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Ying Compestine's new books boast hungry ghosts, dumplings and recipes

By Jackie Burrell
Contra Costa Times
Posted in the San Jose Mercury News: 10/19/2009 04:55:17 PM PDT
Updated: 10/20/2009 09:46:42 AM PDT

Most cookbooks don't begin with a plump little boy, a hungry ghost and a mad race through Beijing to collect moldy wonton wrappers. But then Ying Compestine's "Boy Dumplings" isn't exactly your ordinary tome.

The award-winning Lafayette author has stirred her two usual genres — cookbooks and young adult novels — into a new confection. Her new spooky stories mingle the ghosts, gore and recipes surrounding an esoteric Chinese festival. Now, those recipes are playing a starring role at Hungry Ghost Festival food tastings and book signings around the Bay.

Drenched in tradition and Taoist superstition, the Hungry Ghost Festival is an important part of Asian lore in Southern China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, says Michael Aquino, About.com's guide to Southeast Asian culture. According to popular belief, the gates of hell open each year during the seventh lunar month, unleashing hungry spirits who roam the earth seeking food.

The monthlong festival brings summer to a close in a series of feasts and rituals designed to feed the ghosts and ensure ancestors' blessings for the coming year. Families leave offerings at grave sites and outside homes, says Aquino, to encourage ghosts to sate their hunger there, rather than indoors.

It's those ideas that Compestine plays off in "A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts," an eerie collection of ghost stories and recipes for teens and adults, and the irresistible "Boy Dumplings," for the younger set.

Compestine — whose young adult novel about China's Cultural Revolution, "Revolution is Not a Dinner Party," won 19 major literary awards — remembers celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival each fall and spring during her childhood in Wuhan, China.

"You go to the tomb, you worship your ancestors," she says. "You bring food and paper money so they have enough in the underworld to buy whatever they need. And if they're happy, they watch over you."

And if the ghosts are not happy, they roam the earth looking for sustenance — or delicious little boys, says Compestine.

A dumpling making session with her son, then a chubby-cheeked 9-year-old, inspired "Boy Dumplings." (Now a cross-country runner at Moraga's Campolindo High, Vinson Compestine finds his plump little alter ego amusing. "No ghost," he says, "is going to want to eat me.")

But Vinson's humor and quick intelligence figure in the tale too, as the impish main character tricks a hungry ghost into an exhausting, all-night race through Beijing to find ingredients for "Boy Dumplings." The colorful illustrations, which are half the fun, are by James Yamasaki, a Palo Alto artist and faculty member at San Francisco's Academy of Art.

Fortunately, the hungry ghost's recipe, which includes rotten onions, wormy cabbage and stinky foot massages, is accompanied by a significantly tastier version for young readers. And a more intriguing take, Steamed Shrimp Dumplings with Green Tea Sauce — is among the eight recipes in "Banquet for Hungry Ghosts."

 

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