In My Kitchen: Preserving The Past

Taking cooking lessons from

Taking cooking lessons from

It’s funny. Ever since I graduated from college, I’ve been reading and purchasing more non-fiction books. I guess it’s the same mentality I’ve been adopting towards life. I’m afraid if I don’t make an effort, I won’t learn anything anymore.

One of the books in my Kindle repertoire (ah, gone are the days of bookshelves) is Cheryl Tan’s A Tiger in the Kitchen. I’ve only read the first couple of pages but she starts out talking about how cooking in the kitchen was never a priority growing up. Her parents wanted her to pursue a career in law and when she decided on majoring in journalism, her family did a collective sigh of disappointment.

My story is eerily parallel to Tan’s. Except my mom actually cried.

Since the moment I enrolled in NYU, I’ve always challenged my family’s view of what’s proper. a) I don’t have a conventional career. b) I’m obsessed with Chinese food.

Now, I’m always slightly envious of food people who grew up in the kitchen. Though I’ve made considerable self-taught improvements… people in my family still cringe whenever they see me wield a knife.

But boy, I can make a mean omelette.

The thing is, there’s a stigma against restaurant work. In high school,  I really wanted  to work at a fast food restaurant in the mall. I was forbidden from applying. It was too “lowly” of a job. I regret not taking more of an initiative.

For the immigrant parents who sacrificed everything for a white collar job, working and obsessing over something as “menial”  and “everyday” as food is pointless. In fact, both my parents had no idea how to cook until they had a family of their own. My mom, who basically grew up in an equivalent of a hospital of Tainan, was well-off enough to afford a cook. And on my dad’s side, my grandmother was working as a single mother raising a brood of five children. Hiring a cook, though not really economical, was necessary. Plus, labor was cheap back then.

Even I grew up with a cook.

Growing up, it was my mom…who actually screamed whenever I got near the kitchen knives or anything remotely dangerous…like a stove (I know).  I wasn’t even allowed one of those Easy Bake ovens. I remember only being able to wrap dumplings on the dining table (after I practiced with Play-Doh) and during rare occasions, help her make rou geng 肉羹, a glutinous Taiwanese noodle dish with grounded meat boiled in cornstarch. My task: to carefully lower the cornstarch-covered meatballs in the boiling water.

But that was the extent of it.

Today, we have a nanny who doubles as a cook for the family and a babysitter for my aging grandmother.

It’s all very ironic. In the Chinese culture, it’s shameful if a woman doesn’t know how to cook by the time she’s married. But in modern times, it’s a waste if an unmarried woman spends her time laboring away in the kitchen.

The thing with Chinese food is that it’s steeped in tradition. There’s a lot of intricacies and as I’ve learned through my research this week, a lot of folklore and superstition that correlates with how dishes are prepared. A whole fish and chicken represents unity. Uncut noodles equates to longevity. And it’s not just empty symbolism. There are sayings that correlate with each dish, homonyms that are not only witty – but ancient.

These are traditions even my parents can barely recite. My grandmother and the nanny know them well, but dismiss them as irrelevant and just plain superstition. It’s all a shame really. Chinese food is just food: it’s a necessity, a normal thing.

You can see this just through the restaurant culture in China. Unlike in America, chefs are rarely glorified. Street food vendors, though they whip up arguably some of the best grub in the world, go through lifetimes without ever landing a spread on any publication. For the longest time, the closest thing China had to fine dining was Hong Kong food. But note the British influence.

Perhaps I’m too big on preserving culture and tradition, but thankfully there are tons of books out there on Chinese cuisine and folklore I have yet to read. The problem is that the good ones are all in Chinese.

Time to brush up on that.