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The Journal Gazette

  • Nick Otto for the Washington Post Lisa Lin makes a video of her mother describing the savory fried butterfly crackers.

Sunday, February 03, 2019 1:00 am

Cooking videos make Chinese mom, 73, viral star

Elazar Sontag | Washington Post

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Lan Lin doesn't go around telling her friends she's famous on Instagram. For that matter, Lan, 73, isn't really sure how Instagram works.

Nevertheless, first-, second- and third-generation immigrants across the country have rallied around the videos her daughter Lisa films as she cooks traditional Chinese dishes with her mother. Although she can't for the life of her figure out why, Lan has become an online mother figure and cooking teacher for thousands of young people she's never met.

In an early video posted to Lisa's Instagram account, Lan stands in her tiny San Francisco kitchen, sporting her favorite floral print apron and pink plastic slippers. She's making an enormous sticky rice casserole with homemade Chinese bacon, dried shrimp and vegetables. As she cooks, she explains the recipe in Taishanese, the dialect she grew up speaking in Taishan, a city in South China's coastal Guangdong province. Lisa leans over her mother's shoulder, recording the video on her phone.

“I asked my mom how much rice is in here, and she said seven cups,” Lisa said. “But she apparently used this cup to measure it.” Lan, or Mama Lin as her daughter affectionately calls her, holds up a tiny plastic teacup she was handed on her flight to America 32 years ago. It's been her standard of measurement ever since.

Lan never relies on exact measurements or cooking times, so Lisa retests her mother's recipes before posting a simplified version to her blog. For many of Lisa's 66,000 Instagram followers, cooking along is an afterthought, anyway. They watch Lan's videos for a sense of belonging, a reminder of grandmothers still in China, dishes they haven't eaten since childhood, recipes they never thought to learn before moving across the world.

On this November day, in her daughter's Sacramento apartment, Lan is wearing new pink slippers and a polka dot apron as she pours sweet rice flour into a metal bowl to make tang yuan, or black sesame dumplings. Lan, Lisa and their family always make a version of these glutinous rice dumplings for Chinese New Year, crowding around Lan's counter and taking care not to stain their hands and clothes with the jet black filling as they form each ball. At first, Lan weighs the flour on a small kitchen scale and sprinkles in tablespoons of hot water, keeping her measurements exact, while she stirs with a chopstick.

“This doesn't feel right,” she says, putting the chopstick aside and poking the dough with her fingers. “I've been making this without measuring anything for years.” Lan can tell the dough is too dry. Lisa's efforts at a concise recipe have been defeated, the measuring spoons are thrown in the sink, and Lan smiles as she pours boiling water straight from her kettle into the bowl.

Despite what her daughter tells her, Lan isn't convinced any of Lisa's followers actually watch her videos. “Don't you think it's weird that people like watching an old lady, and hearing an old woman's story?” she asks, as we sit around Lisa's island counter eating light, pillowy turnip cakes Lan has fried for lunch.

“She doesn't really understand the whole Instagram thing,” Lisa, 32, says. “Sometimes I don't understand why people enjoy watching us cook, either.”

Idea was personal

When Lisa recorded the first video, she didn't intend to share it. Lan had just turned 70, and Lisa realized she had limited time to learn from her mother. She wanted to post a version of her mother's peanut candy to her food blog but struggled to replicate its snappy texture and amber hue. So she asked Lan to make it while she recorded. When Lisa shared the video on Instagram, hundreds of excited followers reached out.

“That's when I knew, this was different,” she recalls.

Jiar Fong, one of Lisa's followers, came across the videos early last year and felt pangs of homesickness. Fong, 29, had just moved from Malaysia to New York City. “When you live in your home country, all this food that you love is so easy (to find) that you never learn how to make it,” she says. “The minute you move, you wish you remember how your mom made it, how your grandma made it.” Watching Lisa's videos, she was overwhelmed. “I teared up, being so far away from home. Now that I watch these videos, maybe when I go back home I'll record my mom cooking, so that I can keep the recipes in my family.”

When she's filming, Lisa often pauses her translations, to show her mother's eccentricities. In one video, she pans to the busy, patterned apron Lan found in Chinatown for 99 cents. In another, she points out her mom's little pink radio, balanced on the counter and blasting Chinese opera while Lan cooks. “I kind of know these are Asian mom quirks in the back of my head,” Lisa says. “I can spot it immediately. And I present it so other people whose parents are similar can relate to that. I feel like we have a personal connection.”

Gillian Der, another of Lisa's followers, couldn't believe what she was hearing when she came across a video of Lan and Lisa chattering in Taishanese as they shaped and fried sesame balls.

“It meant so much that when I was watching those videos and seeing her make this food with her mom, I was also hearing these familiar sounds that I grew up with,” she said. Der, 22, was born and raised in Toronto, and only heard Taishanese in her home. “Growing up, I didn't have access to amazing cooks like Lisa's mom, or even my own grandmother,” she says. “Now I can go to Lisa's account and watch these videos and see her learning, and it reflects my own learning. When I hear the language and when I see the beautiful food that those two make, it feels like home.”

Cooking for family

In 1986, when Lan moved to Portland, Oregon, from China, she cooked in her brother-in-law's restaurant. But she didn't think of it as a real profession.

“Cooking was more of a survival thing,” she told me.

Thirty-two years after Lan stepped off her flight with her plastic cup in hand, cooking has become a central part of her life. When she isn't in Sacramento with Lisa, she cooks for her husband, children and grandchildren who stream through her kitchen, staying for dinner or picking up containers of food on their way home. “She won't say this,” Lisa tells me, “but I know that it's hard work. But she is very willing to help her children. And there are certain dishes that, if my mom doesn't pass over to the next generation, will just be gone.”

Lisa takes her mother's recipes, which often have a dozen spices and other hard-to-find ingredients, and adjusts them for her followers. “I'm targeting an audience that isn't my mom, but people like me who grew up with these foods but don't necessarily know how to cook them,” Lisa explains. “I'm thinking about people who might not necessarily have access to the Asian supermarket. I try to simplify.”

In her videos, Lisa regularly trails a few steps behind her mother as she tries to translate, sometimes losing track of what Lan is doing, unable to identify a spice her mom has thrown in the wok.

When Lan is finished adding boiling water to the rice flour, and the sweet sesame paste is set to chill in the freezer, she pulls a black binder from Lisa's bookcase. In it are hundreds of pages of Lan's handwritten notes, with little sketches accompanying every recipe they've made together. The notes and drawings illustrate how to properly fold dumplings, wrap sticky rice in bamboo leaves, dehydrate dried shrimp and properly mix a variety of doughs.

Lan often shakes her head in exasperation when they're done filming, Lisa tells me. “It would be best if you were still a lawyer,” she'll say, “I wouldn't even have to teach you any of this.” No amount of explaining can convince Lan that running a food blog, in this day and age, constitutes a real profession.