"Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good.” - Alice May Brock (of Alice's Restaurant fame)
First of all, let me acknowledge this: I am no Asian food expert. I have no roots in any Asian land, and nothing Asian in my DNA of which I am aware. What I do have, however, is a great fondness for Asian food: Japanese with its clean, light flavors, Thai with its coconut and curry. But the Asian food that has been a part of my life since childhood is Chinese.
My family was a fairly traditional 1970s family. We ate meals that mom, for the most part, cooked. We ate them around the dinner table, not in front of the television. We said "the blessing" before we ate it, and we helped clean the kitchen afterward. It was one of the most stable parts of childhood for kids in that era whose life was similar to mine.
Going out to eat was not a several-times-a-week occurrence, as it is for many families in our current time. It was a special treat, and my little sis and I would get excited at the prospect of a change of scenery and some special food when mom and dad announced we were going out.
In the ‘70s, there weren’t many choices for eating out in Port St. Joe, and there were none whatsoever on St. Joe Beach. Occasionally we’d head over to Julia Mae’s in Carrabelle for some of the best-prepared seafood you could find in the area. But most of the time, we’d drive over to Panama City. If it was Sunday, typically we’d go to Morrison’s Cafeteria for fried chicken or meatloaf and strawberry pie.
But if it was a Saturday, you would often find us at The Golden Dragon on 15th Street. Remember that place, locals? There was a big gold-painted dragon statue outside, and you’d enter through a door on the side of the building. You’d then find yourself in a red-carpeted dining room, where you’d sit at a table in naugahyde-padded chairs, waiting for the waiter or waitress to bring water and a little silver pot of hot tea. Sherrin and I loved the tiny teacups, and the tea to which we’d add way too much sugar, using the little packets on the table.
The food in these kinds of restaurants during that time period wasn’t served buffet-style, which I much prefer. It hadn’t been sitting under heat lamps for hours, being poked at by strangers who’d already come and gone. It was freshly made in the kitchen, and when it came out, everything was steaming hot and fresh. You couldn’t bite into an eggroll at first, as it was so steaming hot you’d burn your tongue and not be able to taste the rest of your meal. Self-control was the name of the eggroll-eating game at The Golden Dragon.
Later, though, Mom decided to get in on the trend toward making Asian food at home. She bought a cookbook, which I now own, that was published in 1981 by Betty Crocker, with recipes by the famous restaurateur Leeann Chin. It was aptly named “Betty Crocker’s Chinese Cookbook.”
Dad bought mom a large electric wok to cook some of the recipes in, and she was off and running. She learned to make the most wonderful fried rice from page 80 of the cookbook. She tweaked it a little bit to make it her own, but not too much. She then created a beef stir-fry using a bit of one recipe, a bit more of another, and then throwing in a few ideas of her own. It was, to us, a magnificent, special meal.
It was also a project, what with the beef to be cut and dredged in corn flour, cabbage to be shredded, scallions and celery to be chopped, and mushrooms to be sliced. We’d all pitch in together to do these jobs, barely able to stand the waiting, smelling the succulent fragrance of all the individual ingredients melding into one special culinary creation.
We’d eat bowls of the delicious fried rice topped with the beef and vegetable stir-fry, plus a drizzle of soy sauce and a small handful of crunchy chow-mein noodles, and wish our tummies could hold just one more bite. Thankfully, the meal was even better left over, as are many great dishes which are made with a combination of flavorful ingredients.
Our family still makes “Memaw’s Chinese food” as it’s referred to at our house, or "Ruthie's Chinese food," since that was mom's name, as many of you know. It’s a special occasion when we make it. We reminisce and talk about the times mom made it and how good it was when she added the making of egg rolls from scratch to her repertoire.
I’ll share with you mom’s recipe here, and of course, you can do exactly what she did, and tweak it to make it just as you think you’d enjoy it in your own kitchen. If you decide to make it, please serve it at an actual table, away from the tv for just a little while, put down the phone, and talk to the people around your table as you enjoy it. Invite guests, even, and make it an occasion. Trust me, it’ll taste even better….just the way mom did it.
Ruthie’s beef stir-fry
1 pound round steak, cut into strips
2 bunches scallions, or green onions, chopped
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 eight-ounce package sliced mushrooms
1 small head of cabbage, thinly sliced
2 cans bean sprouts
1 can Chinese vegetables (optional)
1 can chicken or beef broth
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons soy sauce (add a bit more after cooking is finished if dish isn’t salty enough)
For the meat:
Dip the steak strips in a bowl containing two or three egg whites, then dip them into another bowl containing 2/3 cup corn starch, adding more egg or corn starch as needed. Set meat aside, in a single layer on plate.
Put about 1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil in wok (or use deep-sided frying pan), and allow to get hot over medium-high heat. When hot, drop the meat into the skillet, in a single layer, and brown for a couple of minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels or cooling rack. May be done in several batches, if needed.
For the vegetables:
In same wok or skillet, add another tablespoon of oil, and allow to heat for a minute.
Add onions, garlic, celery, and mushrooms, and stir, allowing to cook for 3 minutes.
Add cabbage; stir in to combine with other vegetables. Add can of Chinese vegetables, if using.
Add beef, soy sauce, and can of broth; cook until vegetables are tender and broth has reduced by about half.
Serve over white, brown, or fried rice, and if desired, top with crispy chow mein noodles (found in Asian foods section of grocery store) and more scallions.
Note: I also love to add shredded carrots when I add the mushrooms, though mom did not do that, if memory serves. Also, you can use chicken breast strips in place of the beef, if desired.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.You can email her at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.