Ekiben founder Steve Chu remembers his grandmother, the cook who inspired his whole family

Published on: January 22, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 23, 2023 10:53 AM EST

Ing Hing Chen Chu, the grandmother of Baltimore restaurateur Steve Chu, died at age 99.
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To her grandson, she embodied the Chinese value of chi ku, or “eating bitterness.” It means “being able to absorb struggles and difficulties in life,” said Steve Chu Jr.

There were plenty of troubles in Ing Hing Chen Chu’s long life, including poverty, war and danger. But the food served was sweet — and plentiful.

Her love of cooking and entrepreneurship helped her survive poverty in a foreign land and inspired generations of restaurateurs in her family, including her grandson, who would go on to co-found Baltimore’s popular Ekiben restaurant chain.

“Growing up, she’d always cook these big elaborate lunches,” recalled Chu, “out of her tiny, tiny rent-controlled apartment in Chinatown.” As a chef now, he realizes that “those meals took days and days to prepare.”

After moving from her adopted home in Taiwan to Washington, D.C., she lived in the Wah Luck House, an affordable-housing development in the district’s Chinatown. “That kitchen only had a four-burner range and a little refrigerator. My grandparents sacrificed everything they built in Taiwan to come to America and be with family.”

Ing died Jan. 15 of pneumonia in Carroll County. She was 99 years old.

Born in 1924 in Ningbo, a city in China’s Zhejiang province, she was the child of a Chinese customs official and a homemaker.

In the years around World War II, Japanese forces occupied large parts of China, including Ningbo.

Her beauty caught the eye of a Japanese soldier who visited her family’s home. But she rejected him, according to her son, Steve Chu Sr. “My mom tell him, I don’t know you, maybe you are a nice guy, I don’t know. But you are my enemy.”

To her family, the story became an emblem of her bravery. She ended up marrying a Chinese soldier named Yang San Chu. During China’s years-long civil war, he fought in the military under the Nationalist general and president Chiang Kai-shek, who also hailed from Ningbo.

With the war winding down, and a Communist victory imminent, Chiang took refuge in Taiwan. Along came Nationalist soldiers loyal to him, including Ing’s husband.

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She and her two young children stayed behind in Ningbo, but not for long. Everyone, including her husband, wanted her to avoid the dangerous trip to the island and stay in their hometown. But she eventually defied their wishes.

In her pocket, according to her son, was $10 mailed to her from her husband. It was six months’ salary. He pawned his wedding ring, too.

By train, she headed from Ningbo to Shenzhen, a port city near Hong Kong. En route, bombers flew overhead; conductors urged her to evacuate. She refused to leave, sure she wouldn’t be able to run with two small kids. They ended up arriving safely in Shenzen and then Hong Kong, where Mrs. Chu took a boat to Taiwan.

Life was difficult in Taiwan. The family of four lived in a one-room shack.

“We start from zero. Nothing,” said her son.

At a market just outside Taipei, then still undeveloped, she rented a small food stall. With just three tables, she sold traditional foods of her hometown, including tangyuan, sweet rice dumplings similar to mochi. The business didn’t have a name — or even a sign — but the dish was a hit. Customers included commuters arriving to a nearby bus station.

To supplement her husband’s meager income from the military, Ing kept the business going as her family grew with the birth of four more children. She also raised six additional cousins who moved in with the family.

Maintaining a household of 14 while running a business required planning. The children were enlisted to help with chores, and to grind the rice powder for the dumplings, a “big job,” recalled her son. The process was all by hand, using two heavy stones.

The family ate lunch, dinner and did homework in the confines of the shop, sleeping in one small room they rented at the market.

But her son, growing up, didn’t feel that the family was poor; his mother provided for everyone. “She do everything for the family.” She made underwear for the kids out of bags of flour provided by the U.S. Army.

Chu Sr. would move to the United States in 1979, later opening the Pikesville restaurant Jumbo Seafood. All six of her children would own a restaurant at some point in their lives. So would her grandson, Chu Jr.

“When my son [Chu Jr.] opened Ekiben in Fells Point, my mom was very proud,” said Chu Sr. Though she didn’t have much money, she gave him a generous sum to mark the occasion. “My mom gave my son $1,000, lucky money. My son was very happy. He really needed that money.”

Chu Jr. says he’s continuously inspired by his grandmother’s bravery and perseverance. “Every generation looks back on the previous generation and realizes ‘I had it good,’ ” he said. “No one really complains in our family about how hard they work.”

In addition to Chu Sr., of Reisterstown, she is survived by five adult children, 16 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

Her husband preceded her in death.

A service will be held Jan. 23 at the First Church of Virginia in Falls Church at 11 am.