What’s For Dinner
Gui Pan, 55
Jin Mei, 52, both born in Guangdong, China
Weekly Food Costs: $140
What’s for Dinner: Cold shredded jelly fish with sesame seeds and pork; sweet whole shrimp with chili and soy dipping sauce; crab legs in black bean garlic sauce; chicken broth with carrots and onion; beef ribs with yellow asparagus; Chinese greens with roasted garlic; whole white fish with seasoning; frog legs on ginger and scallion salad; sea cucumber with mushrooms; white rice; black tea; orange slices; and red bean soup.
This meal is unusual—and not because of the entrées. Gui Pan and Jin Mei seldom eat out; at most a few times a year for special occasions or a holiday. But on a recent Saturday night, Gui and Jin invited me to join them in dining on some of the more traditional dishes of Guangdong province.
Not everyone at the table—a party of eight, mostly family—likes the sea cucumber, which took several days for the restaurant to prepare. The creature has been stripped of its leathery skin and suction-cup feet and tastes like the mushrooms it was sautéed with, but the slippery texture makes it difficult to bite or chew.
What’s for dinner tonight may be out of the ordinary, but the amount of food on the table is not—at home, Gui Pan cooks for his wife and the 11 siblings they share between them. As many as 22 relatives living in Kensington arrive nightly to the crowded kitchen for a spread of sautéed whole white fish, steamed rice, stewed chicken, ground beef patty with pickled vegetables, boiled beet root or other vegetables, and a slightly sour, nutty chicken soup with ginger and boiled peanuts— a regular item on the family menu and a favorite of Gui and Jin’s grown son, Wei, who lives in Park Slope.
The food is served at the kitchen table or dished into one of the to-go containers that fill a cupboard above the sink. The refrigerator glows pink with plastic shopping bags of produce and store-bought pickled vegetables; on the door, a shelf of eggs sits above jarred black bean and hoisin sauces. Scallions and root vegetables grow in the garden out front of the house.
The family came to Brooklyn from China in 1984 and settled in Kensington—one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States. Pakistani restaurants line nearby McDonald Avenue, and neighboring blocks are home to mostly middle-class Bangladeshi, Chinese, Orthodox Jewish, Irish, Polish, Russian, Mexican, and Jamaican families.
Though Gui usually cooks for the family, Jin prepares some specialties—the ginger soup among them—and she and one of her brothers do the grocery shopping in nearby Sunset Park. They say it only costs an average of $20 to shop for a six-person meal in Brooklyn’s China Town—where produce and fish are considerably cheaper than in neighboring Park Slope. Gui says they save a lot by cooking for more.
As for how he learned to cook, Gui says: “What is there to learn?”