Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to West

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Spanning almost a hundred years, this rich and evocative memoir recounts the lives of three generations of remarkable Chinese women.

Their extraordinary journey takes us from the brutal poverty of village life in mainland China, to newly prosperous 1930s Hong Kong and finally to the UK. Their lives were as dramatic as the times they lived through.

A love of food and a talent for cooking pulled each generation through the most devastating of upheavals. Helen Tse's grandmother, Lily Kwok, was forced to work as an amah after the violent murder of her father. Crossing the ocean from Hong Kong in the 1950s, Lily honed her famous chicken curry recipe. Eventually she opened one of Manchester's earliest Chinese restaurants where her daughter, Mabel, worked from the tender age of nine. But gambling and the Triads were pervasive in the Chinese immigrant community, and tragically they lost the restaurant. It was up to author Helen and her sisters, the third generation of these exceptional women, to re-establish their grandmother's dream. The legacy lived on when the sisters opened their award-winning restaurant Sweet Mandarin in 2004.

Sweet Mandarin shows how the most important inheritance is wisdom, and how recipes--passed down the female line--can be the most valuable heirloom.

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Editorial Reviews

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Tse knew she was honoring her Chinese family's tradition when she and her sisters opened the Sweet Mandarin restaurant in Manchester, England. She had inherited many delicious family recipes, which had been perfected by her mother and grandmother. What she didn't fully realize was the path her ancestors had paved for her success, built with backbreaking work, ingenuity, and sacrifice. As her mother and grandmother help her prepare for the restaurant's debut, they also share with her their own journeys, revealing many details for the first time.

Tse learns of her family's triumphs: the successful soy sauce business started by her great-grandfather back in China; her immigrant grandmother's move to England and the opening of her restaurant; the secret family recipe for curry paste. But there were also difficult times, including a murder, crippling gambling losses, racism, and painful family separations. Before Sweet Mandarin's opening, the three generations travel back to China to visit family they hadn't seen in decades. Upon arriving at her grandmother's childhood home, Tse meets her great-aunt Mui for the first time and is presented with a family dish they all know and love, Buddha's Golden Picnic Basket. Despite the distance, language barriers, and many years apart, it is the love of cooking good food that continues to unite this Chinese clan. (Fall 2008 Selection)
From the Publisher

"Sweet Mandarin is a banquet of family stories… a memoir of survival and victories, luck and determination." – Amy Tan, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club

"Read this book. It is the story of an amazing family and their sweet and sour, hot and bitter lives."

—Xinran, author of The Good Women of China

"An amazing story."

Manchester Evening News

Publishers Weekly

For Tse, looking ahead to her future meant taking a step back into family history. In 2004, Tse and her two sisters all abandoned promising professional careers to follow a family tradition and opened a family restaurant. "My sisters and I were immersed from birth in the Chinese catering business-the fourth generation of our family to make a living from food." Tse begins with her grandmother's birth in 1918 in a small farming village in southeastern China. Each successive chapter chronologically follows the family's struggles and triumphs from peasant life to prosperity and heartache in Hong Kong in the 1930s, the horrors of the Japanese occupation, life in England from the 1950s to today. Tse poses a question that serves as the core of this delightful, well-written and at times painful memoir: Why would three young, successful 21st-century women, Tse an attorney, one sister an engineer, the other a financier, return to a family business they struggled to escape? In answering this question, Tse engagingly tells the larger story not only of her grandmother's and mother's struggles but the shared story of the many Chinese immigrants who made the journey from mainland China to England and "who also carved out a place in their new homeland through the catering trade." (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This memoir by Tse, a finance attorney who studied law at Cambridge University, tells of three generations of Chinese women but focuses on the triumphs and hardships of Lily Kwok, Tse's grandmother. Lily's story is nothing short of remarkable. Tse recounts the early death of Lily's father, her work as a wet nurse and maid to wealthy British families in Hong Kong, and her disastrous marriage. The benevolence of Lily's British employers ultimately enabled her to open her own Chinese restaurant in England. Mabel, Tse's mother, followed tradition years later when she, too, opened a restaurant with her husband. Sweet Mandarin is the name of the restaurant Tse and her sisters opened in 2004, bringing the narrative full circle. Wrapped in the cultural and ancestral mystery of food, this memoir will be appreciated by general readers and students of Asian and women's studies. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Stacy Russo

Kirkus Reviews
An intimate, unhistorical, uneven synthesis of the stories of three generations of Chinese wives, mothers and daughters. The author, a Chinese-British financial lawyer who now runs a restaurant called Sweet Mandarin with her two sisters in Manchester, England, begins her affectionate, family narrative with the hardscrabble story of her grandmother Lily, born to an entrepreneur and his wife in Guangzhou who only wanted sons but got six daughters instead. Despite a growing business making and selling soy sauce, which took them to Hong Kong in 1925, the family's fortunes turned sour when Lily's father was murdered in his Guangzhou factory by a jealous local gang. Due to the nation's patrilinear traditions, his widow and daughters were essentially turned out of their home. Lily's job as a maid/nanny to the wealthy British Woodmans in Hong Kong eventually brought her to England in the early 1950s. By then estranged from a philandering gambler of a husband, she saved up to bring her children to England and was able to start a Chinese takeout restaurant in Manchester with the money Mrs. Woodman left Lily in her will. Lily's daughter, Mabel, was brought up working in the business and in the late '70s started her own "corner chippy" in Middleton; the author and her siblings toiled there during their growing-up years. Although she belonged to one of the first Chinese families in Middleton, Tse did not feel herself a victim of racism and became thoroughly assimilated into British life. She offers interesting takes on her family's gambling, gang culture in Hong Kong and the stunning misogyny still rampant in Chinese society. An easy-flowing tale that subsumes historical changes in personal histories,especially the plight of the author's grandmother.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312604813
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

HELEN TSE grew up in Manchester, UK. She studied law at Cambridge University and went on to work as a finance lawyer in London, Hong Kong, and Manchester. She opened the restaurant Sweet Mandarin with her two sisters, Lisa and Janet, in 2004, following the culinary footsteps of her mother and grandmother. Helen Tse is the first British born Chinese author and SWEET MANDARIN is her debut.

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Table of Contents

Preface     1
The Little Sack of Rice - Guangzhou, China 1918-1925     7
Soy Sauce Delight - Hong Kong 1925-1930     29
Bitter Melon - Guangzhou, China 1930     53
Jade and Ebony - Hong Kong 1930s-1950s     77
Firecracker Chan - Hong Kong 1930s-1950s     103
Lily Kwok's Chicken Curry - Somerset and Manchester, UK 1950s     147
Lung Fung - Manchester, UK 1959-early 1960s     179
Mabel's Claypot Chicken - Manchester 1959-1974     199
Chips, Chips, Chips - Manchester 1975-2003     217
Buddha's Golden Picnic Basket - Hong Kong 2002, Guangzhou 2003     243
Sweet Mandarin - Manchester 2003-     263
Afterword     273
Acknowledgements     279
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Reading Group Guide


Recipe of dishes featured in Sweet Mandarin, including Mabel's Claypot Chicken and Lily Kwok's Curry

As a British Born Chinese, I have lived a very British way of life being educated at Cambridge University and working as an attorney in London, Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands. However, throughout my life, I grew up with the backdrop of serving and cooking in the family restaurant and continue my involvement in the catering empire as a co-owner of Sweet Mandarin Restaurant. Chinese food has had an overwhelming presence in my life and been the catalyst for my hunger for understanding China, its culture and the significance of food each with a story to tell. China is a captivating and vivacious collection of diverse cities, provinces and regions. In the south, Guangdong, the Cantonese speaking region where my family originates from, is renowned for its steaming, boiling and stir frying and dim sum feasts which we have become accustomed to and love in the western world.

LILY KWOK'S CURRY (serves 2)

Preparation time 20 minutes, cooking time 1 hour


For the sauce:

6 tbsp vegetable oil or Ghee, (clarified butter)

3 Onions, finely chopped

4 cm piece Ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, sliced

4 mild fleshy red chilies, seeds removed and chopped

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tbsp Chile powder

2 1/2 tsp curry powder

125ml water

2 1/2 tsp plain flour

2 1/2 tsp self-raising flour

400 - 500ml chicken or vegetable stock

For the chicken:

3-4 tbsp cornflour

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into strips

2 tbsp oil

1/2 onion, thinly sliced

2 tbsp fresh peas


For the sauce:

1.) Heat the oil or ghee in a heavy-based pan or wok over a high heat. Add the onion and stir-fry for 3 minutes, or until starting to soften but not brown. Add the ginger, garlic and chilies and continue stir-frying for 30 seconds, then reduced the heat to very low and leave to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened but nothing browns.

2.) Stir in the turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder and curry powder and continue cooking very gently for a further 5 minutes. Don't burn the spices or the sauce will taste acrid; sprinkle on a few drops of water if you're worried. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool a little.

3.) Put the water in a food processor or blender and add the contents of the pan. Blend until everything is very smooth, then add both the flours and blend again. Put the puréed mixture back into the pan and simmer for 20-30 minutes (the longer the better) over a very low heat, stirring occasionally. Add a little hot water if it starts to catch, but the idea is to gently 'fry' the sauce so that it darkens in color to an orangey brown. Once you have a thick paste, gradually stir in the stock and simmer until the curry sauce has reduced.

For the chicken:

Season the cornflour with salt and pepper to taste, and toss the chicken strips in this to coat them. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a high heat. Add the chicken pieces and stir-fry for a couple of minutes until they turn white. Add the onion and peas and stir-fry for a further few minutes, then stir in the curry sauce and heat until everything is piping hot. Serve immediately.


Preparation time 5 minutes, cooking time 10-15 minutes. Tilapia or cod is a great choice for a low carb diet or any healthy diet. The Chinese love to steam fish and use garlic for cooking. Garlic has hypoglycemic effects, as well as those that lower blood cholesterol. It is an expectorant, antibacterial, antifungal (antimycotic), antiviral, antiparasitic, amebicidal, insecticidal, larvicidal, antitumor, antithrombotic, and antihepatotoxic (helps the liver detoxify). It also lowers blood viscosity, improves microcirculation, and has diuretic properties. Garlic oil is known to act as a gastrointestinal smooth muscle relaxant.


3 tablespoons butter

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

dash salt

2 Spring onion cut into one inch strands

4 tilapia fillets or cod fillets (boneless) or 20 King Prawns


Chop spring onion into one inch strands. Place tilapia / cod fillets in a wok/saucepan, put spring onion over the fish and steam for 10 -15 minutes until fish turns opaque white and flakes easily with a fork. If you are using king prawns, steam for only 5 minutes. Whilst the fish is being steamed, in another saucepan, combine butter, garlic and salt. Heat over low heat until butter is melted and starts simmering. The garlic will turn golden brown and be crunchy. Remove from heat.

Serve the fish on a plate (on a bed of vegetables e.g bok choy, spinach, broccoli, Chinese cabbage) and pour the garlic butter over the fish.

Serves 2 -3.


Preparation time 10 minutes (excluding marinating the chicken and soaking the Chinese mushrooms) Cooking Time 10-20 minutes

Food is the continuing thread for people moving around the world. My grandmother

made this meal for my mother in Hong Kong and in the UK. At Sweet Mandarin, this

special dish of tender chicken double-cooked in a clay pot is a bestseller. It has an intense

flavor and a wonderful aroma. It's a great no-nonsense meal that is easy to make at home.

Soy sauce is the key ingredient to this claypot - soy sauce is also something that is integral in our family's story and the reason why our family moved from Guangzhou, China to Hong Kong. Soy sauce also holds a bittersweet tale for our family. Because of my great grandfather's successful soy sauce business, he was murdered by a rival merchant.


4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 7-8 oz (200-250g) each

Marinade: 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of sugar, 1 tbsp

Chinese rice wine, 2 tsp cornstarch

5 dried Chinese mushrooms (soaked until

soft and sliced into thin pieces)

2 spring onions, finely sliced

2 baby bak choi, cut into rough squares

Thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced

½ lap cheung (Chinese sausage) sliced

1/2 clove of garlic, crushed

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 tbsp dark soy sauce

4 tsp oyster sauce

1 tsp granulated sugar

1/4 tsp sesame oil

1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 5 tbsp cold water

5 tbsp oil for stir-frying

400ml or 2 cups of jasmine rice, cooked


1. Pre-heat oven to 360-375°F

(180-190°C or Gas Mark 4-5).

2. Soak mushrooms in hot water for one hour (alternatively use ready-to-cook tinned

Chinese mushrooms).

3. Cut chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces.

4. Mix the marinade ingredients (salt, sugar, Chinese rice wine and corn starch) in a large

bowl, add the chicken pieces and stir gently.

5. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.

6. Place wok on high heat. Add the oil, stir in the ginger and garlic, and cook until golden.

7. Drain the chicken (reserve the marinade). Stir-fry the chicken until it's cooked through.

8. Add lap cheung, spring onions, mushrooms and bak choi. Stir-fry for three minutes until the

vegetables soften slightly.

9. Add soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and oyster sauce.

10. Add chicken broth and marinade and bring to a boil.

11. Add cornstarch mixture and mix well until consistency thickens.

12. Switch off heat. Pour the chicken, vegetables and stock into a clay pot.

13. Cover and place the pot in the oven.

14. Bake for 5-10 minutes until mixture is bubbling.

15. Serve with fragrant jasmine rice.


Literally translated, "dim sum" means "to touch your heart" and originated from the teahouses which set up along the Silk Road and exploded in Guangzhou. My great grandfather, Leung helped to facilitate this food mania through supplying soy sauce to the bustling establishments and because of the expansion of dim sum in Hong Kong, our family moved to Hong Kong capitalizing on this opportunity. In the west, dim sum came about as a natural result of Chinese immigrants moving to the western world which readily absorbed these cosmopolitan influences and as a result dim sum has become the firm favorite of the Western world.

A meal in a restaurant opens the taste buds, but cooking dim sum for my friends and family widens all the senses. I learnt the authentic recipes from Guangzhou and used them at Sweet Mandarin. Together with my sisters, Lisa and Janet we made every dim sum from fresh. Stuffing and shaping wontons was the real family enterprise. We made the stuffing from a light prawn mince and wrapped the teaspoon of filling with a fine egg based pastry. We all left our individual stamp on the won tons in the way we crimped the edges. I added a flamboyant tail on these wontons, which can then be dipped in the sweet and sour dip. My everyday rituals of properly selecting produce, cooking and presenting a meal, which I have inherited from my family, have given me an insight to see the meaning of my own cooking as a metaphor for life.

These dim sum three way recipes have been simplified so that even our students in the Sweet Mandarin school of excellence can cook these delicious dim sums. The secret is the filling. Here, one filling can make three dim sums.

This recipe is the simplest and tastiest way to enjoy spring rolls. We will make Chinese cooking a fun, funky, free styling event. Try this at home and impress your family and friends.


Egg flour wrappers for the won ton

Spring roll wrappers for the spring rolls

White Bread

Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce Buy from Supermarket or Sweet Mandarin's Sweet and Sour Sauce


350g Chicken breast meat or 250g pack small shrimp- need a blender to blend the meat

2 slices Fresh root ginger

75g Canned bamboo shoots, drained, chopped finely

1 teaspoon Salt

2 teaspoons Soy sauce

1 teaspoon Cornflour

Beaten egg for sealing

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

One Method for the filling:

• Put the chicken into a blender and blend until a smooth pate.

• Add ginger, bamboo shoots, salt, soy sauce, cornflour and continue to blend.

Spring Rolls / Won Ton

• Lay flat a wrapper. Take 2 tablespoons of filling and spread across each pancake just below the center, Fold the pancake up from the bottom by raising the lower corner to fold over the filling.

• Lay a spring roll wrapper in front of you so that it forms a diamond shape for a spring roll. Twist for won ton. Use your index finger to wet all the edges with water or a cornstarch/water paste. Place approximately 2 tablespoons of filling near the bottom. Roll over once, tuck in the sides, and then continue rolling. Seal the top with the beaten egg.

Chicken Toast

• Spread the mixture onto white bread.

One Method for the Three dim sums

• Clean out the wok / frying pan. Pre-heat the oil for deep-frying to 360 degrees

• Deep-fry the spring rolls, won tons and chicken toast in 3 to 4 batches, cooking until they are golden brown and crispy (about 3 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

• Serve the dim sum with sweet chili / Sweet Mandarin sweet and sour sauce dipping.

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