[Sorry blog, I feel I’ve neglected you. It’s been awhile since my last post… Though I’ve tried to commit to writing more frequently, it seems I can get caught in my head and not feel inspired to write. Or feel there isn’t something worthwhile to write. I’ll promise to post pictures of food, at the very least, since I have accumulated a lot of photos of good meals I’ve made in the past couple months. I’ll do better to keep in touch with you, blog! Meanwhile, here’s a long story to keep you company. Sincerely, Foodie Judie]
I’m often asked, “Where did your passion for food come from?” Though I can’t point to one particular defining moment, I’d say I was impressed upon from a young age that knowing how to feed myself and others was not only a survival skill, but also a way to express affection [see link for anecdotal article on food as expressing affection].
I came from a family of immigrants and refugees, whom spent time in forced labor encampments and refugee camps. It was their tenacity, quick wits, and ability to adapt (of course, paired with boundless amounts of the human spirit) which helped them survive under terrible circumstances. They learned self-sufficiency for the sake of survival.
It was during these trying times they fed themselves from meager resources. Perhaps having lived on little to no flavor had honed their taste buds to be sensitive to it. Surely, the Southeast Asian culture and their palette aided them in being unafraid of bold flavors and spices. Plus, my mother and maternal grandparents were impressive cooks with great recipes in their arsenal (accumulated before the economic and political strife arose in their countries of ancestry—Cambodia and China, respectively). I remember watching and helping my grandfather prepare and cook labor intensive foods like sweet, taro-filled baos and savory, meat-filled baos. Cooking these foods the old fashioned way (using little to no shortcuts) were definitely time and labor intensive, but the process became a calming ritual.
When I was too young to have the patience to take directions and help my grandfather in his cooking preparation process, I would bounce around between playing and sneaking peaks (sometimes sneaking a bite, too) of what was in the kitchen. When I was curious enough, I would stand watching him in different stages of the cooking process until he might shoo me off from getting in the way. At some point, he deemed me as “old enough” (to have the patience and be able to do the job adequately) and I would take the journey with him on the subway to Chinatown to purchase the necessary ingredients for his special meal of the week. I watched as he would carefully select each component to ensure quality, and before going to the cash register I would sometimes be allowed to pick a sweet treat.
Once at home, all the food came out of the grocery bags and would be washed, trimmed, chopped, and put in its place (or mise en place, as the French say). For my odd jobs, he might’ve had a bowl of fresh, wide rice noodles for me with each layer of noodle needing to be separated, or stems to be plucked off of a pile of vegetables. Once that was complete, I’d watch as the food would come together bit by bit. In the end, I knew I would be rewarded with a steaming hot meal that I didn’t know I had wanted, but would ultimately finish. I came to enjoy these experiences with my grandfather because 1) I most likely would get candy out of it, and 2) I knew he would be cooking something scrumptious.
I may not have known it then, but moments like this subconsciously ingrained itself into my memory to be called upon for future reference. While growing up, I may have helped (willingly or not) my mother and grandfather with bits of their cooking and food preparation, but, as a teenager, I wouldn’t have thought I had any knowledge of cooking. My mom would have claimed the same, as her “mom-isms” often included complaints of how I would be unable to find a suitable partner if I didn’t learn how to cook and make myself a “proper wife“. [Oy, such was my mother’s and older generation’s traditional upbringing. In my teenage rebellion and sarcastic ways, I would quip back with something like, ‘So what?! I’ll find a husband who’ll cook for ME!’ or ‘GOOD! Because I’m NEVER getting married!’ Not that I refused to be near the kitchen, but my mom interpreted my prioritizing socializing with friends, and other things that were not deemed as “domestically useful”, as not being a “serious young lady”. Notice how there’s an awful lot of quotations when it comes to my mother? 😛 ]
At that point, I had only ever attempted cooking eggs, and making rice, hot dogs, and instant ramen. [Actually, the last three things don’t really require much cooking… just add hot water.] It wasn’t until I was about 14 years old I had the curiosity to attempt to cook. I was home by myself and I wanted a snack. Rather than buy something I thought, ‘Why not try to make something to eat?’ Unbeknownst to me, all those memories of helping and watching my mom and grandfather cook over the years began to stir. I started to repeat some of the same cooking steps based on my memories of what they did. I chopped vegetables, heated the pan, poured the oil, let the garlic “sweat” out, added the veggies, and began adding spices and flavorings almost on instinct (I based the flavor profile to similar flavors I recalled of my mother’s cooking). I surprised myself by having cooked food which actually was pretty tasty. Even my mom was surprised when she came home and I showed her what I had made. [Afterward, she quickly commented on what I used and whether her kitchen items were placed back where she likes them. I think I know where my habit for being annoyingly particular in the kitchen comes from… 🙂 Lots of love for my mom as it has its usefulness.]
Soon after that cooking experiment, my interest in food expanded to sweets. [An area which was not too familiar to my mom. This benefitted me since it meant she wouldn’t feel the need to “supervise” and offer unsolicited advice.] Sweets were easy to share (particularly among teenagers) and experimenting with store bought, pre-packaged desserts was affordable for my minimum wage, teenage earnings. Plus, those pre-packaged desserts came with a very short and easy set of directions on the back. For those reasons, it was easy to experiment with and make additions to the recipes. It felt great to be able to create something tasty from such separate and different ingredients. Soon I was molding desserts, decorating with drizzles of sauce, adding this and that, and giving it my own panache (with sweets, there were a lot of decorative possibilities). I seemed to enjoy playing with my food more than I did making it.
I suppose it would be difficult to not feel connected to food in some way with such vivid and pleasant food memories. Funny how the brain can remember so much… scents, sounds, tastes—all paired with the visual image. I can recall celebrating the Lunar New Year as a child with a dinner with extended family. All the little cousins would be running around playing, and the smell of duck, soy sauce, and incense in the air. The clanging sounds from the kitchen of the last dish being made…
Such memories as this, so many of my memories, associate food with togetherness, family, and the feeling of love. And I think I carry that in my own cooking, whether it’s just for myself or to be shared. Those memories live on through my own rituals of cooking.