My deepest passions in life are for food and cooking. They both sharpen my creative edge and bring me closer to the people I love.
My father often deprecates me for my interest, claiming it’s shallow to think about food constantly. Since I spend substantial time eating, researching my next meal and learning about different recipes, he once asked me, “Do you live to eat or eat to live?”
The answer isn’t so simple. This is because for me, food is so much more than nutrition that fuels my body.
Food is sensuality, it’s home and belonging, it’s community and gratitude, it’s textures and play.
My grandparents, who were my first guardians, showed me love through sharing delicious food. My grandmother always asked me, “Shuge, what do you want to eat?” I would tell her, “Anything is fine.” Then, she would retort spiritedly, that “anything” is not food.
Food thrills all senses. It’s also one of the quickest ways to transport me somewhere else.
My first food memories began with finding home. I lived in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s, and back then, Chinese food was not readily nearby. In my town, there was only one Chinese restaurant called Chopsticks Tower, and the closest Asian grocery store was about a two-hour drive away.
At the British grocery store, my family excitedly discovered ravioli, thinking it’d taste similar to Chinese dumplings.
To our palates, which had never tasted cheese, we were bewildered as we bit into the savory, gritty and soft ricotta. While it didn’t satisfy our cravings for Chinese food, it made me realize the seemingly endless flavor combinations.
After living in the United Kingdom, I moved to Singapore, a multicultural country with many delicious foods. I enjoyed Hainan chicken rice, fried fish noodle soup, nasi lemak and many other vibrant flavors at the hawker center. These exposures taught me to enjoy the different textures of food.
In the United States, I started to cook both due to need and want. In middle school, I was obsessed with bento (homemade Japanese lunch) culture and made my father homemade bentos with fun designs each day.
Bento culture seeks to make inviting lunches through visually appealing dishes. For example, onigiri, or a rice ball, was shaped into lively characters, apples were cut masterfully into rabbit shapes and cucumbers were stamped into flowers. Making bentos taught me to incorporate more artistry in my cooking.
I kept exploring different cuisines and broadened my knowledge. At UC Berkeley, I started an informal foodie group that ventured to a new restaurant every other week. Learning about food from different cultures exposed me to ideas about ingredient pairings and how culture is communicated through food.
Outside of eating, I eagerly participate and learn more about the different parts of food creation, from gardening to meal prepping to baking sweets. Cooking enraptures me, as there is an endless list of techniques to try.
You can be incredibly involved in every step of the process, from sourcing the ingredients to the plating. At the farmers market, I regularly discover produce from local farmers. Afterward, I take fresh ingredients home, such as Persian sweet lemons and lion mane’s mushroom, to start my adventure.
In Chinese culture, there’s a famous poetry verse “谁知盘中餐，粒粒皆辛苦” that roughly translates to “Within your plate’s meal, how toilful each grain.” It alludes to farmers’ sincere efforts to harvest produce and serves as a call to action for people to appreciate every grain of food.
I was brought up with this mindset to make the most of all foods, and as a result, I constantly push myself to use food creatively. I make pesto out of kale stems, toast the squash seeds for salad and repurpose my leftovers into brand new dishes.
I love cooking because it’s an exercise in play. Cooking is forgiving in improvisation, and it can often surprise you. For example, did you know that adding ginger juice to your fried rice adds a surprisingly refreshing flavor that whets your appetite? Neither did I, until my housemate showed me their experiment.
There’s one technique I always try to keep in mind when cooking: Create delight through contrast. A cooking anime I watched once dispensed advice that it’s more interesting to the palate to season your foods unevenly rather than uniformly.
I’ve thought about how this principle is reflected in foods I love. For example, imagine the joy of aromatic soup bursting from Shanghai xiao long bao or the dichotomy of textures between cream puff pastry and custard.
Cooking is an improvisational show. It’s creativity, diversity and fusion. But most of all, it’s play. The only rules are the ones you make, and there are always multiple ways to a scrumptious plate.
I have a dream that one day, I’ll throw a dinner party with food cooked from ingredients I stewarded, served on ceramics I made to the people I love. The plates will feature freshly picked herbs sprinkled over a hearty meal honed through hours of creative engagement in the kitchen. The process of making something thoughtfully and for others to partake in it is one of my favorite feelings in life. So Dad, to answer your question, it’s neither; I simply love to eat.