Three Kinds of wonderful

Colorful, fragrant and delicious: Chinese dishes from an American kitchen


Photography by Barney Taxel

When Margaret Gu makes a meal, the result is three kinds of wonderful. Her ancestors would approve.

"My maternal grandmother was a great cook. Her philosophy was that every dish should look good and smell good, and if it achieves those two things it better deliver on its promise and taste good," says Margaret. "I think about that every time I stand at the stove."

Although she has a degree in urban planning and is a licensed stockbroker, Margaret, who moved to Cleveland from Minneapolis 16 years ago when her husband, Wei-Fang, joined the Cleveland Orchestra as a violinist, is proudest of her ability to prepare a meal that meets her grandmother's standards. She has been perfecting her skills since coming to the United States from Taiwan as a teenager in the '70s.

"For the first month, my mother and I lived in a hotel in New York City. I ate nothing but bacon and eggs for breakfast, sandwiches at lunch and steak for dinner. By the time we moved into an apartment, I was desperate for home-style Chinese food."

That's when her mother confessed that she didn't even know how to make rice. A working woman, she'd always had a cook. "I had no choice," Margaret recalls. "From then on, I was in charge of the kitchen."

To get started, she turned to cookbooks and later learned much from her grandmother, who lived with the family during the last years of her life. Over time, what started out as a necessity became a passion and a pleasure. In a style uniquely her own, Margaret integrates American ingredients into traditional dishes and prepares an eclectic variety of regional specialities, including many from Shanghai, where her parents and husband were born. One of her Americanized creations is a roast chicken with Szechuan peppercorns. "Back home in Taiwan no one had ovens in their houses. Foods were usually steamed, and roasted meats were purchased from special markets and restaurants. So that's why I call this Roast Chicken My Way."

Lately Margaret's been shopping at Cam Asia Supermarket on Miles Road across from Randall Park Mall. Conveniently close to her home, it opened this summer, the largest store of its kind in Ohio. Products that might seem unusual to the rest of us are just everyday groceries to her, and like any shopper she comes with her list in hand. When she stocks up on basics she typically buys jasmine rice; dried spiced tofu, fried bean curd and soft tofu, which her family eats uncooked and seasoned only with soy sauce and sesame oil; packages of seaweed for salad; frozen soy beans; five-spice powder; oyster sauce; cans of winter bamboo shoots (the only kind she likes); and fresh ginger root, cilantro, garlic, Napa cabbage and scallions. As in any American supermarket, there are lots of prepared foods - it's just that what they're preparing is a little different: whole roasted ducks and octopus, slabs of pork ribs and containers of tripe, squid and pig ears. Although she cooks almost everything from scratch, Gu occasionally treats herself to some of these traditional delicacies.

Back home in Pepper Pike, she prepares five different dishes simultaneously, moving with calm, practiced efficiency. Tossing pieces of chicken into smoking-hot canola oil, she explains the genesis of her pumpkin soup recipe. "I didn't grow up with Halloween, but our kids are American born and they wanted to celebrate by making jack-'o-lanterns. In my culture, you never waste food, so I had to find a way to use the scraps left from carving them." The dish has become so popular among family and friends that she stocks her freezer with chunks of fresh pumpkin in plastic bags every fall so she can make the soup all winter.

These days Margaret is working in a gorgeous, newly renovated kitchen with Brazilian granite countertops and a six-burner Viking stove outfitted with a special wok adapter. But there are no fancy culinary gadgets in sight. "I can do everything with two basic tools: a large, old-fashioned, wood-handled cleaver and a pair of chopsticks, just like my grandmother."

Gu rarely uses recipes, relying instead on her eyes, her nose and her taste buds to guide her. She's begun to write things down, planning to one day create a cookbook of favorite dishes for her three children. Much to her surprise, figuring out quantities and explaining her techniques has proved harder than actually doing the cooking. But she's definitely gotten the hang of it. Each recipe she shared with us produces food that is beautiful to behold, with an irresistible aroma and heavenly flavor.

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