Cook revels in Chinese traditions, setting the mood when entertaining

By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 3/5/2013 9:57 AM
  • Karen Eng's travels take her around the country where she makes a point of visiting MLB ballparks. She counts the foot-long dogs in Texas as her favorite ballpark fare.

      Karen Eng's travels take her around the country where she makes a point of visiting MLB ballparks. She counts the foot-long dogs in Texas as her favorite ballpark fare. JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

Feb. 10 ushered in the 4711th Chinese New Year and kicked off a monthlong celebration of family reunions, symbolic rebirth and delicious food for the Eng family and other Chinese-Americans.

"Despite the fact that we're very Americanized, the Chinese New Year is my favorite holiday!' says Dr. Karen Eng, a third ("or fourth?") generation Chinese American who was born in Chicago's Chinatown and now lives in Barrington, with her husband and daughter.

"We still try to keep the traditions," Karen says. "We clean the house very well and make sure everything is filled. The idea is to know you have enough food to get through the year."

To celebrate, Karen's family met in Chinatown and enjoyed a wonderful meal.

"It was so good! Tradition says that you are supposed to have one of everything, so we had fish, chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, rice and noodles for longevity."

Karen learned to cook at a young age from her mother and two grandmothers.

"My mom and my grandmothers are the most awesome cooks," says Karen. "They are chefs who cook by taste and feel. My mom can taste something and know what it needs. I like the fundamentals of using a recipe first, and then when I get a feel for what I'm doing, I embellish it."

Karen's first love was for baking however.

"My background is in science. I was a biochemistry major. I think that is why I've always liked baking." Today, she favors cooking Asian cuisine, but her results are definitely not the traditional fare.

"The only reason it's considered Chinese food is because I'm cooking it and I'm Chinese, and because the ingredients are Chinese!" she laughs.

"My favorite dish in the whole world however is Mongolian Beef. It was what I always asked my mother to make for me on my birthday and I still think hers is better than mine." Karen shares the recipe with us today, along with a fun dessert-style egg roll.

Karen and her family love to entertain. Her large collection of cookbooks has volumes that are marked up with specific notes and sprinkled with grease. Karen keeps a special journal for entertaining, noting the appetizers, salads, main dishes and the wines served.

"This way I don't have to worry if I am serving something over and over again and it's fun to flip through it and see the evolution of our recipes."

Karen pays careful attention to detail, including the way the table is set: "I think it sets the mood; my husband worries because I don't buy clothes, but I love a kitchen store. I have Mexican fiesta ware, bento boxes, Chinese chopsticks ... he thinks I'm nuts, but he's good about it," she laughs.

The next entertainment on the calendar is her daughter's birthday celebration -- a sleepover they have planned together. There will be a popcorn bar, a pasta bar and an ice cream sundae bar … sounds like a perfect finale to the Chinese New Year celebration!

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