CAMBRIDGE — Between her work as a patent lawyer and her award-winning food blog, Tiny Urban Kitchen, Jennifer Che rarely cooks for herself. She might grab a Clover Food Lab chickpea fritter on her way to an a cappella rehearsal or munch on leftovers from the restaurant she’s blogging about. But a full, elaborate meal on a Wednesday night? She just writes about food. She doesn’t always practice what she preaches.
But today she is. In a sunny condo near Harvard Square, she’s chopping shallots for lo bah png, a Taiwanese meat sauce served over rice. In a bowl, dried black mushrooms are coming back to life. An orange pot sits on her stovetop. Che’s kitchen is indeed tiny, sleek with black cabinets and white counters, and an occasional surprise, like a stuffed animal centerpiece or a toaster that looks like Domo, the Japanese cartoon character. Che runs through the history of Domo as she tosses produce into the pot, giggling and exuberant with self-aware nerdiness. Her black bob falls in her face as she stirs, focused on the task.
Her kitchen isn’t the only thing that’s tiny. She has to reach on her tiptoes for a rice cooker (a must appliance, she says) on a shelf.
Che, 39, was raised on elaborate weeknight meals in a Taiwanese-American home in Toledo, Ohio. “On a typical night, we would have four different dishes,” she says. “We’d eat family-style, of course, so you’d have a bowl of rice, always a soup, and at least two vegetable-focused dishes, and then one meat.” Today, Che realizes the amount of time her mother put into this. “Thinking back, that’s a lot of work,” she says.
Taiwanese food, Che explains, is Asian comfort food: big, simple meals with bold flavors, heavy with aromatics like shallots and Chinese five-spice (typically cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns), soy sauce, and dark sesame oil. The cuisine offers stir-fried vegetables and stewed meats (often pork), sticky rice, dumplings, and hand pies (more often eaten as street food, rather than for dinner).
Once she left home, came to Boston for college, and married Bryan Che, a general manager at the software company Red Hat, Jennifer Che noticed that Taiwanese food was a tough find, both on the Boston restaurant scene and on blogs. When she had a hankering, she ended up calling home. “My mother would tell me recipes over the phone, and I don’t know if your parents are like this, but in Chinese cooking there’s never really a recipe, it’s just like, ‘Add a little bit of salt and then taste it,’ ” says Che.
And so, with two degrees in hand — one from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she majored in chemistry and began her career as a medicinal chemist, another from Suffolk University Law School, where she went nights to become an intellectual property lawyer and patent agent — she started blogging about Taiwanese food. And because of her mother’s traditional table, and spending time at an aunt’s restaurant back home, Che was primed to explain her cuisine.
“Taiwanese cooking is actually Chinese, Japanese, and native Taiwanese cooking,” says Nina Simonds, a a writer and teacher and an authority on Asian cooking, in a phone interview. “Really, the only people who know it well are the natives of Taiwan.” (Simonds, an occasional contributor to the Food section, has known the Che family for many years and worked with them.)
Many of Che’s recipes are step-by-step guides, missing exact measurements and suggesting that readers taste as they go, a little like her mother told her to do. Others are adapted from a trusted tome in the Che kitchen: “Homestyle Cooking of Taiwan,” a collection of recipes shared by a group of immigrants in California. Stephen Su, who worked on the book’s second edition, “Taiwanese Homestyle Cooking,” also grew up in a second-generation Taiwanese family in the Midwest. He, too, lamented the lack of Taiwanese recipes available in this country. “There are a ton of cookbooks in Taiwan, but they’re not necessarily written in English,” Su explains. “This cookbook was revolutionary in that it was available to those who couldn’t necessarily speak Taiwanese.”
The classic Taiwanese dish Che is making today originally appeared in “Homestyle Cooking.” She adds the mushrooms to ground pork with Chinese five-spice, soy sauce, and rice wine. While the meat simmers, she boils a few eggs, her touch to the dish, which she peels and cooks briefly in the pork cooking juices. “Super easy,” she says, peeling an egg.
Her dish doesn’t get more exotic than the five-spice powder, a seasoning blend available at many supermarkets. According to Cathy Erway, author of the new “The Food of Taiwan,” “Ingredients are extremely accessible in Taiwanese cooking, because unlike cuisines like Indian or Thai, there aren’t as many exotic ingredients that are tough to find.”
Che grew up speaking Mandarin, learned English as a second language, and seems up to all challenges. “For the last three years, all my time had been filled, between class and studying,” she says. When law school was over, she says, “I had all this free time. I went, Oh, I’m going to embrace life and enjoy life! I’m gonna run a marathon! I’m gonna learn how to dance! I’m gonna pick up an instrument, I’m gonna learn how to cook better, I’m gonna start a food blog!”
She never did run a marathon, but after she started the blog, she won a Saveur Best Food Blog award in 2012.
While the meat simmers, Che warns against sipping the cooking juices. “It’s super salty,” she cautions. “It’s very strong on its own.” Lo bah png is often served as a side, according to Che, so she recommends a quick steamed or stir-fried green, like bok choy with ginger.
Su says produce is important in the cuisine. “Taiwanese cooking relies very heavily on the natural flavors of the fresh vegetables,” he says, and they tend not to be spicy. “But they have access to a lot of savory flavors and also sweetness.”
Che understands this and believes that simplicity is part of the magic of Taiwanese food. As she ladles the pork over rice, she places her eggs, sliced and tinted brown at their edges, in the bowl.
“Taiwanese food is not fancy, upscale, molecular,” she says. “It’s the stuff you crave when you feel at home.”