Chinese food in California has a remarkable heritage, going back to the earliest days of the Gold Rush (beginning 1849) when – according to Andrew Coe in his book Chop Suey, “Chinese immigrants pursued opportunities that took them to the rawest and most remote outposts in North America and carried their culinary traditions with them.”
By the 1850s, a provision network carried Chinese kitchen equipment and ingredients from the Pearl River to the furthest reaches of California.
I’m always fascinated by what the characters in my books are eating, and Chinese traditions play a big part in Brother Betrayed, Book #2 in the Of Gold & Blood mystery series, because it focuses on the Russell brother’s Hong Kong origins and connections and their ramifications in San Francisco and beyond.
It’s set in 1868, by which time San Francisco’s Chinatown was booming, with tourists able to visit “fancy, three-storied restaurants serving the finest dishes of Cantonese cuisine including bird’s nests, sea cucumber, mushrooms, duck, dried oysters, chestnuts, sausages shrimps and periwinkles,” according to Andrew Coe is his lively culinary history Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.
As early as 1856, the missionary William Speer reported that miners up in the hills could buy “Chinese tea, rice, soy sauce, preserves, sugar, and candy as well as Asian spices like star anise, cassia, (Chinese cinnamon) China root (probably of the sarsaparilla family) cubeb, (a type of pepper) galangal (often confused with ginger) and turmeric.”
So it was a delight – in the tradition of sharing food my characters would be eating – to host a Chinese New Year Potluck dinner for friends and neighbors this weekend, with everyone contributing a dish to the table.
The menu consisted of:
Main courses were Drunken Prawns, Steamed Fish with Ginger and Soy, Beef and Broccoli, and Chinese Greens with Oyster Sauce, followed by dessert of Panna Cotta, Sesame Snaps, Fortune Cookies and Butterfly Pea Flower tea.
We began with cocktails – Singapore Gin Sling – a modified version of the Raffles Hotel original – and Eastern Sunrise Cocktail with lychee juice and the Fortune Cookies – which rounded it all out – were the unexpected hit of the night! This is because we had Misfortune Cookies as well as Fortune Cookies – and the Misfortune ones had everyone in hysterics…
Oh and mustn’t forget the amazing blue Butterfly Pea Flower Tea from our local merchants Wah Lee & Company... An amazing blue (and healthy) tea which, when lemon juice is added, turns to indigo…. (Can also be used in cocktails) Such fun as a finale!
A sample of the Misfortune Cookie “advice” which caused particular hilarity . . . “Do not let your mind wander as it is too small to be let out by itself.”
- Andrew Coe, Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Oxford University Press, 2009, is a wonderful source of rich detail on the topic.
Thanks to Cookie Kitchen in Milford Auckland for this party treat which completed a marvellous night on a happy note.