In “Mad Kitchen,” Madeleine Brown speaks to members of the Toronto theatre community about one of their favourite recipes.
“I have that memory of them all lined up. Briiimp. Briiimp. Briiimp.”
Marjorie Chan, artistic director of Cahoots Theatre, is not reminiscing about the dead stares of an unenthused audition panel or opening night audience, but rather dead fish. Sunfish after sunfish, her playful “brimp”’s accent the sheer number of them, whole and free from any protective packaging, that lined her childhood freezer.
Growing up in Scarborough her family fished there and in Pickering on the weekends, often catching dessert plate-sized sunfish. Although on one occasion Chan caught her sister by the elbow causing it to bleed. A lot. Once home they stored their catches—the fish, not her sister—for dinners later in the week in the freezer.
As they grew older, the siblings’ participation in the dinner preparation increased. “My parents both worked, they were immigrants—so the kids’ job was to clean the vegetables and put on the rice. And then when my mother and father came home then the fish would be made and then we could have dinner.” Since Chan was around ten-years-old, she’s served as the resident de-boner for her immediate family, doing it at the table once the fish is cooked with a presentational smile, arm gesture and all. “I think I was just copying a waitress or something,” she reflects. Over time, she learned the entire “very basic, very Chinese” recipe by watching her parents.
However, it wasn’t until recently upon texting with her mother that Chan learned about the secret to their family recipe: the microwave. For the last twenty-odd years—since they’ve had one of their own—her mother has cooked the fish in their microwave in plastic wrap. Chan assumed her parents steamed the fish, as she does, in a steamer over a wok. Going against her mother’s word on the subject of plastic wrap and the microwave itself, Chan warns, “Don’t do that!”
Despite her love of the recipe, Chan doesn’t describe her parents as good cooks. Or even herself. When she does cook—and she does pack her own lunches on a regular basis—she sticks to Asian cuisine or simple Italian dishes. It’s got to be straight-forward, tasty, and fast. For Chan, there’s no reason to over complicate a dish. Ultimately though Chan, who does indeed love food, the act of eating, MasterChef and the like, prefers to eat out. As an artist, she believes it’s an opportunity worth relishing rather than fretting over.
“Early on, I decided, ‘Marjorie, don’t get miserable with food.’ Even if you’re feeling poor, if you need to eat, and you’re out, and you haven’t had time to prep or whatever, just eat.” For Chan, it’s not worth the guilt—especially if you’re in the middle of a twelve-hour tech day—but it is worth the pleasure and comfort food provides an empty stomach and a tired mind.
Chan’s love of food has bled over into her actual art. As a playwright, she’s in the middle of development on a project inspired by the structure and communal nature of dim sum, a style of Chinese cuisine composed of multiple small dishes and a favourite of Chan’s. For her, dim sum serves as a place of connection and meeting point for Asian artists within the larger Toronto theatre community. Referring back to her family recipe, she smiles: “I don’t think the fish is dim sum though.”
Marjorie Chan’s (Microwaved) Home-Steamed Fish
Chan’s mother uses a “fish with a head, you find it in Chinatown,” (aka green bass).
- 1 whole white-fleshed fish, cleaned and descaled
- 2-inch piece fresh ginger plus extra to finish, peeled and julienned into fine strips
- 1 green onion, sliced
- 2 tbsp vegetable or canola oil
- soy sauce, to taste
- Put the ginger on top of the prepared fish.
- Following Chan’s mother’s method, cook the fish in the microwave for five to six minutes, depending on the size of the fish. If you prefer to use Chan’s own method, steam in a wok or bake in the oven. In the case of steaming, pour water into a wok or deep pot and set a lined steamer above the water, ensuring the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the steamer. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, put the fish into the steamer, cover and steam for around eight minutes or until the fish flakes easily.
- When the fish is cooked, remove from the microwave, steamer or oven and arrange the green onion on top of the fish. Heat up the oil and soy sauce in a pan and then pour over the fish to slightly cook the green onions. You may also add the soy sauce at room temperature and independently from the oil at the very end as Chan’s mother does.
- Serve with additional fresh ginger (as Chan does!) and rice.
Marjorie Chan directs Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre’s production in association with Native Earth, I Call myself Princess, at the Aki Studio from September 9 to 30. For tickets or more information, click here.