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Lilian is not a Chinese grandma. Rather she’s a mother of four who believes in old-school food and philosophy inspired by her Chinese grandmas. Her heart is in home cooking, which she describes as uncomplicated, healthful, and satisfying food you can live on, and thinks food should be fresh, comforting, and nourishing. Apart from her food, Lilian shares personal stories about being an adult and discoveries that inspire her. Her blog, Chinese Grandma, was a finalist in the 2014 SAVEUR Best Food Blog Award for Best Family Cooking Blog.
I’m so excited to have Lilian of Chinese Grandma here on the show today.
(*All photos below are Lilian’s.)
On Starting Her Blog:
The funny thing is, well, I have four kids and when I started the blog five years ago, almost six years ago, my fourth child was nine months old or something like that. And it was a little crazy, of course, and we were living in Ohio, which was a temporary thing. And I’m from California, and all the kids were born here. I need some space that’s just mine, and I really wanted to write and I kept thinking, “I’m going to write a book someday.” And then I thought, “I have four kids, who am I kidding? I’m never going to have time to write a book.” I just want to do something that’s doable. And I thought, “If I can just get this thing started, I can keep up with it.”
We were going home to California for the summer, and I’d gotten this email from Stanford’s Continuing Education Program. And they have this great writing program. I’ve taken a class or two in the past. So they had this class on blogging, and the goal by end is to launch your blog. And we were going to be home for seven weeks, and it was a six-week course right in that slot. And I thought, “Okay, sign me up.” And I got it going that summer, and that was the beginning of it. And it’s been great.
On Sharing Her Personal Stories on Chinese Grandma:
I do share some really personal things. When my dad died, I wrote about it. And I write about getting older a lot. I write about parenting, because I just feel like being a new parent is so nerve-wracking. This is why the first kid is always the experimental child. You never feel like you know what you’re doing. And then the other kids have more relaxed parents, because you’ve been around, and you’re more of a veteran. I just feel like I really have always felt that if we can share our stories, that life gets easier for all of us, and I think that for the blog, it’s about the food and the stuff I’ve tried that I know works and I can count on.
The life stuff and the family stuff, I don’t write about stuff when I’m in it, but then afterwards, when I’ve had time to reflect, I think, “Okay I learned something from that.” And I want to share it. When you’re young, you always feel anxious and nervous about what’s ahead, and also just always striving. And then older people, like our grandmas, they have this sense of peace. I just feel like I’m a little of that now. So what I’ve learned now, I’m going to try and share with other people.
On Learning How to Cook:
My mom is an amazing cook. Chinese food is, of course, her focus. She came from China. And that is always a little intimidating to me. My mom, she makes amazing pot stickers, because she’s from northern China. And she and my dad were a great team. My dad would roll the dough, and my mom would make the filling. I would try to make them, really bad ones. You could always tell which ones were mine, but that kind of stuff was fun. But to me, my mom is just so great. Everything she did was very time consuming and intricate.
And I learned from messing around by myself. I’d check out other cookbooks in the library. And then I’ve learned from friends too. I had this friend from Italy when I was in college, and when I went to Italy to visit and just saw that whole food world, that was amazing too, and just the simplicity of it really appealed to me. Whereas I love to make things my mom makes, but it always pales, because my mom is this very seasoned pro. I think everyone with their grandmas knows, they don’t write down recipes. And when you replicate it, it’s never quite the same, even though I have tried to capture some of that in recipes on the blog.
But as a Californian, growing up here, and the whole produce thing, I really go for simple. And I really go for great ingredients, and not doing so much to it, and just enjoying the perfection of nature in a way.
On Her Idea of Chinese Grandma Cooking:
It’s funny, because my dad’s mom lived with us. She was a very independent person. She always cooked on her own, cooked her own food, she didn’t eat with us. She wanted to do her thing. She grew stuff. And I have no idea what she cooked, actually, because she had a little kitchen that’s set up back in her room behind the garage, and she did her thing. So I guess my idea of Chinese grandma cooking really does come from my mom, and I think her dumplings are the main thing. It’s about to be Chinese New Year. She’s going to make them. She puts little treasures inside. It tells your fortune for the year. And those are incredible. To me, that’s just the ultimate food from my childhood.
On Wisdom From Her Chinese Grandmas:
They are Depression era grandparents. They are just so super resourceful. They never needed anything, and they just got by. And I think that anti-materialism is so ingrained in me. It’s my dad too. He was an engineer, and he was like MacGyver. You need something? He’s going to make it out of whatever scraps he has. And I think that is, especially in this modern age, and I have indulgences that I love too, but to know that you don’t really need any of it, I just think it’s so powerful.
Also, to know that you are creative, and you can make something, and you can fashion something, whether it’s dinner out of the random scraps in your fridge, or fixing something that’s broken. I just think that to know that we have that creative power, that industriousness and that resourcefulness, that to me, is really a fundamental part of not just who I am, but I hope to pass that on to my kids. Because I think to know that you can be independent and make stuff happen is great.
On Being a Parent to Four Children and How it Changed the Way She Cooks:
Yes, my kids actually now, my oldest is 14, and my next oldest is 12, and even my 7-year-old, they love food and they’re open to all kinds of stuff. But for years, I had a lot of white food, plain pasta, stuff for the kids. And so I would make stuff for us, but then you’d have these dumbed-down version for my picky ones. I feel like we all have our right to our preferences. And taste buds do change. All of us who are adults know that.
I think I’m not into forcing anybody to do anything. I do try to appeal to their better nature. So they’ve always been great fruit eaters and a little mixed on the vegetables. But I feel like as long as you’re getting natural, good, fresh food, I’m not going to stress if you aren’t eating broccoli. It’s okay. But one thing is the kids do like food simple, and I do try and keep it simple. And sometimes we eat pancakes for dinner.
You can’t be the parent following a kid around with a spoon, and making deals for one more bite, the kid doesn’t have a good relationship to food. You need to let them make their choices.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I actually don’t watch any, because I’m not a TV person. So I totally don’t watch any, although my kids did love to watch Barefoot Contessa, that was on quite a bit. I actually bought my first kid, when he was like your kid’s age, maybe a little older, but I bought him the series of Barefoot Contessa, because he loved it so much. It was next to Sesame Street.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
Well, either ones of people that are just so amazing that everybody knows like Smitten Kitchen and David Lebovitz. And also the ones of people that I have met, like when I went to the SAVEUR event a couple of years ago, Molly Yeh from My Name is Yeh, she’s amazing, and Cynthia from Two Red Bowls. Her photography is so, so great. Josh from Culinary Bro-Down is really the funniest person on earth. I love him, even though…Actually, we’re talking about, he’s this UCLA kid and I’m this mom of four. So its Chinese Grandma, and he’s like, “Oh, so you’re a grandma?” And I said, “No, Josh. I’m not a grandma.” I tried not to make him feel bad, but, of course, I felt pretty ancient. But he is hilarious, and I love him, so all kinds of great people. Naz Deravian who writes Bottom of the Pot who was on your show, and Emma who was also on, My Darling Lemon Thyme. When you know the people, it’s also even more fun to see their work and read their work.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
Yes, gosh, Cynthia is amazing, her photography from Two Red Bowls. Valentina, who was also on your show from Hortus Natural Cuisine, her photography is gorgeous. I do love seeing people’s photography even though it makes me feel a little bad about my own. But of course, Instagram is all about the joy in photography, so I love that.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
My brother and sister-in-law had given me this Jiffy Pop, and it’s got the little crank handle. And it’s genius. With the air popper, you have to melt the butter and put all that on, and it never gets distributed evenly. With the Jiffy Pop, because you pop the popcorn in oil, you really don’t need to add anything, except salt.
I also love it because I make kettle corn, and if you use a regular pot, it is prone to scorching, because the sugar scorches the bottom. But if you use the Jiffy Pop, and you’re stirring, it doesn’t scorch, and you get this perfect kettle corn, and that’s so awesome to make in three seconds at home. My kids love it.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Anchovies. I don’t even know if I even ate anchovies as a kid, but you’re always scared of them on pizza. But as an adult, I love anchovies. And if I can get Caesar salad with anchovies, I love it. Anchovies are awesome. I like to sneak them in my pasta sauce when nobody is looking. I love them.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
Okay, The River Café, they’ve got two books. I think they are called it, Italian Easy and Italian Two Easy. But Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers started this restaurant in London decades ago. It’s like Chez Panisse here. So many people, Jamie Oliver, I think worked at The River Café and all kinds of people have come out of it, just like all kinds of amazing chefs have come out of the Chez Panisse kitchen here. And it’s Ruth Roger and Rose Gray, neither of them were trained chefs, but they had a passion for ingredients and technique. They were hyper intense, but they have these cookbooks that are so accessible.
They have recipes that are mozzarella, arugula, balsamic, and figs. And that’s the recipe. It’s just put these flavors together. It’s going to be awesome. And I just think that those cookbooks, like Barefoot Contessa, I love her. I love her because she was a caterer. And I don’t tend to love the chef cookbooks, because they’re not geared toward the home cook. I love the people that are all about accessibility with food. Barefoot Contessa, she had a catering operation, and all this stuff is tried and true. It always works. I love the stuff that I can count on.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I have this play list on my iPod, and depending on what mood I’m in when I’m cooking, and also who’s around, so I’ve got a chill mix which is awesome. I like to grove out when I’m cooking, because it’s very meditative. And then I’ve got a dance mix, because I love to dance. And if I’m feeling a little like I want to really rock out in the kitchen. And then if no one’s around, which is rare, I listen to Missy Elliott. That’s awesome. I love that.
On Keeping Posted with Lilian:
I’m on Facebook, so I put all my posts there. And Instagram, I am not great, but I’m on it. And Twitter, I don’t tweet a ton. But anyway, I love keeping up with people through all these sources.