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Chinese-American Couple Mixes Chinese Food with Mississippi Delta Delicacies


In the Mississippi Delta, in the southern United States, talk of food conjures up images of crayfish, bacon and a leafy vegetable called collard greens. At first, these local ingredients posed a challenge for one Chinese-American couple, but they eventually decided that if you can't beat them, join them.

Come on in my kitchen, sings famous Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson. The song's title points to the primary role the kitchen plays in southern life, a truism that is not lost on third generation Chinese-Americans and longtime Mississippi residents, Gilroy and Sally Chow.

"My grandfather came at the turn of the century, and came to Marks, Mississippi, where he started a grocery business," says Ms. Chow.

The Chows now live down river, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which has a population of a little more than 20,000 people. Gilroy and Sally love to cook and eat Chinese food, but they have learned that in order to make traditional Chinese dishes where they live, they have to use some non-traditional ingredients.

At a recent cooking demonstration in Washington, at the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival, Sally Chow told visitors how she and her husband have adapted their Chinese heritage to their Southern environment.

The first dish they presented was Stir-fried Collard Greens. "I know you're saying, "stir-fried collards?" Well, that's a little strange. But it is something that we have enjoyed over the years," she says.

For another dish, the Chows use small, locally available crayfish, for a dish called Cantonese Crawdad, which gives the crustaceans their more down home name.

Another Chow specialty is Delta Fried Rice. Their version deviates slightly from more traditional Chinese recipes by including a local delicacy, bacon.

According to Gilroy Chow, one of the benefits of using local foods is that they taste better because they're fresh. One of those foods, a large-mouth bass, is found in the rivers near Clarksdale. "A whole bass, a large-mouth bass, that's steamed and seasoned with Chinese seasonings, it's really good and really healthy," he says.

Sally Chow says she and her husband love to entertain. She said they learned very early on that preparing good food was crucial if people were going to have a good time. "Now, when we fix something that, back home [in Mississippi], if something is just wonderful, smells great and you taste it and you go, "Mmm," she says. "And then it gets the highest rating, and do you know what the highest rating is? [People say,] 'Slap your mama!'"

Sally Chow says the phrase "slap your mama" is "totally Southern," and is not meant to be disrespectful. What it means, she says, is that you should ask your mama why she didn't introduce you to this wonderful food sooner.