Culinary crossovers

Entrepreneurial mother, daughter blend their Chinese heritage with Southern ways for entertaining adventures.

Natalie and Margaret Keng, a daughter and mother from Smyrna whose family ran one of metro Atlanta's early Chinese restaurants, are starting a culinary cottage industry that straddles two cultures. They teach cooking classes, give demos and lead Asian market tours —- all with a dash of spice and personality.

"Ni hao, y'all!" Natalie began on a recent Saturday morning, using the Mandarin for "hello." Two dozen people were gathered around her and her mother at the entrance to the Hong Kong Supermarket on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Gwinnett County. It was one of their first market tours, part of the Evening at Emory program.

Natalie led the group past a freezer case of hot-pot makings. "They've got shrimp balls, pork balls, beef balls, mushroom balls, cuttlefish balls ..." She broke into a smile. "I feel like Forrest Gump."

The Kengs are still a little amazed by what has happened to their adopted hometown. When Natalie's parents arrived in early 1960s, few Asians lived in Atlanta —- certainly not enough to support the big international markets that have sprung up on Buford Highway and elsewhere.

"Look at this place," Natalie said. "This is as big as a Wal-Mart."

The Kengs come from Hunan province in mainland China, by way of Taiwan. Natalie's father, Edward Keng, came to the United States for college, eventually enrolling at Georgia Tech. His wife, Margaret, soon followed.

She was curious about the local food but didn't know much about it. She remembers buying a can of Crisco one time, lured by the picture of fried chicken on the label. "I was so disappointed when I opened it," she said. "I thought I was buying fried chicken."

The Kengs settled in Smyrna. Edward became an air pollution consultant, while Margaret became a schoolteacher and then a real estate agent. Their three daughters —- the only Chinese in their schools —- felt like novelties, if not outright aliens.

"We were called chinks a lot," Natalie recalled. "I tried to de-Asian myself."

That was harder to do when other family members arrived from Taiwan in the '70s, and Natalie's father opened a Chinese restaurant in Cumberland Mall, the first of several he owned around metro Atlanta. She spent part of her youth working there, and then headed north to school at Vassar and Harvard.

After years of living in Massachusetts, Natalie, now 40, decided to move back to Atlanta to be near her parents (who are now divorced). She and her mother both have homes in a Smyrna condo complex, her mom's overlooking a lake where she catches catfish and cooks them.

When she returned home, Natalie began working on a family history project that morphed into the Chinese Southern belle venture. She'd like to write a book and make a film. But for now, she's just trying to get the word out. That's why she marched in the Inman Park festival's parade wearing a hoop skirt —- and why she and her mom were leading a group of curious palates around the Hong Kong market.

For two hours, mother and daughter took their charges through the aisles explaining the finer points of tofu, wontons, spring rolls, noodles, tea and exotic Asian produce.

"This is durian," Natalie said, pointing to a bin of pale green porcupine-looking things. "We call it stinky fruit."

"And this," she continued, "is bitter melon. My mother always told me not to worry about the taste because it was medicinal."

Dr. Mom nodded. "Yes, it's good for you."

"It's kind of litmus test for being Asian," Natalie went on. "It's like: Are you Asian enough to eat this?"

After the tour, most of the group repaired to Happy Valley, a nearby dim sum restaurant, and dug into a sampling of Asian dishes, one of which, an otherwise tasty chicken concoction, contained a generous portion of bitter melon. The name fit. Most of it was left untouched.

"I don't see how they sell any of that stuff," said Jenny Greenwood, a neighbor of the Kengs.

A Chinese Southern belle can only do so much.

Asian fushion

Years before "fusion cuisine" became a buzz phrase, a Smyrna woman who immigrated from China was introducing her family to cross-cultural cooking. Today her daughter tells the AJC how she and her mother continue to build upon these traditions.

The contributor: Natalie Keng, a Vassar and Harvard alumna who worked in marketing and politics before returning to Atlanta to document her family's journey to America's Deep South. She recently began blogging about those experiences at www.chinesesouthernbelle.blogspot.com, and teaching classes with her mother combining Southern and Asian flavors.

The story: "My mother, Margaret, was born in Hunan, China, grew up in Taiwan, and immigrated to the U.S. for graduate school in the early 1960s. As a full-time schoolteacher for 17 years and mother of three girls, she adapted her favorite childhood dishes in Asia to work with an American lifestyle, a busy work schedule, and limited access to authentic ingredients.

"She taught the first adult education Chinese cooking class in Cobb County before soy sauce or tofu was available in stores. I call her the original Panda Express.

"Friends love our dinner parties. To complement her homestyle Chinese cooking, I add my own country Asian-tree-hugger creations, so we're a great team."

Susan Puckett, for the AJC

Upcoming events

Natalie and Margaret Keng have several events scheduled:

> "Eggrolls 'n' Sweet Tea," 6:30 p.m. today , Whole Foods on Briarcliff.

> "Tour de Tofu," noon Saturday, Sevananda in Little Five Points.

> "Country Asian Tapas," May 31, benefit dinner for Slow Food Atlanta, at Urban Oasis bed-and-breakfast in Inman Park.

> "Asian Noodles," June 8, Cook's Warehouse in Brookhaven.

> "Let's Wok the Garden," June 18, Oakhurst Community Garden in Decatur.

For details: www.chinesesouthernbelle.com.