How to make Cantonese-Canadian comfort food: Flo Leung shares Grandma’s steamed fish and other recipes in her new cookbook

The pandemic has made us all crave comfort and nostalgia; for Flo Leung, Toronto-based food illustrator and one half of the takeout kitchen/studio Noble House, it led to a sentimental side project, too. Unable to gather around the dinner table with her mother, Nancy, she began texting for pointers on how to make the familiar dishes she missed. “By the third recipe, she asked, ‘Are you writing these down?’” recalls Leung, who went to cooking school and worked in restaurants before getting into food styling and art.

The result is “Family Meals: Comfort Food Cooking, Vol. 1,” a slender volume of cherished, homey Cantonese-Canadian dishes they would’ve otherwise been eating together. Recipes include steamed chicken with wood ear mushrooms and lily flowers (described as an express ticket back to “afternoons of piano lessons and memories of home-cut bangs”), a one-pot version of lo mai fan (sticky rice with Chinese sausage), and Grandma’s steamed fish (a classic take, save for the addition of red dates).

"Family Meals: Comfort Food Cooking, Vol. 1," by Flo and Nancy Leung, Berkinshaw Press, 40 pages, $25.

Released in January, it’s the first book from their own publishing venture, Berkinshaw Press, which will focus on small-batch recipe collections inspired by family meals. “My mum thought it would be fun, as something we could do together,” explains Leung. “Berkinshaw was the name of the street my childhood home was on.” Another throwback detail: the ’70s-style textured image on the cover was scanned from the cloth of an old family album.

Leung and her mother handled all the recipe development, which called for a creative workaround. “I realized she did her measurements according to the feel of a specific dish,” says Leung. “So I went out and bought a copycat one — a white ceramic dish painted with a blue fish — and tried to translate.” Taste-testing was a bigger family affair, involving Leung’s chef husband and the other half of Noble House, Dusty Gallagher, and their seven-year-old, Ava.

From top: Flo's mom and dad, Nancy and Alfred; Nancy and Ava eating noodles; Ava, Flo and Dusty enjoying hot pot; Nancy, Ava and Flo (with dearly missed pooch Po).

“That’s one of the nicer things to come out of the cookbook,” says Leung. “Ava is a kid who normally likes mac and cheese and butter noodles. (In recipe testing) we had the steamed fish with red dates, and it was the first time she’d had it since she was a baby. And she was like, ‘Oh, this is really good!’ It’s nice to be able to share these dishes and get to know them again.”

An archival photo of mom Nancy, with Flo as a kid.

Grandma’s Steamed Fish with Red Dates, Shiitake and Ground Bean Sauce

“This version of steamed fish is dear to my mom, as her mother liked to add bonus red dates and mushrooms to the already great-as-it-is classic preparation.”

For the fish

  • 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 to 1 1/2 lb whole fresh fish, scaled and cleaned (grouper, sea bream, red snapper and tilapia are nice)

For the sauce

  • 2 tsp (10 mL) ground bean sauce (we like Fu Chi brand)
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) cooking wine
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) cornstarch

To finish

  • 2 finely sliced green onions
  • 3 tbsp (45 mL) finely sliced ginger
  • 3-ish tbsp (about 45 mL) vegetable oil

Prepare dried ingredients. Dates: cut in half and remove pits. Soak dates in warm water until soft, at least 2 hours to overnight. Shiitake: soak in warm water until soft. Trim away tough stems, cut caps into thin slices.

Prepare steamer setup. For fish, we use a large roasting pan with a raised lid and a wire rack. Fill water just under rack level and set to gentle simmer on stovetop element.

In a small bowl, mix sauce ingredients together until smooth. Place fish on heat-safe platter. Spoon sauce in cavity and lightly over body. Arrange prepared dates and mushrooms around fish.

Place platter in steamer and cover. Gently steam until fish is just cooked through — a paring knife will easily pass through the thickest part of the body, just behind the head. Start checking after 10 to 12 minutes. Carefully remove platter from steamer.

To finish, garnish fish with green onion and ginger. Heat vegetable oil in a small pot until shimmering hot (to test: a carefully dropped sliver of ginger will sizzle immediately) and pour over garnished fish. Top with coriander, drizzle light soy over and serve right away with plenty of rice.

Serves 2 generously as a main dish, or 3 to 4 as part of a larger meal.

Recipe excerpted with permission from “Family Meals: Comfort Food Cooking, Vol. 1,” by Flo and Nancy Leung.


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