Tag Archives: traditional


Back to the Good Fortune Diner, coming January 2013!

It’s the official release day for Back to the Good Fortune Diner! I’m super excited to bring this story featuring a Chinese American heroine moving back to her small hometown after being laid off from her job in Manhattan.

One of my favorite things about this story was that I got to share my cultural heritage. My parents came to Canada from Hong Kong and Malaysia, and I was born in Canada. I've lived all of my life in Toronto’s downtown Chinatown, and many of my cultural traditions were preserved because of the large Chinese community I was exposed to. My heroine, Tiffany Cheung, didn’t have the same upbringing. Most of her childhood was in Everville, a small (fictional) town in upstate New York.

One of the things that’s always struck me as interesting is that in every small town I’ve ever visited, there’s always a Chinese restaurant run by a Chinese family. No matter how far flung you are, Chinese food is usually the one ethnic meal you can get. In Back to the Good Fortune Diner, Tiffany’s family runs the eponymous Good Fortune Diner, an old greasy spoon they converted into a chop suey house when they first moved to the town.

I thought a lot about how the place would be decorated and outfitted. Tiffany’s family is fairly traditional, so in my mind, I had to ensure there was authenticity to the place. They wouldn’t have been able to get many of the traditional items you’d see in a more metropolitan Chinese business, but I think they would have driven to the city to get these decorations.

I hope that by writing about it here, I’ll be welcoming some good luck of my own for book sales!

Lucky cat statue: You’ll see this “beckoning cat” statue frequently in many Asian restaurants. It was actually adopted from the Japanese tradition.  A maneki-neko is thought to beckon wealth, health and prosperity through the door. You can read more about it here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maneki-neko


Wind chimes hung indoors: Hanging wind chimes indoors is related to feng shui practices to bring protection. Read more about it here: http://fengshui.about.com/od/topfengshuiproducts/f/feng-shui-wind-chimes.htm


Guan Yu statue: This Chinese general, also known as Guan Gong with various spellings, was a military figure whose deeds were legendary. He’s sometimes referred to as the god of war and represents brotherhood, honor on the battlefield and righteousness. He is worshipped by Confucians, Taoists and Buddhists, but is also more generally revered in the southern parts of China, as well as Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and other Chinese-influenced nations. The statue is easily recognized by the long beard and red face, and he’s usually carrying a halberd. He is frequently displayed in small shrines in many Chinese restaurants and businesses. Read more about him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuan_Kung

Fu--it's upside down.

Fu—the Chinese symbol for luck: This is frequently displayed year round, and is one of the only Chinese characters that is intentionally displayed upside down, like a horseshoe. I have them pasted up on my front door and inside my house. Because, why not?



Ever see anything in a Chinese restaurant that you've always wondered about? Does something on the menu make you scratch your head? Ask me about it in the comments!


In my ongoing quest to rediscover my health...wherever it's hiding...I've decided to go back to my family's traditional Chinese remedies: soup.

I grew up in a first-generation Chinese Canadian household, one in which G.I. Joe and art school competed against Hong Kong chapter dramas and Cantonese language classes. The one thing I never questioned, however, was the food.

Actually, all my fondest memories and associations with my culture are related to food. To me, traditions, special occasions and holidays are all about what's being served at the dinner table.

Before my sisters and I were old enough to prepare dinner ourselves, my mother was the primary cook. We usually had traditional Chinese meals with white rice and a variety of dishes served with it. Mom almost always made soup, too, served up before rice was dished out. Since my Cantonese language skills were less than stellar, these special broth concoctions brewed with what I thought were exotic and magical ingredients each earned a special made-up name: some were more helpful in description than others, like "watercress soup". Others were utterly baffling, like my favorite: "orange stuff soup."

Mom always touted the benefits of the soups, especially the ones we weren't as keen on. I learned to love them all, despite my skepticism of their actual health benefits. But as my husband likes to say, five thousand years of Chinese history can't be wrong. And I'm sure my doctor can't argue with that...

This weekend, we went to T & T, an Asian grocery store owned by Loblaws, to pick up a few basics. It was in the dried goods aisle that I decided to try my hand at some of my mother's recipes...even though most of those recipes could be summed up thusly:

"Boil some water. Add stuff. Boil it a lot. It's soup."

This is almost exactly how the process is described to me. For years, I asked my mother for more clear instructions, about the ingredients, what they were called, where to buy them, what measurements to use. She wasn't forthcoming. Most of her knowledge isn't written down anywhere. She doesn't have cookbook she follows. And she doesn't know the English names of most of the ingredients because it's only been in the last few years that companies specializing in Asian groceries have been making an attempt beyond the usual "preserved vegetable" or "dried nut" to accurately translate or describe their products.

Standing in the aisle at T & T, I could only rely on my memory of how stuff in soups generally looked. I had an idea that certain things were meant for one soup but not others. They also sold soup kits: packages of dried herbs and ingredients for various soups. However, therein lay my translation problem: the names of the soup were in phonetic Chinese. Which of these premade kits were for "orange stuff soup"?

I decided to stock up on anything I recognized and work from there. After a perusal of the vegetables, I decided to make "carrot and green thing with dried vegetable and nummy pork" soup.

According to my receipt, the "green thing" turns out to be green radish, which looks like a green carrot. Actually, for most of my life, I'd believed that's what it was. The dried vegetable, according to the package, is dehydrated cole, which expands to about five times its size when boiled, I realized a little too late. As for the rest, I added dried almond seeds and preserved dates. The base was made of pork neck bones.

I went home and laid out all my ingredients. Dried things needed soaking, so I randomly threw a handful of almond seeds and four dates into hot water. I used about 1/3 of the package of dehydrated cole. I started with boiling about 6 cups of water and adding four pork neck bones, then peeling and chopping 2 big carrots and one green radish.

I added the rest of everything else in and let it boil, simmer and soak, occasionally adding more water as it boiled off and the cole expanded. I added salt. The end result, after about 2 hours of simmer on medium low heat, was, indeed soup.

After a little research, it turns out I crossed a couple of recipes: dehydrated cole soup has elements in common with carrot and green radish soup. I ended up putting them together for some kind of super soup, apparently. It tasted good, though, and I haven't died yet, so I can assume I'm doing something right.

Guess Mom was right about the basics. Boil stuff and it's soup.