Oriental Picnic

April 23, 2019

Coral’s popo measuring out shaoxing wine by the capful.

Photo Credit: Coral Lee


Seeing Hyphen magazine's call for pitches on “Hunger”[1], I immediately thought of my own frustration and inability to re-create flavors and food memories from my childhood. When I first left home for college in middle-of-nowhere-Ohio, I found myself craving memories of food I’ve long since forgotten: the sticky, chewy, stringy texture of a good-for-you/prosperous fungus my grandmother would make for Christmas and Lunar New Year. (I, of course, don’t know the name — neither Mandarin, nor Cantonese nor pinyin — and so, relying on my childhood memory, typed “Chinese lucky food hair” into Google images, in vain.) My parents and I have difficulty communicating beyond surface small talk, but talking about food — more specifically, our food — gives us an excuse to linger. Over 3,000 miles separate us; a gap we occasionally close with images or texts about food.

Recently, I received a battered copy of Yan Can Cook (1982) in the mail. A Cantonese food TV star (quite possibly the first and last), Martin Yan began starring in his own PBS show, Yan Can Cook, in the '80s. He grinned maniacally into the camera while hacking away at vegetables with his cleaver; he made cringeworthy Chinglish puns and made sure all his dishes were ‘exotic’ but not so ‘ethnic’ as to upset the Euro-centric narrative (an example of this: there’s a recipe for a “tapas”-like spread of Chinese-inspired small dishes in the book titled Oriental Picnic[2]). The entire book was so bad, I couldn’t look away. It was the equivalent of rubbernecking at your own people, its culture and history of perception in America. My mom, days later, asked if I liked it. How could I, made-in-America, complain about identity issues and micro-aggressions and tokenization, when she and her siblings and parents happily stowed away on boats and swam across rivers to stir mashed-potato mix at KFC and be spit on and ching-chong’d by their lovely, American classmates? “I love it,” I started to write back, but she beat me: “You got the book?! Wasn’t it a disappointment?! The recipes are not authentic!” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether these flavors/memories even exist outside my memory. Every time I go back home to California to visit my grandmother, she’s cooking less and less and relying more heavily on Americanized ingredients and hyper-efficient/processed foods. This is because of her age, yes; but also it seems to be a huge luxury, a unique-to-our-generation hunger for the physical pleasure, and intellectual/cultural “experience” that food affords us. 

recipe for disaster/tomato and egg

with finger on blade, “x”

marks the spot

at the tip

of each


            以卵击石  yi leun gik sek

with four stones, crack four eggs:

invite disaster by

overreaching yourself.


drag all this sleepily along

the floor

of the wok.


a crumpled handkerchief

of eggs beneath

sugared tomatoes

fish with grandma

cleave the ginger into

chocolate new year coins.


peel off the softer and

darker layers of green, and

with these, tie three or

four loose knots.



granny knots.


back from the market by then,

she will lay the fish over

your woven scallions.


you lift the belly, so she

can insert the coins

of ginger.


sweet soy spattered

and spooned

across unexpecting fish.

made in china            / made in america

                                                nature versus nurture:

                                                do radishes come blushing into the world

                                                or is it bled in?

you send me a book on

chinese cooking on

PBS in the

’80s —

                        complete with tutorials on

                        daikon chrysanthemums and

                        tomato angel wings and

                        seaweed rice rolls.

how are you,

you who swam through rivers to

sew your own thumb into a

pair of chinatown factory denim jeans

                                                to understand my complicated

                                                made in america



[1] See Hyphen magazine’s Finding Food Securities series

[2] Coral Lee and Dr. Jennifer LeMesurier discuss rhetoric and food, including the term “oriental,” on the podcast Meant to be Eaten on Heritage Radio Network


Coral Lee



Coral Lee is a chef, recipe developer, stylist, and radio host/producer. Her show, Meant to be Eaten, on Heritage Radio Network examines cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food (or, more ominously, culinary appropriation).