Food and Identity: Blog #1

Jiao zi shou le! Fan hao le! Kuai lai! Fan liang le, fan liang le! Xi shou, xi shou. Kuai lai kuai lai!

(Dumplings are ready! Food is ready! Come quickly! Food will be cold, food will be cold! Wash your hands, wash your hands. Come quickly come quickly!).

This rallying cry (which changes based on whichever item is being served) means that dinner is ready, and my mother takes pride in cooking traditional Chinese foods for her family members at least once per week. In my family, conversing around the dinner table is ritual – and growing up in a multicultural household, Chinese foods have always held a special significance to me. For example, we eat dumplings (jiao zi) in my family the day before each person’s birthday, and longevity noodles (chang shou mian) on the day of the actual birthday. While the dumplings we eat vary by season (cabbage, chives, zucchini, pumpkin, Chinese long beans, etc.), the filling is usually pork or shrimp in combination with the seasonal vegetable. The noodles, however, do not vary by season: Birthday longevity noodles are always the same – in my family, chang shou mian is always served in the form of zhajiang mian (noodles with pork and fermented soybean paste) – a Beijing specialty. Another new tradition in my family is eating a specific set of foods whenever I come home from Emory. These dishes include the following: hong shao pai gu (red-braised spare ribs with white rice), qing chao bai cai with you dou fu (stir-fried baby bok choy with deep-fried golden tofu),  and chao ou, which is the stir-fried root of the lotus flower. We also eat qie zi (eggplant) in many different forms, since Chinese preparations of eggplants (stir-fried, braised, stuffed with minced pork, steamed) actually comprise many of my favorite foods. Hong shao pai gu and qie zi (eggplant) dishes are both extremely popular in Northern China, respectively, but the other two dishes are Southern. Being that my mother is from Beijing (and very proudly so, she will never let me forget that), I find it funny that she always prepares the same Northern Chinese main dish (hong shao pai gu) for me whenever come home. Whenever I ate Chinese outside of the home in restaurants, however, it was usually Southern Chinese cuisine. I think that my mother chooses to make hong shao pai gu the main dish because it’s distinctly Northern Chinese – hong shao pai gu is always the main dish, supported by many different type of qie zi, and the two Southern entrees are always the sides. I believe that the two Southern dishes represent a concession on my mother’s part – if she had everything her way, she’d rather be making tu dou si (er) (stir-fried shredded potatoes) and xi hong shi chao ji dan (scrambed eggs with tomatoes) instead of these two Southern vegetarian entrees (Note: The “er” 儿 sound is extremely prominent in Northern China at the end of certain words in spoken Mandarin Chinese). My mother gives in wisely, however, knowing that her ability to stop my family from enjoying the rest of China’s cuisine outside of the North would be like trying to contain a waterfall with buckets – she also compromises on her menu items slightly because she loves me.

I eat these Chinese foods because they are lovingly prepared for me by my mother and they also represent home. While my mom taught me how to make some of them, they always turn out better when we cook together or she makes them for me by herself. My mother is extremely kind, loving, and detail-oriented – her grandmother taught her how to make some of these dishes – and because my twin brother lacks interest in cooking, I seem to her “only hope” (she has told me this before) to pass on the family’s recipes. Recipes in my family are not written down but have been passed down from generations cooking together. And while I try my best to replicate what she’s taught me when I cook by myself, it is her eye for detail and years of experience with cooking that allow her to create some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. She is a true master and artist in the kitchen: I hope to one day reach the level of her talents.

In Atlanta, I’ve had the experience of eating foods from around the world. Atlanta is also home to many other types of cuisines as well. Some cuisines I have particularly enjoyed in Atlanta include the following: Indian, Korean, Thai, Cuban, Mexican Ethiopian, Jamaican,  Italian, and Chinese. In Atlanta, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many different types of restaurants with some of my friends from these backgrounds at Emory. With regards to Indian cuisine specifically, my cousin lives in Atlanta and he married into an Indian family (that lives in Atlanta as well) – like my mother’s family, they have passed down their family recipes through generations also. For the Lakshmipathy family, three generations of Lakshmipathys live in the Atlanta, GA area, all within 10-15 minutes of each other. When I go to Kala and Pathy’s house (the parents of my cousin’s fiancé), I eat dosa, biryani, idlis, and sambar – and while I’ve never told my mother this (and never would), I think that Kala, my cousin’s mother-in-law, cooks some of the best food that I’ve ever tasted (definitely rivaling my mother’s). In addition to my experiences with eating Indian food in Atlanta at the Lakshmipathy houshold, the Korean food that I’ve tasted in Atlanta has also been better than any Korean food I’ve ever had in NYC,. Additionally, the Thai food at Little Bangkok in Atlanta exceeds that of my neighborhood Thai restaurant in quality and authenticity by tenfold. Moreover, La Fonda de Latina (Cuban/Mexican) is where I most often order takeout from. I sometimes order takeout from Desta (Ethiopian), Embilta (Ethiopian), or Nyamminz and Jamminz (Jamaican) as well. Additionally, with regards to Jamaican food, there’s a Jamaican restaurant in Sweet Auburn called Mangoes that some friends recently took me to as well – the interior is lively, decorated with flags from all over the Caribbean, and the food is awesome (especially the oxtails, which they seem to have made fresh, since we had to wait for an hour after we ordered them). With regards to Italian food in Atlanta, while I’ve not yet had the opportunity to try as many restaurants as I would have liked to have, I do enjoy dining on the pizza from Antico. And lastly, while the other cuisines I’ve tried within Atlanta are largely on par with NYC’s versions (if not better), the Chinese food is Atlanta is unfortunately not. While Atlanta has good Chinese food, New York City has the most Chinese people of any city outside of China, so given that the food is likely some of the best Chinese food outside of China as well. As much as I have tried to find many of Chinese foods from home that I enjoy eating on a regular basis, many of them are (unfortunately) either not as good as (and/or more expensive than) the versions of the same items that I can eat in NYC. For example, the one time I ordered hong shao pai gu in a restaurant, the portion was small and the taste was not as good as my mother’s – it also made me miss home. Lastly, certain Chinese foods that I enjoy eating in NYC on a regular basis don’t exist at all on restaurant menus in Atlanta.

Photos of Foods:

(From Top –> Bottom)

1) Dumplings 饺子 (Consumed throughout China)

2) Dosa (Southern Indian)

3) Idli w/Sambar (Southern Indian)

4) Red-Braised Pork Spare Ribs 红烧排骨 (Northern Chinese)

5) Stir-fried Baby Bok Choy with Deep-Fried Golden Tofu 清炒白菜和油豆腐 (Southern Chinese)

6) Stir-fried Lotus Root 炒藕 (Note: While Lotus Roots are grown and eaten throughout China, especially in winter time in soup preparations, much of the crop is grown in the South. The far North of China is not temperate enough for the lotus flowers to grow).

7) Noodles with Pork and Fermented Soybean Paste 炸酱面 (Beijing/Northern Chinese dish)

8) Stir-fried Shredded Potatoes 土豆丝儿

9) Stir-fried Eggs with Tomatoes 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (Note: This dish is actually enjoyed throughout China to my knowledge, but my mother insists that it’s Northern Chinese. It’s also her favorite dish).

2 Replies to “Food and Identity: Blog #1”

  1. Very grateful for the detailed descriptions! Hope you could expand on the second question for the post, “why do you eat them and what are their significance for you.”

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog! I agree with you that food represents home and China. And before reading your article, I didn’t know that Atlanta has such a diverse ethnic group including Cuban, Indian etc. I will definitely try their food next time!

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