He cooked in Italy, honed the seasonal California-Mediterranean style in the kitchen of the Zuni Café, and learned Californian contemporary cuisine with Italian influences at Quince. But when it came right down to it, Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco who just last night won this year’s James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: California, missed his grandmother’s cooking.
“What I remember from eating my grandma’s food is after eating, you feel good,” says Jew whose original family name was spelled Jiu but was changed when the family moved here when going through customs. “That sensation is what I want people to experience. Understanding that chefs back in old China—they were considered doctors too, where they were healing people and giving remedies to fix your ailments. A lot of it was basically what they were feeding you. I try not to take it too seriously, but there are things I feel like as a chef, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make people feel good afterwards too.”
But those years cooking Cal weren’t wasted.
“Cantonese cuisine and California cuisine really align in how ingredient-driven the food is and how minimal—the goal is to do as little to a perfect ingredient,” says Jew. “Finding that perfect ingredient and thinking of the cooking method to showcase its natural flavors the most, to me, is very Cantonese and Californian. I’m using that mentality to bridge the two together.”
A bio major, Jew says it starts with the ingredients.
“There are just some classic things we want to reinterpret,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of specific recipes for a lot of things. Chop suey just doesn’t have really any recipe to it. We’re taking the creative freedom to do our version of that, or even something like egg foo young.”
All the recipes and images used in this story are with permission from Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown: RECIPES AND STORIES FROM THE BIRTHPLACE OF CHINESE AMERICAN FOOD.
LION’S HEAD MEATBALLS
Anything that needs slow braising will do well in a clay pot. The porous clay distributes an encompassing gentle heat all while sealing in the juices. The slightly alkaline clay also keeps proteins loose and tender. I appreciate a clay pot for its kindness to cooks. It holds heat so well that you can set it aside off-heat for an hour or two and come back to find everything inside still nice and toasty. And if you don’t have one, a small Dutch oven with a tight lid will do. Lion’s head (獅子頭, shī zi tóu in Mandarin) are a classic Chinese meatball (the bumpy texture looks like the curly manes of mythical lions). We use savory ingredients ingredients—mushrooms, seaweed, and a blend of pork—that compounds the sīn flavor exponentially. Use whatever delicious fungi you’ve got. Sometimes I drop a handful of fresh cordyceps (蟲草花, chóng căo huá) sautéed with garlic, or shave matsutake as in this recipe. For the bacon, choose an intensely smoky kind. You can use a meat grinder or hand-chop everything old-school.
Active Time — 1 hour, 15 minutes
Plan Ahead — You’ll need about 3 hours total, plus time to make Chicken Stock; pre-soak the clay pot for 2 hours
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Special Equipment — Meat grinder (optional), soaked 9-inch clay pot or a small Dutch oven
Lion’s Head Meatballs
- 3 oz / 85g nettles or stemmed lacinato kale
- 1 tsp neutral oil
- Kosher salt
- 4 oz / 115g skin-on pork belly
- 12 Savoy cabbage leaves, thick stems trimmed
- 12 oz / 340g pork shoulder, cut into 1½-inch pieces
- 3 oz / 85g pork back fat
- 3½ oz / 100g medium-firm doufu
- 4 tsp peeled and minced ginger
- 1½ Tbsp light soy sauce (生抽, sāng chāu)
- 1 Tbsp powdered milk
- 1¼ tsp freshly ground white pepper
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1½ cups / 360ml Matsutake Broth (recipe follows)
- 2 Tbsp neutral oil
- 3 oz / 85g fresh wild mushrooms (such as matsutake, black trumpets, or chanterelles), chopped if large
- ½ rosemary sprig, about 2 inches long
- Kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp toasted pine nuts
- 1 fresh matsutake mushroom, very thinly sliced or shaved with a mandoline
To make the meatballs: While wearing thick gloves, strip the leaves from the nettles and discard the stems.
In a wok or a medium frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the neutral oil until shimmering. Add the nettles and a pinch of salt and cook until wilted but still bright green, about 1½ minutes. If using kale, this will take about 3 minutes. Finely chop and set aside.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Line a baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels.
Remove the skin from the pork belly. Add the skin to the boiling water and blanch for 30 seconds to firm up. Using tongs, remove and set aside. Add the cabbage leaves (work in batches, if needed) to the water and blanch until just wilted, about 30 seconds, then transfer to the prepared baking sheet to drain.
Place the pork skin, pork shoulder, belly, and back fat in a single layer on a plate and put in the freezer until the surface is just frozen but the center is still soft enough to be ground, about 15 minutes.
If using a meat grinder, grind the fat and skin through a fine grinding plate (⅛-inch / 3mm holes) into a large bowl. Switch to a coarse grinding plate (¼-inch / 6mm holes). Regrind about half of the fat-skin mixture back into the large bowl, then grind the shoulder and belly through the same grinding plate. Mix gently to combine. Regrind about half of the pork mixture again. Grind the doufu through the coarse grinding plate into the large bowl.
If chopping by hand, separately mince the pork belly skin, pork belly, pork shoulder, pork fat, and doufu using a chef’s knife or cleaver (two if you got ’em). Transfer to a large bowl as each one has formed a sticky paste and then mix well.
Add the nettles, ginger, soy sauce, powdered milk, 1½ tsp salt, pepper, and fish sauce to the bowl and use your hands to mix until well combined and a sticky paste forms but the meat is not overworked.
Divide the mixture into six portions. Roll each portion into a ball that is firmly packed and smooth. Wrap a cabbage leaf around each meatball, leaving the top exposed (save the remaining cabbage leaves for the clay pot). Refrigerate until ready to cook, up to 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Place the wrapped meatballs in a single layer in a soaked 9-inch-wide clay pot or small Dutch oven. Tuck the remaining cabbage leaves between the meatballs, then add the broth. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
Transfer the pot to the oven and bake uncovered until the meatballs are browned and cooked through, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm a wok or a medium frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the neutral oil and let it heat up for a few seconds. Add the mushrooms and rosemary, season with salt, and stir-fry until the mushrooms are browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Discard the rosemary.
Spoon the stir-fried mushrooms and any oil left in the pan over the meatballs and top with the pine nuts and shaved mushroom. Serve immediately.
Makes 1 ½ cups / 360ml
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, sear the bacon until dark golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add the onion to the pan and sear until very browned on one side, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-low; add the seared bacon, chicken stock, both dried mushrooms, and kombu; and simmer until reduced to 1½ cups / 360ml, about 1 hour.
Fit a fine-mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Strain the broth and discard the solids. Stir the fish sauce into the broth. Let cool, transfer to an airtight container, and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.
On a weekly basis, my mom would cook corned beef with cabbage, or chicken à la king, or sausage lasagna. It was too expensive to travel internationally, but we got to eat all over the world from our kitchen table. When she cooked food from her childhood, though, she would make us this steamed fish, topped with ginger, green onions, and fermented black beans. The flavor of steamed fish in Cantonese cuisine is all about sīn tìhm (鮮甜), the essential flavor of a fresh ingredient in combination with a pure, smooth sweetness. The final lashing of hot oil in this dish infuses the green onions and ginger into the flesh of the fish and enriches the soy. Take care not to overcook the fish; I like to turn off the heat in the last minutes of cooking and let the steam finish the job. The flesh should pull off the bone in tender morsels, not flake. I always score round, fleshy fish to help it cook evenly. Then I steam the fish only until the thickest flesh right behind the gill area is not quite opaque or, as Cantonese cooks say, “translucent like white jade.”
Active Time — 20 minutes
Makes 4 servings
Special Equipment — Steamer, 9-inch pie plate
- 1 Tbsp fermented black beans (optional)
- One 1½-lb / 680g whole fish (such as black bass or Tai snapper), gutted and scaled
- large handful aromatics (such as thinly sliced ginger, green onion tops, and/or strips of fresh citrus zest)
- ¼ cup / 60ml high-smoke-point oil (such as peanut oil)
- 2 Tbsp premium soy sauce (頭抽, tàuh chāu) or light soy sauce (生抽, sāng chāu)
- 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and thread cut
- 3 green onions, thread cut (white parts only)
- Young cilantro sprigs for garnishing
In a small bowl, cover the black beans (if using) with water, let soak for 30 minutes, and then drain.
Prepare a steamer in a wok or a large, lidded pot following the instructions on page 167 and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat.
Meanwhile, using kitchen shears, cut off the gills and the fins (careful, sharp!) on the top, bottom, and sides of the fish. Run your fingers over the skin, especially near the gills and belly, toward the head to check for any last scales; remove the scales with the edge of a spoon or the back of a knife.
On both sides of the fish, make eight 2-inch-long parallel slits into the flesh, not quite deep enough to hit bone, starting about 1 inch from the gills. Place the fish in a pie plate. (The fish can hang over the edges so long as everything fits in the steamer. If not, cut the fish in half to fit and hope none of your guests are superstitious.) Tuck some of your chosen aromatics into each slit, then stuff the remaining aromatics in the cavity. Top the fish with the black beans.
Place the pie plate in the steamer, cover, and steam until the eyeball is opaque and the flesh of the fish is white and flaky at the thickest part near the head and first slit, 10 to 12 minutes.
While the fish is steaming, in a small heavy-bottom saucepan over low heat, slowly warm the oil.
When the fish is ready, remove it with the pie plate from the steamer. (Reassemble as a whole fish if you cut it in two.) Drizzle with the soy sauce, then top with the ginger and green onions. Turn the heat under the oil to high and warm until it just starts to smoke. Immediately pour the oil over the fish, getting as much of the ginger and green onions to sizzle as you can. Garnish with the cilantro and serve with a spoon big enough for drizzling the juices.
For this recipe, I prefer medium Chinese eggplants, the pale purple, slender ones that are ten to twelve inches long, over similar-looking but more bitter varieties. This calls for oil-blanching and, because eggplant is basically a sponge, brining them for an hour first until they are saturated but not bloated. During frying, the water turns to steam and makes the eggplant creamy and not at all oily.
Cooking is really the study of water. It takes water to grow everything, of course, and so the amount of water that remains in an ingredient after it is harvested or butchered dictates how it will heat through in the pan, whether it will soften, seize, crisp, or caramelize. You’re adding water when you use stocks, vinegars, or alcohol. You’re creating barriers to water with starches. How you cut ingredients and the order in which you add them to the pan is about controlling how and when they release the water inside them. Even the shapes of cooking vessels are about releasing or retaining moisture. When cooking with a wok, changes to water happen so quickly that split-second timing is essential.
Active Time — 25 minutes
Plan Ahead — You’ll need 1 hour for brining
Makes 4 servings
Special Equipment — Deep-fry thermometer, spider
- 2 medium Chinese eggplants
- 5 qt plus ¼ cup / 1L water
- 1 Tbsp kosher salt
- 2 qt / 1.9L neutral oil
- 3 Tbsp oyster sauce
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 2¼ tsp granulated sugar
- 5 garlic cloves; 2 thinly sliced, 3 finely chopped
- 5 red Fresno chile, cut into thin rings
- ¼ cup / 5g packed Thai or opal basil leaves, torn in half if large
Trim and discard the eggplant ends, then cut into thick wedges, like steak frites—first cut crosswise into three 3-inch chunks, then halve those lengthwise repeatedly until you have 1-inch-thick wedges.
In a large bowl, combine 1 qt / 950ml of the water and the salt and whisk until the salt is dissolved. Add the eggplant, making sure it is submerged, and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.
Fill a 5-quart or larger Dutch oven with the neutral oil and secure a deep-fry thermometer on the side. Set over medium-high heat and warm the oil to 375°F.
Meanwhile, drain the eggplant and dry very well with paper towels. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ¼ cup / 60ml water, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Set this sauce aside.
Add the sliced garlic to the oil and fry until crisp and light golden brown, about 30 seconds. Use a spider to transfer them to a paper towel to drain.
Check that the oil in the Dutch oven is still at 375°F. Set up for the second fry by setting a dry wok or large skillet over high heat.
Carefully slide all the eggplant into the oil. Stir until the eggplant has darkened and caramelized at the edges, about 1 minute. Remove the eggplant with the spider and drain well over the Dutch oven, then transfer to the screaming-hot wok.
Immediately add the chopped garlic and most of the chile rings (reserve a few for garnish) to the eggplant in the wok and toss everything to combine. Add the reserved sauce and continue to toss until the sauce thickens to a glaze and the eggplants are browned at the edges, about 1 minute. Add most of the basil leaves and toss until wilted.
Transfer the contents of the wok to a serving platter. Crumble the fried garlic and scatter it over the eggplant with the rest of the basil and chile rings. Serve immediately.