Cantonese Cooking Helped Me Fall Back in Love with Who I Am
Many home cooks find their way into the kitchen through their childhood meals. Maybe it’s their grandmother’s chess pie, their mom’s spinach and artichoke casserole, or a chili recipe that’s been passed down for generations. It took me a bit longer to embrace my childhood cuisine.
When I was 8, sitting at the table with my family, I looked disdainfully at the soup my mother had made for dinner that night: foo jook tong, bean curd soup. The bean curds were fine. It was satisfying to bite down on their thick, chewy texture. The tofu, however, was another story. That squishy, slimy white brick — how could something taste so bad and also taste like nothing? When nobody was looking, I scooped out the tofu, plopped it onto my napkin, and stuffed it into my pockets.
My mom loved to cook and loved to surprise my friends with her cooking. In second grade, after we moved to a new neighborhood, a friend came over and my mom steamed a whole fish with ginger and scallions. We sat on the living room floor and she scooped out the buttery flesh onto a bed of rice. It wasn’t bad, my friend said — she liked it. Suddenly, my mom stabbed the head. She extracted a milky white orb and pointed it at my new friend. “You’re the guest,” my mom said. “Would you like the eyeball?” My friend’s own eyes enlarged as she slowly pushed away from the table. “No, thank you,” she said politely. My mom held in her laughter with one hand as the fish eyeball dangled in the other.
We had moved to a neighborhood where nobody looked like us. Kids pulled their eyes back, made fun of my last name, and avoided me on the playground. “Ew,” a girl said when she had accidentally touched my arm on the bus. “No offense, but ew.” Like my mom’s fish, I seemed to make people recoil. And that’s how I started to feel about everything around me that was Chinese. I learned to hide those parts of myself as best I could, like stuffing tofu into my pockets. Years went by, and I felt more and more disconnected from that part of my identity.
As an adult, I started cooking as a means to an end. I learned to make a few go-to meals, like spaghetti or meatloaf or salmon on rice. Then cooking became a way to unwind with a glass of wine after a hard day at work. It morphed into a skill — I learned to make lamb shanks and the perfect mushroom risotto. These were dishes my friends would have had growing up. They were dishes I saw plastered on food blogs or highlighted in my Instagram feed. Dishes that felt familiar to everyone around me. At best, food was a hobby. Mostly, it was a chore.
But when I would go back home to visit my mom, cooking was a way to reconnect. My mom was always so excited to make the Chinese comfort foods I had growing up. Shrimp with lobster sauce. Snow fungus soup. Bok choy with rice. We’d spend hours in the kitchen, catching up on work and relationships and life as she chopped veggies and threw them into a pot. We’d get lost in our conversations, forget what time it was, and share a bowl of stew at midnight.
Those visits left me craving more. I wanted to recreate these meals and memories in my own kitchen, but after years of sweeping away my Chinese identity, I felt like a traitor; an impostor. “I wish I knew how to make this,” I said to my mom once, lifting the lid from a steaming pot of congee. It was as though my mom had been waiting for the invitation. “Let me show you how to cook!” she exclaimed. “Tomorrow we’ll have foo jook tong!”
The next day, we drove to the Chinese grocery store and picked up any necessities that weren’t already on hand: bean curd sheets, shiitake mushrooms, and, of course, tofu. We minced the garlic and ginger. Cooked the rice. Cut the bean curd sheets after soaking them in water. The dried mushrooms would need to be soaked, too. We added all of our ingredients. I was strategic while my mom relied on her intuition, the way she always does. There are probably more refined, authentic ways of making foo jook tong. My grandmother made it, my great-grandmother made it, and maybe their recipes got lost and watered down by time as we all get lost and watered down by time. Still, my mom’s version of this soup was delicious, savory, and perfectly comforting. Even the tofu was good, not at all like a squishy void of nothing I remembered as a child. Had my palate changed, or had I? Perhaps the parts of myself I tried to hide had found their way to me.
What makes something delicious? I wonder if nostalgia is part of it. If a good meal is an experience of the senses, perhaps our emotions and memories can influence the taste of a dish, too.
Cooking the food of my past — the meals my mom used to make with fervor and love, no doubt reminding her of her own childhood in Hong Kong — reminded me that cooking is more than a means to an end. It’s more than a skill or even an art form. Cooking can be a way to connect with a part of yourself that you’ve forgotten. I will never be a chef or even a very good home cook. I will never understand the science of salt. And try as I might, I can’t bake a halfway decent cookie. But my palate will always be informed by my past, and in the kitchen, cooking will always be a way to connect with who I am.