On this Saturday evening as fresh rain sprinkled from the sky, Chef Linda Huang of the Hummingbird’s Kitchen flew me back home. At the pop-up dinner in her teaching and catering studio in Bozeman located at the edge of the Montana State University campus, Huang, originally from Shanghai, transported me to the memories of the flavors of my childhood. On this night my mind fluttered to the San Francisco Bay Area to my parent’s kitchen. The aromas of soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger reminded me of my father’s cooking while the tastes and textures recalled my mother’s celebratory foods.
From the street, the house of Hummingbird’s Kitchen looked like a gingerbread house with scalloped siding and red trim. Upon stepping in from the brick entry through the arched windowed wood door, the cooking in the open kitchen drew me immediately in.
Steam rose from pots simmering on the stovetop. Plates stacked on the counter readied for serving food. The largest welcome was the sense of anticipation from two large tables of guests on this main floor. With diners seated upstairs, Huang and her team calmly danced around each other preparing for this night’s meal for 26 people.
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Huang’s beaming smile and welcoming spirit assured me I had found a touch of home, but I sensed much more. The cottage named the Avalon was once a barn. Huang’s mother-in-law, Susan, lived in this house for 15 years. Her husband, Matthew Brailsford, whose family lived in the Paradise Valley, bought the property 30 years ago as an investment. When his parents divorced in 2001, Susan moved into the house. Huang and her husband relocated from China to Bozeman nearly 10 years ago.
Huang said, “Susan was the most important person in my life besides my own family after I moved here. We saw each other almost every day, and spent lots of great time together at her house. I was her caretaker when she had cancer.”
In talking about future plans, Huang suggested to Susan she might convert the house into her cooking studio. “She loved the idea so much, and couldn’t stop talking about it.”
“I realized Bozeman was a special place. People living here have traveled all over the world. They were adventurous,” she said. In 2013 she started teaching the cooking she had learned from her father and grandfather who were both chefs, and mother’s home cooking with a business named with the endearment from her husband.
“I wanted to cook authentic food from China,” she said. “I started cooking classes at Emerson Cultural Center. I was in the hallway with two camp stoves.”
In late 2017, Huang’s mother-in-law lost her fight with cancer and so the house became vacant. “The house was flooded by a frozen water pipe in the utility room,” Huang said. “The house had to be fully renovated downstairs,” which became her studio.
Through eight courses, I nested into comfort and nourishment while receiving the spirit of good fortune. The number “eight” in the Chinese language sounds like the word for “good luck and prosperity” and traditionally eight different dishes are served, especially during special occasions such as New Year’s or a wedding. Huang brought good tidings with her eight dishes.
The first two courses, “Wood Ear Mushroom Salad” and “Spring Pancakes” were “based on the spring meals my mother would cook. The vegetables bring you young energy, detoxing from the winter.” The wood ears and cucumbers swaddled in savoriness exuded crunch and freshness, while the pancake with chrysanthemum and cucumber carried a lightness.
“This experience is not that just I serve the food, but to inspire people, and I feel this special experience,” as the meal continued with “Pork and Garlic Chive Dumplings”, “Shanghai Scallion Noodle” with homemade noodles dressed with scallions, onion, shrimp and dried scallops, followed with “Steamed Chicken with Mixed Mushrooms.”
The next course, “Yan Duo Xian Soup” or salted pork soup, is a seasonal dish. “We drink it in spring and early summer. It is deep in umami flavors,” Huang said.
Before dessert of “Chinese Style Steamed Cakes,” Huang served a small plate of stir-fried green leafy vegetables highlighted with bok choy. The grand finale included a pea cake in brilliant green, flavored with coconut accompanied by a mango pudding.
Monica Skewes who attended the pop-up dinner for the first time with her husband, Scott Gardner, said, “I most loved the opportunity to learn about Chinese culture through the sharing of food. The way Linda shared stories about the recipes and ingredients, how they reminded her of her childhood and home, and how the ingredients are traditionally gathered and prepared, was truly a delight.”
Huang concluded, “To me, this is a piece of joy in my life. Even after cleaning it is a joy for me. I look for better ways to cook the food. It comes with lots of practice.”
The years of experience showed in the quiet and order in the open kitchen.
“In the calm I believe you can feel the food. I think people can taste the food from who you are. The food is made from love,” Huang said.
I know I felt the love in Huang’s food. In her desire to keep her heritage and the deliciousness from her culture, I found a sense of family and home.