From food rations in China to a career in food
When she was a child in China during the 1960s, Ying Chang Compestine’s father was jailed as a suspected spy for America and her mother was left to take care of her, her two older brothers, and their grandparents. Out of that difficult situation, a love of food was born. “We [didn’t] have much money and all the food was rationed, so I feel like I never got enough to eat,” says the author, 50. “I followed my grandmother around in the kitchen and I felt like it was my only chance to be close to the food, to get there before my brothers.” Since then, she has served as food editor for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine and written 20 books, including her latest and perhaps most personal, “Cooking With an Asian Accent: Eastern Wisdom in a Western Kitchen,” released this year.
Q. How is this book different from others you have written?
A. It’s very personal. It took me almost 10 years to write. I wrote one fictionalized memoir about my life, “Revolution Is not a Dinner Party,” that won many, many awards and became required reading in many schools. When I finished that book, I really wanted to do a book about the food aspect, so that’s what this book is about. It’s about my journey from East to West, what inspired me to be a writer. I wanted the reader to understand my life’s journey, why I love food so much and how my life and food [have] evolved.
Q. How did they evolve?
A. At the beginning I thought I would just write a simple and healthy Chinese cookbook. And then I realized I’m not cooking traditional Chinese food. Unlike many cookbook authors, I feel very humbled. They all have culinary training, they went to school. I never did. And when I watched how my grandmother cooked on a coal stove, nothing professional about it, it was very simple cooking. I realized that when I travel around the world, I like all different types of food. I thought, what can I do to write a book that kind of reflects my own cooking, my own lifestyle? So that’s why I feel like my food is not just another Asian cookbook. I combined all the Asian wisdom and applied it to the food, so a lot of it you can tell is not just traditional Asian recipes. It’s healthy ingredients with a Western approach.
Q. Is there a dish in the book with a particularly special meaning?
A. The [yin-yang] rice ball, that’s kind of personal. My grandmother made me that when I went to school. Even when I was a young student we had to follow General Mao [Zedong’s] teaching to go to work in the countryside, and I would walk for two hours. Instead of packing a sandwich, that [rice ball] was the equivalent of a sandwich for lunch for me. Pulling weeds in the hot summer day, all morning I would be thinking about the rice ball when I was working the field, and I always had this fond memory. The recipe is different because every time my grandmother made it, it would depend on what ingredients she had in hand. It is always a special treat.
Q. The Chinese New Year is on Jan. 31. What are some of your celebratory dishes?
A. Any spring roll would be always a good one, because the Chinese New Year is the coming of the spring. The mango-lobster spring roll, that could be a possibility. The Buddha’s Delight noodles or Happy Family, that’s the one at the Chinese New Year parents always encouraged. We always had stir-fried dishes with all different ingredients in them, and the families would encourage their children to eat so in the coming year they wouldn’t fight with each other.
Q. Does your family begin the festivities the night before, as many do?
A. My new kitchen was just completed and I’m going to host a Chinese New Year party. Many years on New Year’s I always would travel or tour, but this year I’m going to be home. That’s the transition from my parents, even though the food was always rationed, the New Year time we always had a little extra food. So my parents were always hosting the party, we always have friends or family come over to share, I even have some pictures with a very small table crowded with many people sharing the meal. So I carry on that tradition, I invite friends over and we have a celebration together.
Correction: Due to information given to the Globe, an earlier version incorrectly stated “Cooking With an Asian Accent: Eastern Wisdom in a Western Kitchen” was released last year.