Chinese Soul Food


Hsiao-Ching Chou writes about simple Chinese cooking and life as a working mom. She is the former food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Currently, she's the communications director for Institute for Systems Biology, a nonprofit research organization. Read more about Hsiao-Ching...

She also teaches cooking at Hot Stove Society in Seattle. Upcoming classes include:

Nov. 9 - Weeknight Wokking (featuring Kung Pao Chicken, Ma Po Tofu and Chile-Garlic Eggplant)

Nov. 21 - Soup Dumpling Love - And Potstickers, Too! (Sold out)

Dec. 21 - Kids Cooking: Potsticker Love

I am participating in National Blog Post Month for November, which means that I will post one blog post per day for the entire month. Well, I'll attempt to post daily.

NaBloPoMo November 2015


Visualizing My Cookbook

Brainstorming recipes for my "Chinese Soul Food" cookbook, which will feature home cooking, restaurant favorites and feast dishes.

The other day, I was listening to a colleague describe his work studying a specific "molecular machine" in cells, I got distracted by the data he had projected on the screen. He had organized the information using heirarchical clustering. This is not a new method to convey data. But seeing it in that moment as the bones of my cookbook are forming in the back of my mind kicked a few more gears into motion.

A month ago, I posted this announcement about deciding to self-publish a cookbook, which also included a link to this survey. (I still would love more voices represented in the survey. If you have a few minutes to answer six questions, I would appreciate it.)


Even though the sample size of responses wasn't huge, the survey revealed some insights: In general, people want to learn more about how to cook Chinese food, but they are unfamiliar with ingredients and techniques and therefore afraid to make the attempt. Because the ingredients are unfamiliar, people also easily get overwhelmed by the number of ingredients in a recipe. There are many Chinese cookbooks on the shelves and new ones are being published every season, including books that feature easy Chinese recipes for home cooks. So, it makes me wonder what's missing.

My sense is that many people haven't figured out how to integrate Chinese cooking into their repertory so that it's as second nature as making pasta and sauce or a pot roast. Even ingredients that you can find at your everyday neighborhood supermarket seem foreign: you may use them once or twice and then they languish in the back of the cabinet. So I've been thinking about how scientific data visualization methods can help me organize the content of my book so that cooks not only learn how to make a recipe, but understand the context of the ingredients within the context of the recipe within the context of technique within the context of a way of thinking about cooking and menu planning. If the cookbook were like Google Maps, you could zoom in and out to the level of granularity you need to comprehend and then internalize.

The book is mostly in my head right now, except for a few pages of brainstorming notes. But, I have committed to participating in National Blog Post Month for November, which means I have to post once a day for the entire month. My hope is to use this opportunity to articulate the structure and create an outline for the content. Thanks for your support!

– Hsiao-Ching

P.S. There is still a space or two in my "Weeknight Wokking" class from 6-8 p.m. on Nov. 9. It's $85 and features these dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Ma Po Tofu and Chile-Garlic Eggplant. Info and registration

P.P.S. I created a Facebook page where people can interact more easily with me. I'll share info about classes and the cookbook there, too. "Like" the page here.


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New Class for Kids at Hot Stove Society

I will be teaching a postickers class for kids at Hot Stove Society on Dec. 21, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The cost is $85 and includes lunch. For details and to register, visit

Some photos from a potsticker class in my home:




8 Ways NOT to Use Chopsticks 


I was reading a review for a new cookbook that happens to include a recipe for a sweet-and-sour meatball dish. While the recipe wasn't to my taste, I don't begrudge anyone else's enjoyment of the book. What set me off was the accompanying photograph of the finished meatball dish which had a pair of chopsticks propped in the bowl. For Asians, a pair of chopsticks propped vertically in a bowl of food – rice in particular – symbolizes death because it resembles the incense burned at funerals. Even if the chopsticks aren't vertical but the tips remain buried in the food and the shafts of the chopsticks rest on the edge of the bowl, we experience a visceral reaction when we see this occur.

I posted a request/rant on Facebook and heard from most of my Chinese and Japanese friends, who also cringe when they see chopsticks being misused.

Other chopstick faux pas:

  • Spearing food
  • Using chopsticks in two hands like a knife and fork to break apart food
  • Drumming with chopsticks
  • Using chopsticks in a hair bun
  • Crossing chopsticks (means death)
  • Passing food from one person's chopsticks to another.
  • Using your personal chopsticks to take food from communal plates of food instead of using the share chopsticks (like a serving spoon)
  • Digging around for the exact piece of food you want (signifies digging a grave)
  • Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls around
  • Pointing or gesturing with chopsticks

There are many more nuances and culturally specific etiquette rules related to how chopsticks are used and it's hard to remember them if you didn't grow up around it. But, for the uninitiated, the above chart can serve as a basic guide. Remember this: If you are not actively using the chopsticks to eat from your bowl or plate, then place them next to your plate or bowl. If chopstick rests are provided, then use the rests. For the Chinese, you also can place the chopsticks flat, not crossed, on the rim of your bowl or plate to signify that you are resting.

Most importantly, don't stand the chopsticks in your bowl of food. It's the quickest way to get glares from your Asian dinner companions.








Kung Pao Chicken


I received a request from one of my students at Hot Stove Society for a recipe for kung pao chicken. I decided to build a "Weeknight Wokking" class around spicy dishes. I'll be preparing kung pao chicken and talk about ways to customize it in my Nov. 9 class at Hot Stove. There's still space, but it will sell out so register soon!

Register for Nov. 9 Weeknight Wokking



1 pound chicken thighs, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 cup diced sweet bell peppers (about 1-inch dice)
2 stalks green onions, finely chopped
1/4 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts

Sauce: Combine the following in a small bowl.
1 tablespoon minced or crushed garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1.5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine, or any dry white wine
1 tablespoon bean sauce
2 teaspoons chili sauce (or more to taste)
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon sugar

To cook:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (e.g. canola)

1. Combine the chicken with 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Mix to combine. Add 1 tablespoon cornstarch and mix well.
2. Heat your wok over high heat for about 1 minute. Add 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil and heat for a few seconds.
3. Add the chicken and, using your spatula, spread the chicken in the oil in a single layer. Let the chicken sear for about 10-15 seconds.
4. Flip the chicken so that it can sear on other sides for a few seconds. Start stirring around to get the chicken nearly cooked through. Turn off the heat, scoop out the chicken and set aside. If needed, use your wok spatula to scrape any stuck pieces off the bottom of the wok and discard.
5. Turn wok back on and add 1 tablespoon oil.
6. Add the bell peppers and stir around for about 1 minute until the peppers began to soften.
7. Add the green onions, peanuts and chicken to the peppers. Stir to combine.
8. Add the sauce mixture and stir fry thoroughly to distribute the sauce.
9. Stir fry for about 1-2 minutes until the chicken is fully cooked through and the sauce has had a chance to meld with the other ingredients.
10. Taste for seasoning: If it needs a dash of salt or another teaspoon of bean sauce, add and then stir fry to combine.
11. Serve right away with rice.

Serves 4 as part of multi-dish meal.


FareStart Guest Chef Night – And 'Farm-to-Table 3.0'

Sustainable farms of the future will be designed by data.

Assorted lettuces grown aquaponically at This Is Odd Urban Farm in Port Angeles.

FareStart has invited me to participate in Guest Chef Night on Aug. 27. If you're not familiar with FareStart, it's an incredible nonprofit that provides training programs to empower homeless and disadvantaged people to achieve self-sufficiency and find employment in the food service industry. FareStart runs a catering service and also operates a restaurant in downtown Seattle where diners can enjoy delicious lunches. The restaurant is also the venue for Guest Chef Night dinners – which take place on most Thursday evenings throughout the year. GCN generates proceeds that benefit FareStart's programs in addition to providing practical experience for the students. Local restaurant chefs volunteer their time and resources to organize these dinners.

For my Guest Chef Night appearance, the menu theme, naturally, is based on "Chinese Soul Food":

First course:
Hot and sour soup, with crispy scallion pancakes

Second course:
Grass-fed beef brisket braised with soy sauce, spices, ginger and garlic. Served with jasmine rice, pickles and aquaponic lettuces from This Is Odd Urban Farm.

Third course:
Almond cake with Frog Hollow peach compote and whipped cream

$29.95; all proceeds benefit FareStart's training program



Three reasons:

  • Supporting FareStart is important.

  • You get to try some of my food AND taste the special, aquaponically grown lettuces from This Is Odd Urban Farm in Port Angeles. It's delicately sweet! (Pictured above and below.)

  • You get to support the future of sustainable urban agriculture.


FareStart has held Guest Chef Night dinners for many years and wanted to change it up a bit. In July 2014, I agreed to join Sara Dickerman and Rebekah Denn to organize the inaugural "food bloggers" GCN. We collaborated on a menu that drew from our respective culinary influences and the guests loved experiencing GCN from a different perspective. For this year's food blogger dinner on Aug. 27, I will be taking on all three courses – with the help of the FareStart team – and sharing some of the comforting Chinese soul foods that I have featured on this blog. What is perhaps unusual is that I will be representing not only myself as the author of, but I also will be representing Institute for Systems Biology, where I have served as the communications director for the past four years.

ISB is a nonprofit research organization founded in 2000 by renowned visionary scientist Dr. Lee Hood, who pioneered systems biology, an interdisciplinary and holistic approach to deciphering the complexity of biological systems. Systems biology is based on an understanding that the networks that form the whole of living organisms are more than the sum of their parts. Most of ISB's research covers the gamut of diseases – dozens of cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, infectious diseases, Lyme – and how the human body transitions from wellness to disease and back to wellness. We also have some work focused on environmental sustainability.

ISB's SVP Dr. Nitin Baliga is launching the marquee Project Feed 1010: A crowdsourced project to revolutionize sustainable agriculture while driving systemic change in STEM education.

The 1010 represents 10 to the 10th, or 10 billion, which is what the global population is expected to reach by 2050. By 2030, the demand for water will exceed the supply. The consequences are wide-ranging, not the least of which is the fact that the amount of arable land is shrinking and we will have to figure out how to produce enough crops in dense, urban areas to feed a population of 10 to the 10th.

The big question: Can we develop a better urban farming model capable of feeding the world and be a driving force in the future economy? The answer will come from an exciting culmination of science, food, STEM education, and entrepreneurship.

One potential solution involves scaling aquaponics, which combines hydroponics and aquaculture. Instead of using soil, crops are grown in water that's enriched by fish effluent and the plants, in turn, clean the water for the fish. It's symbiotic and uses about 90 percent less water than traditional farming.

Aquaponic lettuces at This Is Odd Urban Farm in Port Angeles

Our researchers have begun to establish a network of high school science teachers across the country to help us study every aspect of aquaponics. The teachers are using curriculum developed in the Baliga Lab, so they and their students will become "citizen scientists." Our engineers are developing a mobile app for data collection. We will be launching a crowdfunding and awareness campaign for Project Feed 1010 soon, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I hope to see you all at the FareStart dinner so we can chat Chinese soul food and about Project Feed 1010 or what I'm dubbing "farm-to-table 3.0" – because sustainable farms of the future will be designed by data.

– Hsiao-Ching