Home for the Holidays is a special series featuring our favorite food and home experts and their diverse homes—and holidays—from around the world. From Los Angeles to Mumbai and Hong Kong, we get a peek at how each family approaches the most special of seasons—in a way that’s uniquely theirs.
The holidays permit Food52 Resident—and conjurer of community favorites like this recipe for an instant dan dan noodle mix and this one for the flakiest pastry—Mandy Lee, to make one important concession at home: she allows help. While cooking for Mandy is a fiercely guarded solitary sport, bringing the holidays to her home lets her drop her guard. “I don't even mind delegating or outsourcing some of the process—although my husband might disagree.”
Some of this letting-go might be a result of her having very few expectations of the holiday season—a fallout of never having been in one country or culture long enough. Mandy describes herself as “Taiwan-born, Vancouver-raised, and slow-aged in New York” and has written unapologetically about the travails of moving around the world as an accompanying spouse. And then, there’s her own upbringing. “I come from a very non-festive family culture—my family is relentlessly talented in curbing holiday enthusiasm,” she says. (This was over email, but I’m imagining a straight face.)
So, each year since they left New York, Mandy and her husband have chosen to celebrate the season by traveling abroad—London, Rome, Vienna—picking spots best for "observing the holiday as non-observers.” The last two years put paid to those travel plans, thanks to the pandemic. “Being stuck in Hong Kong over Christmas, we were forced to transition from being observers to participants. Because if you want Christmas in Hong Kong, you kind of have to bring it yourself,” she says.
Mandy’s apartment in Hong Kong, in which they’ve lived (with their two Rottweiler-mixes—the pups behind her blog lady and pups) since 2016, sits in a residential neighborhood nestled in the heart of the island, and is designed to be a breath of fresh air amid the hustle of the city. “The aesthetic of my apartment is very much inspired by Tara Mangini and Percy Bright from Jersey Ice Cream Co. I was going through a very distressing period of my life at the time, and I would imagine myself in their spaces, and it would feel like a stream of cold milk tempering down a cauldron of black coffee,” she explains.
The result? A palette of grays, creams, and tans; linen drapes; aged wood paneling; and a moody, uncommon-green kitchen flecked with aged wood, copper, and brass. The apartment is also filled with vintage objects: “What draws me to them is the gathering and processing of lost, unclaimed memories. My home is an orphanage for memories,” she says.
So how does she go about layering on the holidays in her home? In a distinctly Mandy Lee way, of course—warm and uncluttered in aesthetic, and mindful of waste. What does that look like? Let’s find out.
On holiday decorations:
I try to use organic materials for decor, such as branches, dry flowers and leaves, instead of plastics. I'm pretty against acquiring an ungodly amount of decor, only to be thrown out after the holiday is over—I like my ornaments to be minimal. Unfortunately, getting a real Christmas tree in Hong Kong in both expensive and wasteful (flown in from far-flung places), so I have a reusable fake tree.
I'm also very drawn to the idea of what I call "holiday larder", recalling the memories of Christmas markets in Vienna. I think hanging cured meats and cheeses with a little dash of Christmassy bouquet garni can not only be beautiful, it also invokes a feeling of abundance, warmth, and security—all the good words that we associate with the holiday season. Even better? You get to eat your decor, meaning there's minimal waste.
On the table setting:
Three words: simple, warm, and communal. I like to dress up a couple of essential oil-burners with some evergreen branches, and place them on the main or side table, so the pine-scented oil fills the room. I add on dim lights, lots of candles, etched glasses for flickering reflections, and stacked plates to invite the sharing of tasks. Dinner gatherings in Asia are always more communal—dishes are made to be shared, often presented in enormous vessels, almost like a centerpiece. I feel like it heightens the festivity and sense of gathering.
On merging Chinese and American holiday traditions:
I do this mainly through the selection of my holiday larder. During the winter time is also when a lot of Chinese cured meats are hung dry, so I mix and match them with European varieties to create a hybrid atmosphere. I also once stuffed Chinese sausage sticky rice into a goose, but I'm still debating if that was necessary.
The one holiday tradition she’d love to add to the mix:
Mulled wine. If only I drank wine.
Three tips for throwing a wonderful holiday celebration:
Golden retriever. Golden retrievers. Golden retriever puppies.
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