On November 30 (an auspicious date) a small green neon ‘open’ sign flashed on at 235 Kent St. in Lindsay (an auspicious location). It marked the launch of a new restaurant: Ping’s Home Made Chinese Food.
The obvious questions: Who is Ping? And…could it really be homemade?
Before meeting with Ping I stop in for lunch. Journalistic due diligence explains the first visit. The food is why I go back, again and again — to date a dozen times — for lunches and take-out.
The food! Delicately-wrapped dumplings stuffed with finely-chopped Chinese chives, shrimp and egg. Bok choi (most succulent of vegetables) and Chinese mushrooms. A fiery (by request) Sichuan sliced beef poached in chilli oil. On a cold day, a satisfying plate of plump stir-fried Shanghai noodles to slurp — ordered with pork to mark the arrival of the Chinese Year of the Pig.
It all whets my appetite for the meeting with Ping Zhai, owner, manager, and — most importantly — cook.
In the interval between the 11:30 am to 2 pm lunch buffet and dinner take-out orders, Ping takes time to join me at a table in what was once the front porch of a two-storey, yellow-brick home, and shares her story.
Home for Ping was Beijing. Her parents were both engineers and very busy, and growing up in Beijing Ping prepared many family meals.
After high school she studied Journalism at Peking University, and became a reporter; she also taught Chinese Language and Literature in high schools for almost eight years.
But an interest in food and food preparation was a constant. During university she worked part-time in the restaurant of reputedly the most prestigious hotel in Beijing, the Grand. After university she spent a year in a cooking school in Beijing, learning traditional Chinese culinary skills and techniques, becoming proficient in balancing flavours and preparing “signature dishes” (a number of them on her restaurant’s menu).
All of her classmates were training to work in restaurants. They and their teacher were surprised to learn Ping’s ambition was simply to cook well for her family.
When Ping immigrated to Canada she started in Toronto, writing opinion and news items for a Chinese media organization, but soon relocated to the Long Beach area near Cameron.
In her new home she took pleasure in feeding an expanding circle. Her son would bring friends home every day. “I might have five or six kids staying for dinner,” she says. Neighbours and friends came over, and in summers her parents — visiting to escape the heat and smog of Beijing — were at the table, too.
Everyone encouraged her to open a small restaurant, though she didn’t need much convincing — even as a child playing with friends she’d pretended to have a restaurant.
It was Ping’s mother who spotted the house for sale at the corner of Kent St. and Albert and identified it as a lucky — “auspicious” — location. (There’s a Chinese expression that translates “golden corner, silver side.”)
Ping bought the house, and after extensive renovation and some Community Futures support turned it into the restaurant that opened November 30th. (It was her father who identified that as an auspicious day.)
Homemade Chinese Food?
So, the answer to that second question — about whether what’s on offer is truly “Home Made Chinese Food” is an emphatic yes. Everything is made by hand, from fresh ingredients. Ping herself does almost all of the food preparation, and what she offers is what she’s been lovingly preparing for decades for her own family and friends.
How ‘Tis Done
Before winding-up, a little about the time, effort and skill involved in bringing us home made Chinese food. From Monday to Saturday Ping’s on the go for up to 12 hours. On many Sundays she travels to Markham and Scarborough to pick up ingredients such as shiitake mushrooms, chili oil and Chinese chives, garlic hearts and Chinese vinegar.
From Monday to Friday her first priority is the lunch buffet: 10 different dishes, rice and noodle, and appetizers such as spring or egg rolls, and dumplings.
At 10 am the steam table is warmed up and she preps ingredients (slicing, dicing, chopping) in her compact kitchen space, wielding a versatile vegetable cleaver. More complicated than it sounds: sizes and shapes have to match. If meat is sliced the vegetables are too.
At 11 am the cooking begins. She stir-fries in well-seasoned woks the size of inverted parasols, while other dishes are stewed, braised or boiled in large pots set atop a six-burner gas stove, or plunged into deep fryers.
From 11:30 am to 2:30 pm she’s refreshing the steam-table dishes in the steam-table and cooking up orders from the extensive take-out menu. After that, it’s phone-in orders for pick-up or delivery.
She’s constantly fine-tuning the menu, careful to offer the familiar while also introducing customers to less familiar Cantonese, Sichuan and northern fare. (For one customer she even picked up and prepared chicken feet).
A Lucky Sign
Year of the Pig is a lucky sign, associated with enthusiasm, ambition, and hard work (three qualities Ping exemplifies).
It’s lucky for us she’s here to prepare authentic Chinese food, and teach us a little about a rich culture. This woman’s place is definitely in the kitchen.
Visit Ping’s website for hours and order-information.