. Crisco was the American shortening closest in consistency to what my father remembered from his childhood.

The second unusual thing about my parents' recipe is that it requires the rolling out of two pancakes at once. Back in China, instead of making each bing by itself, my father's family cook would actually roll out an even larger rectangular pastry, making multiple "pancakes" at a time. Two at a time is faster. Rolling out a larger batch of dough also creates more layers, causing the pancakes to fry up even more flaky and delicious.

When my husband, a Central European American native of New Jersey, first came for dinner at my parents' house, he asked, "Shouldn't we eat scallion pancakes with dipping sauce?"

"You're so Americanized!" I scolded him. We never made dipping sauce; we ate the pancakes plain, as my father's family had. But my mother shrugged and handily concocted a dip for him with soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar.

My parents are no longer with me. My mother passed in 2014; my father died last year, having lived to 97. These days, when there are Asian markets in every small city, and carefully researched Chinese cookbooks abound, I'm aware that much of my home cooking is not particularly authentic. As a family living on the margins of the Chinese diaspora, we were among the pioneers of Americanization. For my parents, as for most immigrants, improvisation was inseparable from cultural assimilation. But improvisation could also be, as all cooks know, delicious. My parents made many failed experiments, noble and strange; they also wound up with some wonderful things to eat.

Stir-Fried Flank Steak with Yellow Onions

Stir-Fried Flank Steak with Yellow Onions

A simple marinade of Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and a little flour helps tenderize the generous slices of flank steak and their browning when cooked, while sweet yellow onions cook just enough to soften and gently brown without losing their bite.

Chicken Spaghetti Lo Mein

Chicken Spaghetti Lo Mein

Lan Samantha Chang's family adds even more savory flavor to their favorite lo mein recipe with dried shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine. Baking the noodles with the mushroom soaking liquid and soy sauce infuses them with rich flavor, complemented by the stir-fried chicken, eggs, and celery that complete the dish.

Stir-Fried Iceberg Lettuce

Stir-Fried Iceberg Lettuce

Crisp iceberg lettuce becomes tender and slightly sweet after cooking with soy sauce, a touch of sugar, and plenty of fresh ginger. The leftover cooking liquid is perfect for spooning over a bowl of white rice.

Lan Samantha Chang is the author of a collection of short fiction, Hunger, and three novels. Her latest, The Family Chao, was published by W.W. Norton in February 2022. The director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she lives in Iowa City.

March 2022