The father and son authors of America’s Test Kitchen’s ‘A Very Chinese Cookbook’ dish on heritage, recipes

When James Beard award-winning food writer Kevin Pang got an email from his parents, telling him to check out a video, he promptly ignored it, as people occasionally do with parental media recommendations.

But his mom followed up. So he begrudgingly clicked on the video link only to find that his Seattle-based parents had started their own cooking channel on YouTube with more than a million page views. They were teaching people how to cook Chinese food and drawing in more viewers than he was as a digital media professional. Their awestruck son’s essay, “My Father, the You Tube Star,” appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2016.

Today, Pang is the digital editorial director at America’s Test Kitchen and, since January, general manager of ATK’s Cooking School. He and his dad, Jeffrey, have an ATK cooking show called “Hunger Pangs.” And the duo recently published a new cookbook — “A Very Chinese Cookbook: 100 Recipes from China and Not China (But Still Really Chinese)” — with America’s Test Kitchen that invites Chinese food fans everywhere to make everything from Shu Mai and Cold Sesame Noodles to Sticky Spareribs with Chinkiang Vinegar and Red-Braised Pork Belly.

(Those Sesame Noodles, by the way, were such a family favorite, Jeffrey brought a batch to the airport whenever his then-undergrad son flew home from college, so Kevin could indulge without delay.)

We caught up with them recently to talk about family ties, recipe testing and Lunar New Year celebrations.

Q: Can you walk us through the process of writing this cookbook? It sounds like a ton of testing went into each recipe.

Kevin: America’s Test Kitchen has been around for 30 years, and the thing that really sets us apart from other recipe and food media sites is the way that we test and come up with recipes. It’s almost aggravating how rigorous it is. On average, every recipe costs $11,000 to develop, and that’s because when we test a dish, we’ll make versions upon versions of it, send it out to home testers who offer us feedback, and then come up with more versions, until the version that we end up publishing is really bulletproof.

What happens when you take our family recipes and then apply the same level of rigor? In some cases, the versions that our test cooks came up with improved upon the versions that my parents made, like my dad’s Taste of Szechuan beef shank.

“A Very Chinese Cookbook” by father-and-son coauthors Kevin and Jeffrey Pang shares a collection of more than 100 recipes aimed at making Chinese cooking more accessible for home cooks. (Courtesy America’s Test Kitchen) 

Jeffrey: I was inspired by my mother — she taught me how to cook — but she never told me how much sugar, salt or cornstarch to use. With America’s Test Kitchen, they test and test and repeat and repeat again. I loved my recipe, but after they modified it a little bit and asked me to try it, it tasted better than my recipe.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from this book?

Kevin: There are a lot of people in the U.S. who love to eat Chinese food, but they might be afraid to cook it. There’s always been this intimidation. How do we convince those folks who love Chinese food to just try (cooking) it once? We rank every dish from a one to four difficulty scale, but there are some that are super simple, made with ingredients that you already have, even if you’ve never cooked Chinese food before. We want to tell folks that it is way simpler, tastier and more healthful than you think. Even if you’re intimidated by Chinese food, give us a chance. The water is warm, and we hope to change your mind.

Q: Lunar New Year is coming up very soon. How does your family celebrate?

Kevin: One thing I find very interesting is that during Lunar New Year, for the Chinese specifically, we eat food that contains a lot of symbolism or that sounds like a word that has good luck. I’ll give you an example: We like to eat these crispy fried sesame balls. It’s a tradition to make them on Lunar New Year’s Eve — in the shape of a ball to bring gold and silver rolling into your household. We eat tofu because tofu is shaped like a cube, which looks like a plot of land, (so) we’re going to have a bountiful harvest. And we eat fish, because “fish” sounds like the word for “surplus” in Chinese. So if we eat fish, we’re going to have a surplus of money.

The thing to remember about Lunar New Year is that, yes, it’s about family. It’s about gathering. It’s about the tradition of just being together. But it’s a very aspirational holiday, because we want a lot of things in the new year. We want to be prosperous, we want good health, we want safe travels and good business, and we think that food can help us achieve that.

The recipe for sesame noodles is one of the easiest to be found in the pages of “A Very Chinese Cookbook” by Kevin and Jeffrey Pang. (Courtesy Kevin White/America’s Test Kitchen) 

Q: How has working together affected your relationship?

Kevin: Well, we haven’t fought in three or four years. We grew up in two different cultures — I grew up in North America, and my dad is from China. I like baseball and listening to U2, but my dad isn’t really interested in those things. Food is giving us a reason to connect. When our minds are occupied and thinking about food, we don’t have a chance to bicker. We’re still not talking about U2 and baseball, but we are talking about food and that has kept us busy and not fighting the last three years we’ve been working on this show and this cookbook.

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Jeffrey: I have no idea what he’s talking about when he talks about baseball. He’s always talking about the Mariners or Red Sox, and I have no idea — we only had soccer in Hong Kong. But one day, he called me and wanted to know something about a sesame ball. So we started to talk more and more.

Kevin: It didn’t take baseball, but it took a sesame ball for us to start not arguing with each other. Who would have thought?

Q: What’s next for you?

Kevin: We’re still in the midst of this book tour. I’m doing some cooking classes around the country. We’ll see if we’re going to do any more episodes of ‘Hunger Pangs,’ but right now we have 24 or so episodes. Our wish is to proselytize Chinese food and let people know that it’s not a monolith. Chinese food is not just General Tso’s chicken and orange beef, as delicious as those things are. Gastronomically speaking, China is more like a continent than it is a country. Cantonese food is very different from Sichuan food. It’s very different from Shanghainese food, and it’s very different from American Chinese food. We don’t make a judgement about which one is better. We celebrate instead that Chinese food can take so many forms and so many dishes.

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