Welcome to Grandma’s Notebook, a series unearthing the hand-written recipes of Mary Woo, the late grandmother of fashion designer Peter Som. Follow along as we dive into 20 years of recipes that trace her Chinese American immigrant experience. Along the way, we’ll discover hidden family secrets, new and enticing flavors, and priceless hand-me-down dishes that deserve a second life in your kitchen.
It all started with a small, spiral-bound notebook—crinkled, smudged, and dog-eared, its ruled pages fading to ecru at the edges. On those mothball-scented pages? Twenty years of recipes, each one dated, starting in 1960 and ending in 1980. Soy sauce duck, tofu fa, enchiladas, oxtail stew. A life’s worth of recipes, meticulously hand written in Chinese or English—or a little of both.
I found the notebook buried in my late grandmother’s desk drawer. I had never seen it, nor had my Mom or her siblings. Grandma passed away more than 20 years ago, but because the family had kept her apartment intact (so visiting relatives had a place to stay in San Francisco), the book only turned up last year as we were finally getting ready to sell the place. Her home was a time capsule containing decades of memories. Beyond the recipe book, there were clattering sets of CorningWare, drawers of yellowed ivory chopsticks, and dried shark fins for soup that was never made.
I inherited my joy for cooking from Grandma. Like her, I cook to celebrate, to mourn, to de-stress, and—above all—to show love. But the moment I opened that notebook, I realized there was much more to her cooking than putting dinner on the table. There was a cultural dialogue, a time-stamp. Her recipes made me wonder about the person beyond the grandmother figure. It’s odd to become closer to someone in death, but the notebook gave me that gift. Mary Lim-Tsing Woo was trying to tell me something. And I was listening.
The journey of rediscovery began with lion’s head meatballs, dated Jan. 17, 1963. According to Auntie Gloria, my mom’s younger sister, Grandma cooked in phases, focusing on a single dish for weeks at a time until she got it right. Grandma’s pharmacist-trained precision transferred to her cooking. She wrote everything down, penciling in notes and adjustments. “Very good,” she’d scribble when she was satisfied with a dish. Her lion’s head meatballs are very good indeed.
A classic Huaiyang dish, lion’s head meatballs are so named because of their size. They evoke the heads of guardian lions (also known as foo dogs), while the traditional accompaniment of napa cabbage or bok choy is said to resemble the mane.
Her recipe starts by vigorously mixing ground pork for a long time until it’s smooth and fluffy—that’s the key to the meatballs’ signature light, moist texture. (I’ve taken the liberty to simplify Grandma’s recipe in places, but this step cannot be skipped, even if your arm aches.)
Following her instructions, I then formed the meat into large balls, seared them in oil, and braised them in a brothy sauce. They were exceptional: cloudlike and tender with hints of ginger and scallion. The sauce, not included in the original recipe, comes from Auntie Florence (my mom’s eldest sister), who has fond childhood memories of lion’s head meatballs and makes them often.
The dish is best served family style. Sharing steaming bowls of soup around the dinner table is what it’s all about, isn't it? Food is family—as Grandma continues to teach me through her little spiral notebook.