Chef Ming Tsai of "Simply Ming" shares a recipe close to his heart.
By: Linnea Crowther
2 years ago
In Legacy.com's Recipe Vault series, celebrity chefs and food bloggers share how recipes preserve our life stories and connect us to those we've lost.
Chef Ming Tsai is the host and executive producer of "Simply Ming," now in its 13th season. The James Beard Award-winning chef and author of five cookbooks owns two Boston-area restaurants, Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon. The recipes he loves are au courant, but his cooking lineage also harks back to his ancestors – and he has plenty of ancestors, as discovered by the hit Public Broadcasting Service genealogy show, "Finding Your Roots." Host Henry Louis Gates traced chef Ming's lineage back 100 generations to one of the first emperors of China.
When we asked chef Ming to talk to us about a recipe with a connection to a lost loved one, he only had to go back two generations. His Red Roast Pork Shoulder evokes memories of childhood visits to his Chinese grandfather in Taiwan. Read our interview with chef Ming as he reminisces about his grandpa's cooking and the open-air markets of Taipei that "always smelled like my childhood," and don't miss the recipe so you can try this mouthwatering dish at home.
I'd like to start by asking you how you got interested in cooking.
You know, that was just an easy thing for me because I was, still am, and will always be hungry. With that in mind, I hung out in the kitchen. As soon as I could stand, 2 years old or whenever it was, I hung out in the kitchen. I'd watch grandpa and grandma cook and watch mom and dad cook. I liked the flames, I liked the smoke, and I especially liked the Scooby snacks they would hand to me as I was standing there.
That's really how I fell in love. Just all the action. But when you're a little kid, your parents disappear, and then food appears. So I wanted to know what the hell was going on back there. I just went back there, and I haven't left.
Do you have any memory of some of the first things you cooked or helped out with?
Oh, absolutely. One of my first real skill sets was sharpening cleavers. My grandfather, with an oilstone, these big Chinese cleavers – and I'm 5 or 6 years old. I was fascinated. He'd test it on a piece of paper – you knew you did a good job if you could slice a piece of paper, right?
The first thing I touched, foodwise, was making dumplings and spring rolls. We would have, quite often, dumpling parties as we were in Dayton, Ohio. We'd get the other three Chinese families over, and we were Chinatown because we were the Chinese population of Dayton, Ohio. Anyway, we'd just make a truckload of dumplings and then, of course, steam them, boil them, sear them, and eat them. Then the spring rolls – back then, we called them egg rolls – using the different wrapper, the egg roll wrapper. We'd do that because we used to cater, and we used to also do the International Food and Wine Festival in Dayton, Ohio, and we would have to roll about 5,000 spring rolls and sell them over the weekend. So I got pretty good at making dumplings and rolling spring rolls at a young age. I knew that spring rolls were cash, and cash paid rent, so I figured it out pretty early.
The first real dish, the first dish that I made by myself was a Duncan Hines vanilla cake. I was probably 6 or 7. I thought it was just fascinating that you could get oil and some milk or water and cake mix, put it in a pan, and bake it – and cake. Like, wow! That's pretty cool.
I think that for anybody, having somebody cook for you is a special thing. Even if it's not perfect. It's special that someone did it for you.
A chicken salad sandwich tastes better when your wife makes it than when you make it yourself.
Always. And that really set me on my path. Wow, you can make people happy through food? I'm going to think about doing this. I might not have had that intent, but I guess I did.
So do you think that's what you like best about cooking? Or is there something else that's your favorite thing about cooking?
Oh yeah, the reason that I'm a chef is that I can make people happy. I can change people. They can be miserable, pissed off, upset, sad, whatever – give me two hours with them in one of my restaurants and they can leave a changed person. You can absolutely make people happy through food. And there's also no better glue in this world than food. Food brings everyone together at the dinner table.
It was 5:30 p.m. when we ate dinner in Dayton, Ohio. My mom, my dad, my brother, and I; it was the four of us. And then on Fridays with the two grandparents. Religiously: 5:30. And everything was discussed at the dinner table. Not only, of course, what we're eating. Not only what we're going to eat at our next meal. But grades, and people you may be seeing, and problems, and politics, and sometimes sports – but everything. All problems, all issues, discussed while eating food. That's really changed in this day and age, in this country especially. So few families, unfortunately, get together and sit down for dinner. Everyone's so busy.
And we see movements to get people to do it more. We have to be reminded, you should really do this! It's good for you!
I'm working on my next cookbook – I'm a chef, so I write cookbooks. It's got recipes that are tasty and, of course, end up being healthy. I'm not a diet chef; I just like making tasty food that's good for you because you are what you eat. But I want to expound more upon how food can be the glue of the balance of your life. If you really prioritize dinner, so much changes. That means you do have to go to the market; that means you do have to shop; that means you do have to plan ahead of time. It means you do need to say, hey, dinner's at 6:30. So when you can plan it, then other people plan around it, and guess what, they show up.
There's just something about a home-cooked meal – the way it perfumes the home, the way that you're giving a part of yourself every time you cook for your family. There's no other art form, or even non-art form, that does that. Everything else is either sight or sound or smell; this you actually put into your body and nourish yourself. Plus, the sight and the sound and the smell. There's nothing else in the world like food.
It's all about balance. This world's crazy right now, especially this country. There are a lot of crazy people in this world. So we've got to change this conversation. It's all about negative, keeping people out, ostracizing people – I mean, really? That's what we're talking about now? Can't we just sit down? Sit down for dinner.
We're talking so much about family that I'm curious about the recipe we're going to talk about that reminds you of somebody you've lost – is it a family member that it reminds you of?
Oh yeah, absolutely. This is grandpa's famous Red Roast Pork Shoulder.
So I would love it if you would tell me a little bit about the recipe, about grandpa, and about how the two come together.
So, this is my dad's dad, Yeh-Yeh; that means paternal grandfather. His name was Stephen Tsai. And he went to Yale in 1918 – way ahead of his time. He came back to China and was the comptroller of Yenching University, which is now Beijing University. He fled Beijing when they had this ruler, a guy named Mao, who was going to come through and destroy and kill all thinkers. He was certainly a thinker; he was a democratic thinker, having been schooled in the West. He fled to Taiwan, thank God, because all of his friends and fellow professors were all killed because anyone who could think was a threat. So he ended up, after having had a successful career in Beijing, in Taiwan and having a successful career in Taipei in the business sphere.
We used to go visit him about every other summer from age 1, or zero – my brother went to Taiwan when he was about two months – and I was probably there six or seven times over 15 years when I was a kid. And all the memories are based on food. Every single one of them. They had a great cook named Ah-Hao. She was a wonderful cook, and she would do the daily cooking. Grandma would help out a little bit, but she was really the cook of the household.
But special occasions – it could be weekends, or just when Yeh-Yeh felt like it – he would make his red roast pork shoulder. My mouth waters when I think about it, and I make it often, still. So it's a pork butt, right, a pork shoulder with the fat cap on it. You definitely leave the skin and fat on; that's a good 2-inch piece of fat that's on top of the shoulder. And it's a slow, slow braise. Feng shao is the Chinese name for it, red roast. It's primarily soy sauce – traditionally, it's two types of soy sauce, both dark and light – rock candy for sweetness, lots of ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise, Thai bird chili, Shaoxing wine, and red wine. Traditionally, he would not use red wine; I have adapted it with red wine, for the acidity of red wine. And then a little water because you don't want it too salty. Tons of scallions as well. And garlic as well.
It's deliciously savory … it tastes like the spices of Christmas, if you would, and the sweetness of rock candy. And he would put the whole pork shoulder in this, and he would braise it for three and a half to four hours, depending on how big it was. And it would just go so slowly on the stovetop. You'd have the cover on it, but it was ajar. And that smell of the red roast would permeate the home, and you just got hungrier and hungrier and hungrier. Finally, when it was time to eat, usually along with it you would certainly have a big pot of rice. You would take bok choy that's cleaned and halved, baby bok choy, and throw it into the red roast liquid, literally for just five minutes, just to kind of blanch it. If you put it in from the beginning, it would completely fall apart. So just for five to 10 minutes, he would blanch the bok choy.
Then he would take the huge piece of meat, put it on a platter surrounded by the bok choy, with the sauce, and that would be served. We'd get bowls of rice, and we'd eat it with tons of sambal. Because this was a sweeter dish, as I mentioned, so everyone had a little ramekin of sambal, the chili paste. Not only was the meat tender and delicious and savory and sweet; the fat cap was as good as the best foie gras you could ever have. Just pure, delicious fat that was filled with flavor from all these things I just told you about. So awesome.
The best, of course, is the first night when you eat it, but leftovers? Oh my God. It's like pulled pork, right, we'd reheat it slowly and put it between the steamed bread, the mantou. So the next day we'd reheat it and throw it in there with sambal and cucumbers, and then you'd have the best sandwich, and that was basically as good as the first day. The first day, though, when the fat is fresh and soft, and you can spoon it, it's just ridiculously good. Within moderation. I mean, you can't eat this every day. As a once a month type thing? Awesome.
Do you still make it once a month or so?
I do. I just made my version with Carla Hall, of all people, on my show. She's opening up a Southern restaurant, and she wanted to show off her Southern roast, so she came over. It's the current season – I think it just aired in a lot of markets. So she wanted to make her grandma's collard greens, and then chow chow and corn cake. Am I'm like, Carla, that sounds awesome. Since you're making grandma's, I'm going to make grandpa's red roast pork. So we kind of made a meal together, which went awesome with her collard greens.
It sounds amazing. It seems like this is also something that, when you're making it, it's caught up with memories of grandpa. Right?
Oh yeah. Not only memories of grandpa and grandma, but memories of Taiwan. Memories of being on the streets of Taipei, walking with grandpa through this great center of town. It's called Ximending, which is a three-story concrete open-air market and restaurants. They literally would grab you by your arm and invite you in, and they would say "scallion pancakes and pot stickers." Before you could say no, they would have an order in front of you. And then you had to pay them. I would love it. We'd walk through here, and we'd stop at three or four places and just chow. Back then, it was so cheap, we're talking pennies, literally, like under a dollar for an order of pot stickers. It was ridiculous.
Those markets always smelled like my childhood. It was things cooking, spices everywhere. Yes, there was raw meat and raw vegetables, since they had the market stalls as well. So it wasn't like a glazed doughnut factory smell; it was a real smell, the smell of food being prepped. Throw in a little Taiwan pollution. I mean, it was a true smell. I remember fondly. Especially with grandpa. It would be so hot in the summer, 100 degrees, and grandma wouldn't walk out so much, but grandpa would. He would take us to a place that served something called goubuli baozi. Baozi is a steamed bun, but goubuli baozis are seared, and they literally mean, translated, "this is so bad not even a dog would eat" baozi. Goubuli – "gou" is dog, so "goubuli" is "dog wouldn't even eat it." So that was the kitschy name for it – dog wouldn't even eat it – and it was the best thing in the world. We loved goubuli baozi. Those are great memories.
So what we do nowadays, to make it smarter and faster and easier to cook, since nobody has four hours to cook something for their family to come home to, but we can still take the pork butt, just cut them into nice 2-inch cubes. So now the braising is, of course, much faster. It's just as delicious; it just doesn't look as beautiful since it's not one big piece. And then what I did on my show, on "Simply Ming," and this is what I do at home now, is I use a pressure cooker. I have this great electronic pressure cooker that we've sold and designed, which I love, and in 30 minutes it's done.
There's a great book you should read called "Savor," by Lillian Chung. She works at the Harvard nutritional school. Great Asian lady. She wrote this book with Thich Naht Hanh, the second most popular Buddhist in the world, next to the Dalai Lama. It's about savoring. Their first example is if you have an apple in your hand. When you're eating an apple, pay respect to that apple. Don't be driving your car and texting and watching TV. No, take a bite and think about that apple. Think about who grew it, where it came from, the water, the rain, the seed, the growth, everything. If you do that, two miraculous things happen. One, it tastes better, because you appreciate it more. It's not just a thing you bought at a grocery store. If you do think about it, as you're eating and thinking and savoring, you eat slower. And that's one of the reasons, the key reasons, in my book, why there is so much obesity. People eat so fast here. They eat so fast, not only do they overeat, but by the time you realize your brain knows you're full, it's 20 minutes more of eating. Slow it down and savor it. You appreciate it more, it tastes better, and you don't eat as much. It's a huge win.
If there were one recipe that you would be remembered by – or maybe two, the one you are remembered by and the one you'd want to be remembered by, if those are two different things – what would those be?
That's a good question. I mean, my most popular dish, which everyone says is my signature dish, is my Miso-Sake Marinated Butterfish. It's just the most delicious way to prepare fish. It's ironic that it's a Japanese-influenced dish, even though I'm Chinese, but that's OK by me because I trained in Japan and I love Japan. I love China as well; obviously, I'm very proud to be Chinese. But this particular fish from Alaska, that's line-caught and sustainable, with this particular marinade, is just so good.
So that would be the dish that I would probably be most remembered for. The comments I get from it, which is the all-telling comment, people will stop me in the restaurant or write me fan mail and they say, I never liked fish, but I tried your dish, and it's the best piece of fish I ever had. So if you can convert a non-fish-lover to like fish, I think something good's going on.
If there's a dish that never changes but always changes, it's fried rice. It's always the most basic dish ever, based on what's in your fridge. Every Chinese household, and now most households, will have leftover rice. So you can always make fried rice. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, you can always make fried rice. And it is kind of like life, right? You open the fridge, you get what you get. You've got to make the best possible thing out of only what you have. You can't just go order stuff. You open your fridge – that's all you have, and that's really how life is, right? You wake up, and this is everything you have at your disposal to make this day a great day. That's what fried rice is. You can make delicious fried rice. And by the way, you can have all the meat and protein in the world, and shrimp and lobster, and the fried rice can be horrible. Because it's not ultimately what's in it. It's how it's treated. Isn't that life?
You can have all the toys in the world; you can have all the money in the world. It doesn't matter. It's how you treat it and how you treat the stuff – what you do with the stuff. Are you using it to make a difference and changing the world? Or are you just being self-absorbed and driving your Porsche around?
I like that you brought up fried rice again, having discussed that earlier as your first-ever dish that you created. Maybe that is something worth remembering you for.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, the most popular dish that I talked about, I think that's great, but I'll tell you, to make the most simple egg and scallion fried rice, it's a real skill. You would think, oh my God, four ingredients, anyone can do that. No.
No, of course not.
The more simple it is, the harder things are to cook. You can't hide it under sauces and garnishes and caviar and blah blah blah. Just rice, garlic, ginger, scallion, egg. That's the most basic fried rice you can make. But if your rice is overcooked or undercooked? It's crap. Or if your scallions are mushy, it's crap. So you have to start with the finest of those basic ingredients to at least give you a chance at making perfect fried rice.
You're making me want to make fried rice for dinner tonight.
I make it at least twice a week at home. It's my go-to for my kids. Oh my God, they'll eat it till the cows come home. As will I. We do, by the way as a side note, 50/50, meaning our house rice, both at my restaurant and at home, is 50 percent brown rice and 50 percent white rice. A simple tip: Soak your brown rice for an hour in tap water first, then combine it with your white rice. Wash it together and cook it together. When you mix two rices cooked separately, it's not the same. You want to cook them together, but you have to catch the brown rice up with moisture to cook like white rice.
That's a great tip – thank you!
Yep, and it's so much better for you. It's so important – you are what you eat. So think about what you eat. You really are what you eat. And again, one of my biggest movements that I'm focused on is the whole obesity crisis we have in this country. One out of two children is borderline obese in this country, which is moronic. Supposedly we're the smartest, most powerful country in the world, but one out of two kids is borderline obese? Doesn't seem so smart and powerful to me.
So think about what you're eating because you are what you eat, and eat in moderation. You have to. You can't eat two Big Macs, but you can't eat two quinoa bowls either. It doesn't matter what you're eating; you've just got to be moderate. And then on top of all that, probably the other most important thing is, as Michelle Obama says, you've got to move. You have to move. You do; there's no substitute. You can eat a PowerBar a day, lunch and dinner that's all you eat, and you'll still lose no weight if you're not moving. It's pretty sensible. If you make it a priority, it's not nearly as hard as people think.
Here's chef Ming's recipe for Red Roast Pork Shoulder, re-engineered as a quick-cooking dish for today's busy home chefs.
Pressure Cooker Red Roast Pork
By Ming Tsai
1 bottle dry red wine
2 cups soy sauce
2 cups water
14 ounces rock sugar (or 2 cups dark brown sugar)
5 pieces ginger, long 1/4-inch slices
1 head garlic, unpeeled and halved horizontally
2 bunches scallions, white part sliced into 3-inch lengths, green part sliced 1/8-inch thick
2 star anise
3 dried Thai bird chilies
2 cinnamon sticks
4-pound boneless pork butt, cut into 1-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. In a 6-quart pressure cooker over high heat, add the wine, soy sauce, and water. Bring to a boil.
2. Add dark brown sugar, ginger, garlic, white part of scallions, star anise, Thai bird chilies, cinnamon sticks; stir to dissolve sugar.
3. Season pork lightly with salt and pepper and add pork to cooker. If liquid doesn’t cover pork, add more water. Lock lid in place and bring to high pressure and cook for about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let pressure release naturally.
4. Carefully remove lid, tilting it away from you to avoid any excess steam. With a slotted spoon, remove pork to a platter. Glaze pork with braising liquid, garnish with scallion greens, and serve family style.
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