When my mother and I cook together, we wear the red aprons we’ve had since I was a little girl. She narrates every move for me, like a seasoned Food Network star guiding a wide-eyed guest. “Make sure to keep stirring the noodles as they cook,” she says, while expertly doing so in a wok set over her outdoor camping stove. (Ingredient prep happens inside, but most of the magic takes place in the backyard, a common Southeast Asian custom that keeps heat, smoke, and cooking smells out of the house—yes, even during Colorado winters.) I try to commit to memory every word so that someday I’ll be able to make char siu bao and crispy chow mein noodles as effortlessly as Mama does.

It wasn’t always this way. During my early 20s, I took my mother’s culinary shows of affection for granted, letting containers of her Hainanese chicken rice and spicy tom yum soup languish in the fridge for days without thought. We didn’t cook together very often when I was growing up, either; my parents worked long hours at our family’s gas station in Wheat Ridge. But since she retired nearly two years ago, I’ve become Mama’s kitchen shadow, exploring and gaining a deeper appreciation for the flavors of my heritage—Chinese and Thai tastes and traditions Mama has worked so hard to preserve. (Her parents emigrated from Shanghai to Bangkok before she was born; Mama came to Denver when she was 34.)

Christmas, in particular, is a special time for us. That’s when I help Mama serve a 15-pound prime rib for dinner…but not as the centerpiece. Nope, the roast is merely a side dish, as are the steamed king crab legs, egg noodles laced with garlic oil, assortment of dim sum, and Chinese broccoli slathered with oyster sauce, all presented buffet-style.

The main course is actually hot pot, a nod to my mother’s Chinese roots. Every year, with enough food on the table for at least 30, our group of 10 settles in—Dad never fails to ask when the other 20 guests will arrive—around two portable burners set with pots full of bubbling broth. A dozen plates of raw ingredients rest within reach, ready for dunking into the soup: homemade pork-scallion dumplings; marinated slices of pork, beef, and chicken; butterflied shrimp; strips of squid; and leafy Napa cabbage. Everyone gets a bowl, a giant soup spoon, a wire strainer for cooking their chosen ingredients, and a dish of vinegar dipping sauce spiked with Thai chiles, garlic, and lime.

Mama doesn’t cook like that every day, but she has earned a reputation for bulk shopping and food production. Her recipes are built for a crowd, so there’s enough to share with family, friends, and even the employees at her local Costco, who watch Mama leave with an overflowing cart only to return with trays of fried rice and pad thai for them days later.

Since I became 5280’s assistant food editor in July, my colleagues have been reaping similar benefits: I’ve already lugged in barbecue pork buns from one of Mama’s large-scale baking experiments and a giant container of fruit salad when I made far more than my husband and I could comfortably consume. I’m excited to share my culinary passions with you, too, on these pages and via Instagram (@whatispattyeating). For my mother—and for me—cooking and sharing isn’t a chore, but rather an expression of love.

You can find more dispatches from Kaowthumrong’s culinary journey—and Mama’s hot pot recipe—on her personal blog, bravelittleasian.com

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2019.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.