Word of mouth about Cheng’s handmade wonton dumplings with homestyle Cantonese flavors spread quick. Just a month into her Findlay Kitchen pop-up, Yee Mama, her orders had doubled. Now she’s considering scaling her one-woman business but enjoying the ride in the meantime.
How did you get started with Yee Mama?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, so I grew up eating Cantonese food. I moved to America when I was 17 and I have lived in different cities. Two years ago I moved to Cincinnati for my day job. I have always loved to cook but it’s really hard to find Cantonese food [in Cincinnati]. There are a lot of good Chinese restaurants, but they’re more Sichuan style, the northern style, but not really Cantonese style. Cantonese food is sweet and savory and it’s a balance of flavor—not too spicy. I felt that there was a gap in the market and I wanted to see if I could build a small business out of it. Right now it’s just wonton—I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Do you have a background in food?
No, I work for UC, but I have a food blog, and sometimes I will post cooking videos and stuff. But no, it’s just something I like to do. It’s kind of like a therapy for me when I cook. I like to cook for friends and family.
What’s the difference between your wontons and the other Asian dumplings people may be familiar with?
I get this question all the time. So basically wonton is a type of dumpling. There are many types of dumplings: Chinese style, Japanese style, Korean style. The wonton wrapper is a lot more delicate—it’s thin. Wonton is a Hong Kong food. You never really pan fry them. You either boil them or [deep] fry them. They’re really light and delicate.
Where does the name Yee Mama come from?
I was thinking about branding and the name, and I think about the type of food that I crave, which is, a lot of time, homestyle cooking. I grew up and spent a lot of time with my aunt. In Cantonese you call your aunt yee ma, but because she took care of me a lot and I’m really close with her I call her yee mama—“mama” means “mom,” so I like the double meaning. My mom spent a lot of time working—she has her own career—so I like the idea of combining mom and aunt as the name. The funny thing is my Cantonese name has “yee” in it—my Cantonese name is Chiuyee Cheng. So I felt like it all came together.
When it comes to your wontons, do you use family recipes or have you come up with your own?
It’s mostly my own style. The shrimp and pork one is a traditional recipe. It’s what you would get in a lot of Hong Kong diners. But for other flavor combinations, I get the inspiration from some of the dim sum that I like—which is also a Cantonese food—and also from other Asian food that I like. I have a traditional recipe but also other variations.
How can people order your wontons?
Right now, it’s a once-a-week pop-up with preordering. The web shop goes live on Sunday at noon, so you place an order and you pick it up on Wednesday at Findlay Kitchen.
How has the business grown since you started, and where do you see it going?
I have doubled the amount I make each week [between August and September]. I think it may be because of the whole COVID thing. People want to cook at home and it’s something new to them, and it’s pretty affordable. For now it’s just me, so if I continue to expand I may have to hire more people. Even though I don’t know exactly whether I want a takeout restaurant, a restaurant, or to do wholesale, I think what I really want to do is bring the Cantonese homestyle cooking to Cincinnati. I love all the Chinese restaurants in town but it’s different from what I ate growing up. I just love that craveable flavor, like what your mom would make.
Yee Mama, 1719 Elm St. (Findlay Kitchen), Over-the-Rhine