Tuesday, January 27, 2015

How my Grandmother Learned not to Starve and make Her Chinese Cucumber Salad Recipe

In 1970 my family moved to Hawaii from Jacksonville Florida. It was our third time living in Florida and the move to Hawaii was an exciting and really big adventure for us.

One of the biggest changes was that my maternal Grandmother who we referred to as "Grandma" to differentiate her from my Father's Mother who was called "Big Mama" by the family, came to live with us. That is she moved out of the home she had at the girls school where she was the schools dietitian and ran the kitchens and dining program, and moved in with us to take care of my brother and I while my Mom went back to work teaching.

As a Navy family we were packed up and ready to go in no time at all. My Mom was a master packer and organizer. And my Dad was not too bad either so between the two of them we were so ship-shape when the packers came to put things into the giant Wooden containers which would be shipped to Hawaii, they were shocked as to how easy their job was because of my parents prepping everything. So after the packing the entire contents of our home into brown cardboard moving boxes, each carefully labeled with room and contents as overseen by my Mother, these boxes where placed inside of huge the wooden crates. The purpose of which was at the time two fold. One was to pack them into containers to ship more easily. But the other reason was that once these boxes arrived in Hawaii they would undergo an extermination gassing which was to help eliminate  any non native pests which was a major concern of the Hawaiian State Government. I was more interested and fascinated by the Mayflower moniker on the moving truck, which I somehow thought tied our family's journey to the historic Pilgrims and a journey to a new world. And believe me when I say Hawaii was a new world to our family, it was really truly was.

Nothing could have prepared us for what we would find in all sorts of experiences in Hawaii. We had some of the most powerful cultural, spiritual, and educational experiences that would shape our family and change the way we saw life and even ourselves.  It was a very different world from the Islands today. Still in the development phase of what the Islands would become. For example we were there when wild fields and farms still populated parts of Oahu. In fact there was a famous watercress farm which was under siege by developers the entire time we were in Hawaii. Rather a famous story. Seems the farmer did not want his farm developed and to ensure this upon his death he divided the farm up among every living relative in his family equally. Which apparently was hundreds of people. Thus insuring that it would never be sold.

Hawaii gave our family some amazing experiences. Many of which were introduced to us through our Church. Through Navy friends we were introduced to Trinity United Methodist Church up the hill from us in Pearl City, a suburb of Honolulu.  Now my family was a mixed family religiously and remained so till we moved back to Charleston and ended up in the Episcopal Church and subsequently an offshoot in the form of the French Huguenot Church in downtown Charleston. Which my parents were impressed by because of the amazing Pastor and the fact that the members were so wealthy and so generous that the church never asked for money in the services, ever. Of course there were other great reasons too and great community but that aspect was something to note because it showed such commitment to the church. So how did we end up in the Methodist church for several years? Well now my father had grown up Episcopalian and Baptist and my Mother had grown up Catholic and Methodist. So when they got married they got married in a Methodist church because it was where my Grandparents on my Mother's side belonged and where my Mother had been very involved in the young Adult fellowship. I had asked my Father one time after visiting my Uncle's Baptist Church, where I remember lots of singing and yelling, what the difference between Baptist and Methodist was. And at the time like the ex-Episcopalian he was his answer. "Well Farley, Methodist's are like Baptists that can read". Yes, I loved my Father's sense of humor.

So the other part of the title of this chapter is "How my Grandmother learned not to starve". Well let me explain. So a year or so after we had lived in Hawaii my Grandma decided she needed to get out and learn something. And since she had a culinary background the obvious thing would be a cooking class. So she opted for a course in Chinese cooking that one of her friends introduced her to. So she did indeed learn how to cook alot of really great Chinese food. Some of these recipes I will be disclosed here. But the reason she felt so compelled to learn how to cook Asian food in general came from an experience she had in Japan.

So my Grandmother was actually one of the founding members of Hawaii's first senior citizen social group called the Silver Bells ( Which happened to be her favorite Christmas Song ). And one year the group which included many Asian members decided to take a trip to Japan. The trip which was excellently organized by the Japanese lady members of the group was an amazing experience for my Grandmother. There was just one problem. She came home from this vacation having lost 15 pounds. Why you might ask. Well the answer might surprise you. See in Asia most meals for groups are actually eaten family style. So when they would serve meals on this tour everyone would grab their chopsticks and dig in. Well Grandma did not know how to use chopsticks very well. So by the time she got a few bites in her tour comrades devoured the rest of the food. So she actually lost weight on this vacation! But boy did her chopstick skills improve!

So this recipe is really one of the recipes she learned in the Chinese Cooking School. One of the joys of  sharing this recipe is that is comes from notebook in her own hand that my Mother has kept. There is something really special about sharing her recipes that I am reading in her own hand. It's one of those things that I think is something that speaks directly to my own personal food heritage. I mean I read her recipes and notes written in her own hand. I make this dish and my Grandmother is there serving Egg Foo Young and Chinese Spare ribs. Telling me things about life I would learn no where else. She's in every bite and I am so glad she taught me how to cook and love through food.

So here is her Chinese Cucumber Salad recipe. It's simple and so good. So next time you want to kick up your cucumber salad try this and be happy that my Grandma survived her vacation to teach us how to make this salad.

Irene's Chinese Cucumber Salad

  •    2 English cucumbers, tough skin removed

    • 3 cloves garlic, crushed and minced

    • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  •   1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar (or rice vinegar)

  •   1 tablespoon light soy sauce

  •   1 teaspoon sugar

  •   1/2 teaspoon salt

    • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

    • 1 tablespoon mixed black and white sesame seeds

    • 1 scallion white and light green parts sliced on the bias 


Cut Cucumbers into very thin slices
Mix all other ingredients in a bowl
Right before serving pour the dressing over the cucumbers and mix well
Mix in Sesame Seeds and garnish with the chopped scallions

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