Kevin Pang’s new book, written alongside his father, Jeffrey, could have been called: A Father and Son’s Tale of Immigration and Assimilation From Hong Kong, Toronto, Chicago, and Seattle, Told Through 100 Chinese Food Recipes. Instead, the pair settled on: A Very Chinese Cookbook: 100 Recipes From China & Not China (But Still Really Chinese). It’s the latest from America’s Test Kitchen, where Kevin acts as editorial director for digital.
Kevin spent over a decade at the Chicago Tribune where he rose to prominence as an “award-eligible” food writer. In 2015, he took a buyout and exited the paper as Tribune Publishing chair Michael Ferro prepared its short-lived rebrand as Tronc. In 2016, Kevin founded the Takeout, the food and pop culture site from The Onion and The A.V. Club. At its peak, the site had 6 million unique monthly visitors. In between those jobs, he added film director to his resume with the creation of For Grace, a documentary on the world-renowned Chicago chef Curtis Duffy, the force behind the Michelin-starred Grace (and now the restaurant Ever). Kevin won a James Beard Award in 2010 for a multimedia food feature, and he’s earned one of the few, coveted spots in the Best Food Writing anthology six times. He still resides in Chicago and travels to the ATK headquarters in Boston once a month.
Kevin has all the credentials of a cookbook author. But it was his father’s passion project — a viral YouTube cooking channel produced out of his Seattle kitchen which Kevin knew nothing about for almost two months — that inspired the cookbook.
At 65 years old, Jeffrey began uploading lo-fi Chinese cooking videos to YouTube. The videos begin the same way: A list of ingredients kicks off the feature, immediately followed by instructions with a title card that reads “Demonstrated by Catherine Pang.” Catherine is the matriarch of the Pang family. Muzak plays over the videos that last between four and six minutes (the length of videos shortens as more get posted). No one speaks, but an occasional ambient sizzle or clanging of a ladle on a pot can be heard.
“This was back in 2012,” says Kevin, “[The channel] amassed well over 2 million views, a pretty impressive feat for that time.”
Jeffrey sent his son a link to his YouTube channel, but Kevin ignored his father’s message; it sat ignored for six weeks. Jeffrey continued creating content — and gaining popularity in the process — as his son remained in the dark about what his father did in his free time.
Eventually, Catherine reached out to Kevin and, with enough prodding, she made her son watch his father’s videos.
“When I finally asked him why he was [making videos]. The answer really took me aback. He said, ‘You and your sister are not the most communicative of people. When we tried to teach how to cook these recipes, you both did not want to learn. One of these days, we’re not going to be around, and you might be thinking about these dishes that you ate. So we wanted you to have these recipes.’”
The Pangs immigrated from British Hong Kong in 1988 when Kevin was 6 years old. Before settling into Toronto, the couple prioritized putting together a notebook of homeland food recipes for their new lives abroad.
“During that prep year, my parents worked to learn family recipes,” says Kevin. “They would cook alongside my grandmother and aunts, asking questions and jotting things down. Unfortunately, they soon learned, the recipes were not precise. So what they got was this notebook filled with dozens of vague recipes.”
Still, Kevin’s parents didn’t allow the notebook to leave their sight. They made sure it was part of their carry-on luggage during the nearly 8,000-mile move. Cantonese cookbooks were rare. That blue notebook carried vital pieces of their culture.
In Canada, the recipes never quite tasted the way they remembered, Kevin says. “We had this network of Cantonese friends in Toronto, and my parents would take these recipes and experiment with them. Every time they cooked through [a recipe], they acquired some new information about that dish, and the puzzle would slowly go from very, very blurry to one that was getting sharper and sharper into focus. That might mean adjusting the quantity of ingredients (from a teaspoon of Chinkiang vinegar to a tablespoon, for example) or swapping American products like Miracle Whip for Kewpie mayonnaise in the honey walnut shrimp recipe. Eventually, through many, many years, these recipes became more specific. Now, they say, they taste exactly like the ones that they grew up eating. Those are the recipes that are in the book.”
A Very Chinese Cookbook isn’t just a new cookbook. It’s a multigenerational journey that explores identity, memories, and the information we choose to preserve for future generations. Food helped bridge the divide between a Chinese man raising an American son.
“At the beginning of this project, my dad and I thought about which recipes we really wanted to include. This was the fun part. We knew it was impossible to write a comprehensive Chinese cookbook. China — gastronomically speaking — is not a country. It’s more like a continent. So it would be like asking someone to write a North American cookbook; it’s just an impossible feat. Instead, we relied on the recipes that we loved and had some sort of emotional affinity to.”
Thanks to the ATK team, the book’s attention to detail is meticulous. Production took 15 months from start to finish. On five separate occasions, Kevin’s parents flew from their home in Seattle to Boston for a week of filming, photographing, and recipe development. For the cost of $35, readers receive nearly 400 pages covering core Chinese ingredients, cooking techniques, pantry staples, essential equipment, and recipes. Kevin and Jeffrey’s names are on the cover, but a team of 14 is behind the 100-plus recipes that totals (on average) $11,000 to develop — each requiring weeks, even months of testing to ensure their perfection.
“Some of the recipes are published the way they were first developed,” says Kevin. “But a number of recipes were developed back at a time when Asian ingredients were not commonly found. About 15 years ago, one of our recipes would call for molasses. We would use that because starch soy sauce was hard to locate. We’ve since updated many of those original recipes to reflect the wider availability of once esoteric ingredients.”
While Kevin’s presence dominates the book, his father’s story is integral. The book includes a personal essay titled “Why I Cook,” and pays homage to Kwok Wai-King, Kevin’s grandmother — a woman who taught Jeffrey how to select high-quality ingredients and cook with them. At the market, she would advise him to look for the lotus root with a little mud residue (the mud forms a barrier that keeps the root from drying out). She showed him to look under the gills when selecting fish (the color should be bright red, without any sliminess). She told him his winter melons should always come with a layer of white fuzz.
Growing up, Jeffery didn’t have a refrigerator, microwave, or rice cooker. He learned how to make the food that gained him viral success in a humble kitchen that had two clay pots, an iron wok, and some bowls.
“I’m thankful for learning how to cook with such limited means, because it made me rely on the true tools for success in the kitchen: our five senses,” says Jeffrey.
Jeffrey and Kevin also share airtime on America’s Test Kitchen’s YouTube channel “Hunger Pangs.” At first glance, all this collaboration seems to have stemmed from Jeffrey’s 2012 YouTube channel. However, a closer look reveals how this food journey began long before Kevin was born and while Jeffrey was still a child, learning from his own parent. Jeffrey began the YouTube channel as a way to create reference material for his children when he can no longer answer their questions.
Future generations of the Pangs will one day be devoid of Jeffrey’s physical presence, but they’ll have other things: the story of their family’s journey from one continent to another, told through food, and the knowledge that a loved one cared enough to preserve their history using tools of this generation — YouTube, video editing, and content creation.
There is something magical about knowing a connection is made across space and time — and that’s what makes A Very Chinese Cookbook so special.