Lessons from cooking

Photo of preparing dumplings
Frank Zhang on Unsplash/Courtesy
Photo by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

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When I was living at home with my family, my extended family would often come over for dinner Saturday evenings. While my grandparents prepared and cooked the dinner, the bustling kitchen was always filled with familiar sounds: the simmering of the red braised pork on the stove and the loud exchanges that were spoken in a mix of Mandarin and Shanghai dialect. The distinctive scents of Chinese cooking saturating the air felt nostalgic and comforting.

Sometimes, I’d help my grandpa make Shanghai-style spring rolls, one of my favorite home-cooked dishes that never seem to taste as satisfying anywhere else. The spring rolls always had a well-balanced savory flavor with just the right amount of crispiness. While he always seemed to perfectly fold the wrapper and put the exact amount of filling needed in each one, my spring rolls would often end up looking a bit less than perfect. Although I could only articulate broken amounts of Mandarin and gesture my hands to communicate, I tried my best to learn from my grandpa’s years of practice of meticulously folding the spring roll wrappers.

Growing up as a second-generation Chinese American with a largely American upbringing, I found it easy to feel disconnected from my cultural background. I rarely engage in Chinese pop culture or adopt cultural practices. Due to my lack of speaking practice, I often struggle to find the right words in Mandarin to form sentences with proper grammar. It feels discouraging knowing that I can barely string together a few words to communicate with my relatives and form meaningful relationships with them. Reflecting on how distanced I am from my Chinese heritage, I can’t help but think to myself: What does it actually mean for me to be Chinese American? 

 

Growing up as a second-generation Chinese American with a largely American upbringing, I found it easy to feel disconnected from my cultural background.

 

In spite of any language barriers or cultural differences within my family, Chinese food has always been an element that brings us together — a universal language that expresses care and love. In Chinese culture, there is a strong emphasis on family and community, so our family gatherings have always been an integral part of our busy routines. Similarly, Chinese food embodies cultural practices and symbolic traditions both in everyday life and for special occasions. For Lunar New Year dinner, one of the dishes my family prepares is a whole steamed fish. The head represents a good beginning for the coming year, and the tail represents a good ending. It also symbolizes prosperity for the new year because the Chinese word for fish, yu, is pronounced similarly to the word for “abundance,” which is also written as
yu.

More recently, as I’ve been living on my own in Berkeley, I’ve begun to spend more time in the kitchen. With only a rudimentary knowledge of cooking, I started out with basic dishes but quickly became bored of the monotone flavor. I longed for the comforting, flavorful dishes that were reminiscent of home. As I’ve searched for new recipes, I’ve gravitated toward trying Chinese recipes that my parents and grandparents typically cooked — dishes such as stir-fried rice cakes and red braised pork. Over time, my kitchen has become filled with a variety of Chinese sauces, vinegars, oils and pastes.

 

I longed for the comforting, flavorful dishes that were reminiscent of home. As I’ve searched for new recipes, I’ve gravitated toward trying Chinese recipes that my parents and grandparents typically cooked…

 

Chao nian gao, or stir-fried rice cakes, is a dish I grew up with a special fondness for. In preparation for this dish, I had to make the extra trip to Chinese grocery stores to find particular ingredients for the recipe, such as the nian gao, an oval-shaped, sticky rice cake. For unfamiliar recipes, I’d call my mother to ask: “Is this the right way to chop the vegetables? Did I add too much Shaoxing cooking wine?” Although the texture of the rice cakes was not quite as chewy and the balance of flavors was not quite the same, for me, the taste and aromas were reminiscent of home.

The hours I’ve dedicated to cooking have allowed me to feel more connected with my Chinese identity in ways that I haven’t before. I am by no means an expert when it comes to cooking; I admit that I’ve had my fair share of questionably tasting dishes and even had a time when I accidentally set off the smoke alarm in my apartment. But ultimately, these learning experiences have culminated in ways for me to more actively engage with my Chinese heritage in my everyday life. 

My willingness to learn about different culinary traditions and practicing how to prepare Chinese foods is a small yet meaningful way for me to grow a greater appreciation for the culture and to relate to my family in ways other than spoken language. Though I still have a lot more to learn, I hope to spend more time in the kitchen with my parents, grandparents and other relatives as a way of building a stronger relationship with my Chinese roots and family.

Contact Megan Chai at [email protected]