Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir with Earthly Recipes

Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir with Earthly Recipes

by Leslie Li


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Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir with Earthly Recipes by Leslie Li

In this powerful, touching memoir of a critically acclaimed Chinese-American writer, taste becomes the keeper of memory and food the keeper of culture when Nai-nai, her extraordinary grandmother, arrives from mainland China.

Leslie Li’s paternal grandfather, Li Zogren, was China’s first democratically elected vice president, to whom Chiang Kai-shek left control of the country when he fled to Formosa in 1949. Nine years later, Li’s wife, Nai-nai, comes to live with her son’s family in New York City, bringing a whole new world of sights, smells, and tastes as she quickly takes control of the kitchen. Nai-nai’s tantalizingly exotic cooking opens up the heart and mind of her American granddaughter to her Chinese heritage—and to the world. Through her grandmother’s traditional cuisine Leslie bridges the cultural divide in an America in which she is a minority—as well as the growing gap at home between her rigid, traditional Chinese father and her progressive American-born mother. Interspersed throughout her intimate and moving memoir are the author’s personal recipes, most from Nai-nai’s kitchen, that add a delicious dimension to the work. A loving ode to family and food, Daughter of Heaven is an exquisite blend of memory, history, and the senses.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611456950
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Publication date: 01/02/2013
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Leslie Li is the author of
Bittersweet: A Novel and coauthor of Enter the Dragon, a book of children’s plays based on Chinese folktales. She has written personal essays and feature articles for various publications, including the New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur, and Travel & Leisure. She divides her time between New York City and Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

Daughter of Heaven

A Memoir with Earthly Recipes

By Leslie Li

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Leslie Li
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-248-2



Into no department of life should indifference be allowed tocreep — into none less than into the domain of cookery.

— Yuan Mei, Qing dynasty scholar

When Nai-nai came to live with us, she hadn't learned a single word of Spanish in the eight years that she lived in pre-Castro Cuba. Nor would she learn a word of English in the fifteen years she would live with us. My sisters and I, who spoke only English, learned a few words of Chinese — most notably, and frequently, Bu dong (I don't understand) — in a feeble effort to communicate with Nai-nai. Or rather, in order not to. We held our Chinese heritage at arm's length, only to have it thrust upon us in the form of our very odd Chinese grandmother. Nai-nai was not adverse to her new American environment but simply impervious to it. Contemporary suburban American life might have jostled her composure a bit, but her core — solid peasant stock and pre-1949 agrarian Chinese culture — was rock-solid and unshakable. Immune to change, she was nevertheless its agent par excellence, transforming our home and our lives to correspond to the rustic domesticity she had always known.

Food was at the heart of Nai-nai's existence. Not so much the eating of it as the cooking of it. As with a good argument (in which she seldom engaged, yet at which she excelled, if the subsequent crestfallen or bewildered look on my father's face was any indication), she relished good food. She revered its two basic premises: the freshest ingredients (homegrown if possible) and diligent preparation. The first premise should have forewarned us. That, and how scrupulously Nai-nai surveyed our backyard sandbox when she first arrived. It came as no surprise, then, that soon thereafter the swing, seesaw, and slide on which my sisters and I had played for years were dismantled and removed. Nai-nai wanted to plant a vegetable garden and needed our sandbox, minus our toys, to do it in. No matter that we chafed at the desecration of our once sacred space and the expulsion of the rusting remnants of our lost childhood so that Nai-nai could water her tomato and bok choy plants in the same soil where we'd made our mud pies and sand castles. This she did daily in late spring and summer, in the early morning or evening, or sometimes both, when the sun was not particularly hot. Her habits were guided by the sun and just as regular: up at six and out of the house after a light breakfast of juk, a thin rice gruel, or gee ma wot mein, a light noodle dish, to tend to her sandbox garden.

But her botanical sights did not stop there. They rose to the "ledge," as we called it, a plateau covered in brambles, tall grasses, and a few scraggly blackberry bushes and separated from the sandbox by a swath of lawn and a seven-foot rock wall. The ledge led to our various woodland hideouts: Flat Rock, Teepee, and Old Baldy. Single-handedly, Nai-nai cleared it of weeds, turned over the soil, broke up the clods, and planted her second vegetable garden, an exact replica of the first. We had to tiptoe around the ledge to get to our sylvan clubhouses. We also saw larger platters of despised bok choy, seared only until it released its juices, on the dinner table, along with thinly sliced flank steak and tomatoes, whose skins were wrinkled but whose flesh remained firm. This was a great departure. Green vegetables as prepared by my mother were leached rather than cooked; her "lightly sautéed" tomatoes stewed, even sauced, to a premature death.

Our front lawn was bordered by flower gardens, three separate and different ones: a straight line of red rosebushes; a circular plot of fragrant peonies and lilies of the valley; and a winding path of pink and lavender hyacinths, crimson tulips, sunny jonquils, and daffodils. Like our sandbox and ledge, this third and last garden would fall under Nai-nai's hoe. (Was nothing safe from it? Nothing sacrosanct?) Instead of red, yellow, pink, and purple blossoms each spring, the white and green oblong heads of bok choy and the round scarlet ones of tomatoes made their appearance every summer. In retaliation, my sisters and I went on a hunger strike against Nai-nai's ubiquitous bok choy. We ate as little as possible of the detested vegetable without attracting the attention of our parents, who would respond by filling our bowls with the stuff. And when we came home in the company of our non-Chinese friends (our Chinese-American friends would have understood, and sympathized), we boycotted our front door and its embarrassing vegetable path for the back door.

Unfortunately, the path to the back door posed its own problems. On some days, my mother's umbrella clothesline was hung with drying laundry. On others, when Nai-nai got there first, it was strung with bok choy leaves in neat rows. Sometimes it supported cookie trays of chili peppers shriveling in the sun. The bok choy Nai-nai would pickle in Mason jars and add to stir-fried pork at dinnertime. The dried chilies she would use to enliven a number of dishes. The fresh ones she would mince, mash, and mix with garlic, salt, and spices (no oil), then bottle and squirrel away at the back of a kitchen cabinet to age until it became la-jiao — to be used very sparingly. Not because it was that hot, but because, even we had to admit, it was that good.

Nai-nai regularly engaged in another culinary pursuit that, if we were with non-Chinese friends, required our reconnoitering before we chose which route to take, front door or back. My father had bought her an expensive knife sharpener, but Nai-nai preferred honing her Chinese cleaver to a razor sharpness with a dribble of water, a steady supply of elbow grease, and the fine-grained flagstones at the edge of our back porch. A dull granite gray at the top of the blade, it turned progressively brighter and burnished in the middle until, at its cutting edge, it was the color of lightning, and possibly as trenchant. When its wooden handle split in two, my mother bought Nai-nai a new cleaver, which she relegated to the back of the knife drawer. There it lay, never to slice meat, dice vegetables, split firewood, gut and scale fish, crush garlic, flatten ginger slices, sharpen pencils, whittle new chopsticks, or otherwise fulfill its myriad purposes. Ever ingeniously waste not-want not, Nai-nai whittled part of a small branch from the front-yard sumac tree and stuck it onto the end of the cleaver. With the single-mindedness of an axe murderer, she then tested it by chopping a piece of pork butt until its consistency approximated a mash. She added minced dried Chinese black mushrooms, crisp water chestnuts, garlic, soy sauce, and spices, and steamed the large patty until it was bathed in its own juices, a sure signal that it was done. With a dish such as this, I could almost forgive her the humongous platter of bok choy that accompanied it.

It was a concession — the closest she ever came to compromise — for Nai-nai to accompany us to Chinatown to eat out. She didn't consider restaurant meals exactly wasteful, but dining out held less pleasure for her than eating in. (She did rise to the occasion, however, by wearing her royal blue jacquard silk cheongsam, apple-green jade earrings, and Shalimar perfume.) Nai-nai knew that her cooking was better, if less varied, and felt that the din of Chinatown eateries didn't allow proper digestion, much less full appreciation of the meal.

Chinatown nevertheless afforded her the opportunity to shop for necessities that she herself didn't raise in her three vegetable gardens. Like guy-lan (Chinese broccoli) and bamboo shoots. Like the hundred-pound sack of long-grain white rice that she stored in the shiny new garbage can she had my father buy specifically for that purpose. Like the meats that American markets didn't carry, such as laap cheung (pork sausage) and char siu (roast pork). For us, her grandchildren, she would always buy a tin of hard coconut candies, whose microscopically thin inner "paper" wrapper of glucose it delighted us to eat. And a box of licoricey preserved plums — sweet, salty, and sour all at once.

As for chickens, Nai-nai insisted on only freshly killed — an ultimatum which required a trip in the opposite direction, to Yonkers, where a Chinese émigré ran a chicken farm out of his large garage. One of us children would accompany my father and wade through the sea of clucking and pecking birds, a few of which would then be selected for the chopping block — thankfully out of sight and earshot — and ultimately for our dinner table. Not every chicken landed immediately in Nai-nai's wok, despite her obsession with freshness. One that didn't ended up pressed flat and dangling from the light fixture in the center of the back-porch ceiling. For over a year there it hung, season after season, in all sorts of weather, ostensibly to absorb the most salubrious northern breezes for best taste. We never did get to sample the results of Nai-nai's cured chicken, though we tasted more than once the bile that rose to our throats when we had to answer non-Chinese friends' queries as to what on earth was hanging from our porch ceiling instead of a light bulb.

One day my mother unhooked the sorry-looking bird and threw it out. She simply assumed that, after a year, Nai-nai had forgotten about it. Whether or not her assumption and deed were correct was never completely clarified.

That summer the pollen was especially prolific, which aggravated my mother's hay fever. On our next trip to Chinatown, Nai-nai entered a yao-pu, a Chinese medicinal herb shop, and bought a collection of roots, bark, seeds, and pods. At home she boiled them in water to concoct a "surefire" cure for hay fever which also caused the entire house to reek of a combination of curry, melting tar, and gunpowder. The result of Nai-nai's witch's brew was threefold: she was vindicated for the loss of her porch-cured chicken, my mother suffered a lot less from her sneezing fits, and all our nasal passages felt clean as a whistle, as if they'd been reamed.

Summer, a trial for my allergic mother, was a mixed blessing for us, all the more so now that Nai-nai had come to stay ("Come to stay! Does that mean forever?") The season heralded the end of the school year and the commencement of a long vacation period. But it also meant mowing the lawns and cutting the English ivy and digging out the crabgrass and dandelions. It also marked the beginning of our visits to the dentist, not only for my sisters and me but for Nai-nai as well. Alone, it was a twenty-minute walk from our house to Dr. Savoy's office. When we accompanied Nai-nai, it was an unadulterated outing. On one such excursion, Nai-nai recognized gow-gay growing among the matted weeds and fallen horse chestnuts. Gow-gay is a cress-like, leafy green vegetable that grows in southern China and makes a fragrant soup. Gow-gay, Nai-nai discovered, also grew on Fieldston Road in the north Bronx.

From that moment on, Nai-nai's once immutable weekly schedule underwent a fundamental change. Sundays, she appeared before us wearing her version of a sun-bonnet — a wool hat lined in flannel (she abhorred being cold) which she had sewn herself and that looked like a tea cozy — and carrying a large shopping bag. It was our duty to take turns accompanying her to the gow-gay patch beneath the horse chestnut trees that lined the road to Dr. Savoy's office. Nai-nai would forage like a squirrel until she had an adequate supply for a few evening meals, while whichever of her granddaughters who had been pressed into service waited across the street, pretending she wasn't hers.

When the gow-gay patch was picked bare, we thought we were home free. But no. Just as her gardening sights hadn't stopped with our sandbox, her gathering instincts strayed farther afield as well — to the grassy islands that divided Henry Hudson Parkway into north- and south- bound lanes. How she divined that those oblong oases in the middle of a four-lane highway were fertile ground for her newfound soup greens is something I'll never know. I do remember, however, that when the coast was clear of cars, we scurried Nai-nai over to one of those tiny plots, where she would spend the next half hour or so — an eternity to us — placidly gathering her gow-gay while trucks rumbled and cars whizzed by us on both sides. Later, neither Nai-nai nor our parents added insult to injury by insisting that we eat the soup our expedition had made possible: gow-gay, chicken stock, and egg beaten to a froth. In fact, their contented silence while the three of them finished off the pot intimated better than words that they profited from our obstinate refusal.

* * *

Steamed Pork Patty with Water Chestnuts and Dried Chinese Mushrooms

1 pound pork butt, trimmed of excess fat and minced fine (or 1 pound lean
ground pork, minced fine)
4 large dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes, stems
discarded, caps minced
10 canned water chestnuts, minced
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon sugar
1½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon fine julienne of peeled fresh gingerroot

In a bowl stir together the pork, mushrooms, water chestnuts, soy sauce, oil, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. Aerate the mixture by fluffing it with a fork.

Transfer mixture to a loaf pan or other baking pan that will fit in a steamer, being careful not to pack the mixture down. Sprinkle it with the gingerroot. Put the pan in a steamer set over boiling water. Steam the pork, covered, for 30 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.



I was in seventh grade, no longer a child but not yet a teen, when Nai-nai came to live with us. Her arrival and my mother's abdication of the kitchen were evident in the lunches my sisters and I carried to school, which elicited curiosity and interest, some of it horrified. That is to say that, even though we tried to imitate our peers and sometimes had in our lunches the chemical additives we so admired in theirs, this follow-the-leaderism soon stopped. Instead of the Sno Balls and Twinkies from the local Shop-well or Grand Union, our desserts often came from faraway Chinatown. Some of these desserts were not sweet but savory, like dried beef, protected by thin paper packets that made exquisite rustling noises when you tore them open. Dried beef is no doubt an acquired taste, but one which I loved — enough to stand up to the put-down that "it looks like tree bark" by not only offering but daring the person who said so to try a bit. And with that, I would tear a strip from the thin, spicy beef square and extend it to the doubting Thomas or Theresa, who usually shook his head or turned up her nose — to my glee.

Not only was there that much more for me, I also managed to score a triumph of sorts, over my quietude, my shyness, my shame to be Chinese. "Tree bark" was the catalyst that made me overcompensate for my innate sensitivity, examples of which were legion and often resulted in tears: Strange children pulling at the corners of their eyes. Or singing "Ching chong Charlie sitting on a fence/ Couldn't make a dollar out of fifteen cents," which, the first time I heard the ditty, I failed to understand referred to me — a double degradation. Or, from one or two of my classmates, that my test scores, often the highest in class, "didn't count" since they weren't the result of diligent study, which they being American were constrained to do, but I being Chinese, "with a different brain," didn't have to do. "Tree bark" made me bold where my physical features and my mental makeup made me shrink. Dried beef gave me the courage to speak up, to challenge my intimidator. I became a veritable daredevil regarding the "weird" Chinese food I brought to school: "Want some? It's delicious. No?" The subtext was "How come I can eat it and you can't? Too bad. You're really missing out on something good." My lunch bag bravura bore another kind of fruit, one completely unexpected, with some of the boys in my class, those who still liked a one-of-the-guys, tomboyish streak in a girl but who a year later were smitten by the most feminine of my peers: Billy Berntsen waited for me at the shortcut to walk me the rest of the way home. Henry Sinkel asked me out to a dance at Neighborhood House. And that heartthrob James Burke smiled at me, twice. (To think that Nai-nai, via dried beef, was responsible for my newfound, short-lived popularity!)

Unlike dried beef, guy-ying-gee was much harder to feel confident about eating or offering, even on a dare. A double dare. Guy-ying-gee came in two forms: preserved purple plums which were wrinkled, moist, large, and sour with an undertaste of sweetness; and preserved purple plums which were smooth, dry, small, and salty with an undertaste of sourness. Respectively, they looked very much like a larger and a smaller animal's turds, wet and dry In the case of guy-ying-gee, I enjoyed these preserved fruits in silence, as much silence and enjoyment as the outer rustley paper, then the inner crackly paper, and the rude but visually unimpaired verbal remarks of my classmates allowed. With weeks of practice, I was, when unemboldened to say something back, magnanimous enough to say nothing at all I absolved them of their food fear, and I hoped to win them back — with mangoes, which in the fifties were hardly the popular fruit they are now. Nai-nai bought them in Chinatown — the big, oval, rosy, succulent mangoes grown in the Caribbean, not the small, lima bean-shaped, stringy mangoes shipped from Florida. Some days I opened my lunch bag to find a half of the fruit, cut longitudinally as close as possible to the tall, thin pit, scored in a grid, and turned inside out, each protuberant golden-orange cube just begging to be devoured.


Excerpted from Daughter of Heaven by Leslie Li. Copyright © 2011 Leslie Li. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Recipes ix

Preface: Sucking on a Stone xi

Acknowledgments xix

1 A Walk in Nai-Nai's Garden 1

2 Food Shame and Sand-Wishes 11

3 Chinese New Year 23

4 Three Short Fish Tales (and One Shrimp Cocktale) 35

5 Against the Grain 55

6 The Sound of One Stone Falling 69

7 Bitter Rice, Sweet Rice 81

8 In the Forest of Osmanthus Trees 99

9 Dashao 117

10 Moon Cakes, Jade Rabbits, and Elixirs of Immortality 139

11 Seated on a Stone 155

12 Juk Sing 179

13 Clear Brightness and Hungry Ghosts 197

14 The Village with No Name 219

15 Centenary 229

Afterword: If Stones Could Speak 259

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