Irene, Margaret, and Andrew Li, founders of food truck and restaurant Mei Mei in the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood, want to teach you how to cook. But not the way they cook at Mei Mei, per se — more the way they cook at home.
On Feb. 5 — the start of Chinese New Year — the siblings will release their first cookbook, “Double Awesome Chinese Food: Irresistible and Totally Achievable Recipes from Our Chinese-American Kitchen,” a collaborative project that the Lis have been talking about writing for years. Packed with recipes and stories that come from both the Mei Mei kitchen and their childhood, the cookbook encourages readers to trust their instincts and get creative.
“This is not the kind of cookbook that should sit on your coffee table,” said Margaret, who often goes by Mei and who was the lead writer of the book. “We want it to be in your kitchen, to get covered in soy sauce.”
The cookbook kicks off with a chapter titled, “Chinese classics the Mei Mei way,” featuring interpretations of familiar dishes: dan dan noodles with crispy pork belly, rice porridge, beef and broccoli, and Yu Xiang eggplant with cranberries and almonds. There’s a chapter on dumplings and pancakes, where readers will find a recipe for Mei Mei’s famous Double Awesome sandwich, and another on vegetables that includes meat-free soup, salad, and tempura recipes. Other chapters cover bowls (rice, noodles, whole grains), meat, seafood, drinks, and desserts, which is where readers will spot Irene’s carrot chocolate mousse and oolong panna cotta.
Tips, techniques, and stories are woven throughout the cookbook, like the time that the siblings’ mother left for a trip to Jamaica and, in her absence, Irene butchered a pig on her kitchen table (“She knew, broadly, that we were doing that,” Irene said), and how to keep your cooking space clean and organized, a feat that the Lis learned while operating out of their first food truck.
“There are tips on embracing shortcuts,” Margaret said. “Like you don’t have to make everything from scratch. We cured our own bacon and we made our own kimchi, and then we realized it was not realistic for us and home cooks.”
Irene agreed that the recipes are not meant to intimidate readers.
“The book is more about our family in a lot of ways than it is about the restaurant,” she said. “It’s about, how do we capture what it was like growing up in our house? It’s really a home cook-friendly cookbook. It’s about how to see through our point of view in the kitchen, and there are also little techniques from the restaurant that you can use at home.”
While Margaret wrote the majority of the cookbook, Irene’s deep knowledge of local food systems and urban farming shines via pointers and sourcing information, particularly in the chapter on vegetables. Meanwhile, the sisters agreed that Andrew’s voice is clear in many of the “junk food” recipes.
“Our brother is a goofball, but he’s also very much an ideas person,” Irene said. “So a lot of our food stems from when he would have an idea and was like, OK, what if we did this thing? That’s one of the ways that his voice is present. Even though we’re a farm-to-table restaurant and a lot of what we do is around sourcing, we also love junk food.” (See the kung pao kitchen dip, which incorporates plenty of cheese.)
Recipes are also identified with symbols that indicate vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, and other dietary restrictions, which stems from Andrew’s son, Jackson, having a number of food allergies.
“The nice thing is that our voices come through really clearly [in the cookbook],” Irene said. “This is what it sounds like with the three of us around the table.”
“Double Awesome Chinese Food” is available for preorder through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound, and there are a bookstore events scheduled after the release at Brookline Booksmith (Feb. 5), Trident Booksellers (Feb. 27), and Harvard Book Store (March 7).
Mei Mei; 506 Park Dr., Boston; Sundays and Tuesdays–Thursdays from 11 a.m.–9 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; meimeiboston.com