Kitchen Heirlooms: Francis Lam

Kitchen Heirlooms: Francis Lam

Published on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Kitchen Heirlooms Francis Lam

↑ Francis Lam carried this perforated steaming tray home from Hong Kong with dreams of mastering a difficult Chinese culinary technique.
Photo: Courtesy of Francis Lam

 

Last fall, American Craft introduced Object Stories, a series of pieces written by members of the craft community on the handmade objects that they cherish. In the upcoming Kitchen Table issue, we invited members of the craft and culinary communities to share stories about pieces from their kitchens and dining rooms that hold meaning to them, many of which were passed down by other generations of cooks or makers. Each story demonstrates how the objects we cook with and eat from carry vital personal, familial, and cultural history and invites readers to compliment the kitchen heirlooms in their own lives.

Story 2 of 7: Splendid Table host Francis Lam on aspiration and authenticity

As personal fetish objects go, this isn’t much of one. It’s basically what line cooks call a perf pan or a perforated sheet pan, and it’s a tiny, unimpressive one at that. Cheap aluminum, the holes machined in, the corners bent down by hand to fit inside a steamer basket. But when I brought it home from Hong Kong, I packed it with care, in three layers of shirts, into a box with reinforced corners. Because this was going to be the thing that was going to turn me into a real Chinese cook.

Kitchen Heirlooms Francis Lam Cheong Fun

 

← Francis's tray can be used to steam rice noodle sheets for cheong fun, a traditional dim sum dish.

The pan is a cheong fun [rice noodle roll] steamer tray. You put a cloth on it, pour on a thin batter of rice flour, and steam it, tightly sealed in a wok. If you do it right, a sheet of noodle appears, smooth and slick; you fill it with meat or shrimp or a stick of fried dough and roll it up. The rice sheet should come out gossamer thin, sliding silkily into your mouth, committing itself to the most magical trick food can play – to be there, but barely there. Steamed cheong fun, made well, were a favorite of my parents when we would go out for dim sum, our connection to the cuisine that reminded us, immigrants and their children, of who we are and the excellence of the culture we come from.

My steamer tray holds the promise of frustration, frustration holds the promise of one day completing the task, and completing the task (for me) would mean I am one step closer to the culture my parents left.

If you look for these trays online, they are almost always solid. This makes sense; it’s hard to hold liquid on a surface dotted with holes. But therein lies the craftsperson’s dilemma: It’s easy to cook a liquid batter on a tray. It’s hard to do it on a cloth suspended above a set of holes.

My steamer tray holds the promise of frustration, frustration holds the promise of one day completing the task, and completing the task (for me) would mean I am one step closer to the culture my parents left. I bought it in Hong Kong, so that it would bring me back to Hong Kong. My confession is that dinner tonight was something thrown together to feed my wife and daughter quick, quick, quick. My confession is that my steamer tray is perfectly shiny and unused.

Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table and is an editor at large at Clarkson Potter. @Francis_Lam

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