Yankee-Chinese Comfort Food in Harlem

It has often been said that the key to a successful marriage is the ability to compromise. This is especially true in the kitchen. But when both spouses come from strong food traditions, finding common ground can be difficult.

Fi2W interviewed four married couples in which each spouse comes from a different ethnic background to see how they bridge cultural differences at the dinner table.

If the way to the heart is through the stomach, then these New Yorkers have a more complicated—but arguably more delicious—journey to that end.

Kian Lam Kho and Warren Livesley; photo by Lily Chin, lilychin.info

While Kian Lam Kho preps vegetables for the wok, his husband Warren Livesley sets the table in their Harlem apartment, laying out intricately decorated Chinese tea cups from Hong Kong.

“If you want a Western set you can buy a Western set. And if you want an Eastern set, you can buy just an Eastern set,” Livesley explains. “But we bought them both.”

Kho, 59, was raised in a huge Chinese family in Singapore, where meals—lots of noodles, soups, and seafood—were served in shifts. Livesley, 64, grew up on “plain Yankee cooking” on the south coast of Massachusetts.

“Before I met Kian, I didn’t eat tomatoes,” Livesley jokes. “Meat and potatoes and that’s it.”

But after nearly four decades together and many trips to China and elsewhere, Livesley’s culinary comfort zone has expanded.

“For the longest time [Warren] wouldn’t eat tofu,” Kho says. “Now he craves for tofu.”

“Chinese food has become comfort food, which I never thought would happen,” Livesley adds. “Like Chinese soup noodles. That to me is chicken soup.”

Kho writes an acclaimed food blog, consults with restaurants, and just finished writing a book about Chinese cooking techniques (forthcoming from Clarkson Potter). Not surprisingly, he does most of the cooking at home.

When it’s just the two of them, they usually stick to simple, one-pot meals: stir-fried vegetables, chicken fricassee, meatloaf, or fried rice. But for special occasions, like the small dinner party they’re getting ready to host, Kho cooks more elaborate meals—and even the occasional multicourse Chinese banquet.

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Their meals skew toward Western fare, but sometimes Kho combines Asian flavors with Western cooking techniques to create new dishes, like wasabi mashed potatoes or tea smoked duck breast with orange and star anise sauce (a riff on the classic French dish Canard à l’Orange).

Tonight the menu is completely Chinese: fried whole fish, a stir-fry of pressed tofu and Chinese chive blossoms, “Chinese-style” mashed potatoes (spiked with tomato, onion, and bell pepper), and Livesley’s favorite: Shanghainese lion’s head meatballs. But over the years Kho’s cooking—and eating—has been influenced by his husband’s New England roots.

Kian and Warren prepare Chinese meal - Photo by Lily Chen, lilychin.info

Kian and Warren prepared a Chinese meal with a New England twist: fried whole fish, a stir-fry of pressed tofu and Chinese chive blossoms, “Chinese-style” mashed potatoes, and Shanghainese lion’s head meatballs. Photo by Lily Chin, lilychin.info

“I love fish and chips and clam rolls and lobster rolls. That’s very New England—it’s a beach thing,” Kho admits. “I’ve learned to really love them.”

Every Thanksgiving Kho recreates the meal Livesley’s mother used to make for that most American of holidays: roast turkey, bread stuffing with oysters, mashed potatoes, turnips, squash, creamed peas with onions, and pumpkin and apple pies. (Though he often finds creative ways to turn the leftovers into Chinese dishes.)

Livesley’s mother and aunt taught Kho how to make the savory dishes, but the pie-baking is his own labor of love.

“I am not a baking person,” Kho says. “But every once in a while I bake—because Warren loves it.”

Try two Yankee-Chinese recipes from Kian Lam Kho:

Lobster and Corn Chowder with Coconut Milk

Sichuan Flavored Lobster Rolls

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.

AboutAnne Noyes Saini
Anne Noyes Saini, Food Editor, produces WNYC's The Sporkful food podcast and is co-creator of the MOTHER podcast. She covers food culture, immigration, women, and the elderly in New York City — especially in Queens, where she lives. She has contributed to NPR The Salt, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Narratively, Serious Eats, VICE, Feet in 2 Worlds, Real Cheap Eats and City Limits magazine.