While growing up, travelling was an integral part of what we as a family did. When one adds up all of the hours me, my siblings, and parents spent in planes and airports, travelling to and from our international schools, offices, and family vacations, one can’t help but see the entire travelling process as a home away from home. Now, there’s a certain relaxation that I get from airports and planes, a sense of ease tied to having done the exact same thing countless times before.
However, with travel, as with many other things in life, things can’t be expected to always be smooth sailing. An inevitable part of this constant travelling was the development of several rules that helped our family deal with the countless surprises and stresses that we could be expected to deal with at any time: jetlag, potential flight delays, culture shock, and losing our bags to name a few. A lot of these were practical and sound, built up by my dad from his own personal experience and reinforced through our own insights when travelling as a family.
Pack light, avoiding luggage if you can. Make sure that you have three full sets of clothing in your carry on in case your luggage doesn’t arrive. Stay awake on the flight if you’re arriving at night. Bring refillable water bottles. Avoid drinking tea and coffee served on planes. Each of these rules have specific incidents and memories tied to them that allowed them to be instated into our family’s travelling canon. However, the one rule that has always existed, present even during my earliest memories of travel, is to remember to take the time to eat some food whenever something unexpected or distressing has come up.
Food holds a special space in my family’s heart. One might say it was the true motivation behind the constant travelling that we all did. Amazing explosions of taste and aroma characterize our best memories of the different places we’ve visited. Revisiting these meals automatically cause us to return to these points in our lives, reexperiencing the emotions and feelings that cemented our experience. I’ve included just one of the innumerable dishes that hold a storied place in my head and heart: mee pok dry.
Mee Pok Dry
Waking up a child that doesn’t want to be woken up is hard, even in the best of circumstances. Doing so after they’ve had a fitful sleep in their seat on a turbulent flight, one which landed at three in the morning in Singapore, is impossible. So when six-year-old me was faced with the prospect of having to pull my little roller bag out from the plane and into the brightly lit airport, you can only begin to understand the little waves of fury and resentment rolling off my tiny body. This anger caused me to refuse the help that my mother and father both offered, simply because I could not deal with the injustice of having been woken up. The annoyance that I felt only worsened when I realised the folly of my pride as we trudged down the halls of the all-too-bright airport. My bag suddenly felt far too heavy to drag across the carpeted floor and my feet felt like I was dragging them through thick mud. However, I could not turn back on my original refusal and ask my parents for help, because what kind of six-year-old would I be otherwise?
In my self-contained seething and rage, I had failed to notice that we hadn’t made our way to either the train station or the taxi stand. Instead, we had slipped behind one of the service doors at the airport, led by a member of the skeleton-shift service crew. As we made our way through this maze of doors and tiny service hallways, my anger began to wane as curiosity started to get the better of me. By the time the first little grumble from my stomach made itself heard, our guide pulled open a set of double doors and I was hit with this mouth-watering aroma of seafood, fish sauce, vinegar, pork, and chili. In the face of this stressful time, the wisdom behind the rule to get a little food to reorient myself had never seemed smarter. I eagerly sat down at one of the tables in this surprisingly busy employee food court, deep within the bowels of the Singapore airport. My father and his guide walked up to the counter where a stern old man was blanching several batches of mee pok (flat egg noodles) in noodle strainers. As they cooked, he quickly bustled over four bowls, throwing in a small amount of cooked pork mince, a splash of black vinegar and fish sauce, a large lump of sambal (chili sauce), and some oil. The mee pok came flying out of the strainers, tossed into the air once before being dumped on top of this sauce concoction. Then as if that were not enough, several pieces of blanched fish cakes and fish balls were placed on top of the steaming hot noodles, topping it all off. As my father brought the tray with four bowls of noodles and four extra bowls of hot dried fish broth meant for sipping on the side, my anger had completely given way to awe at this entirely new experience. That first bite of mee pok dry is something I will never forget, as the interplay of salty, sweet, umami, and sour flavours came rushing in on a bed of perfectly bouncy egg noodles. My desire to sleep quickly fell to the wayside as me and my family dug into our noodles, solidifying the importance of making a little bit of time to get some food whenever a problem comes up.
Mee Pok (Flat egg noodles)
- The piece that I chose to imitate was Nancy Savoca’s “Ravioli, Artichokes, and Figs” from Milk of Almonds, which incorporated an initial section that spoke to the reader and gave background information before delving into several short stories connected by a food theme that gave insight into Savoca’s life.
- The relationship that food has to memories and connection is a theme that has often come up in this course. Furthermore, it is one of the most relatable aspects of both Chinese and Italian food cultures, especially when looking at the noodle as a dish. Savoca’s format allows the author to provide readers with snapshots of different experiences based on the food that is closely tied to it. While I only included one dish because of issues of length, it would have been easy to write about another two or three, noodle-based or otherwise. This is because of how wonderfully relatable both the format and Savoca’s experiences are.
- Savoca’s tale about ravioli is one that shares some interesting insights about Italian immigrant culture specifically, but also sheds some light on the author’s half-Argentinean background. In this culture, food represented a special place of connection for people that gained significantly larger amounts of meaning when the interaction took place between immigrants. In the sea of foreignness that represents the new home for all immigrants, the familiarity of food can often act like a life preserver. There is something beautiful in the way that a mutual love of pasta between Savoca and the family of her sister’s husband could allow the former to feel both welcome and accepted. The significance of being understood is one that cannot be discounted and is testament to the food’s ability to build powerful relationships and lasting memories.
- Interestingly, the decision to write about a noodle dish that did not come from my home did not mean that there weren’t any lessons about my own culture that came from this piece. Instead, I gained insight into a unique perspective on life that my own family developed as a result of our shared experiences. Specifically, the importance of reorienting oneself in the face of adversity is something that every member of our family has come to appreciate. Furthermore, there was an interesting acknowledgement of the way that travel allows for the expansion of one’s horizons, even when it comes to the sort of food that a person eats. Tasting authentic mee pok dry allowed me to appreciate a combination of flavours that I may have never experienced in my original food culture.
- Food is an important contributor to cultural DNA not only because it provides necessary nourishment for communities but also because of the experiences, meanings, and lessons that these meals provide. This a central theme that is explored in Savoca’s narrative and something that I sought to replicate with my own. Savoca’s half-Argentinean half-Italian heritage shines through her ravioli story, giving us insight into the familial connections that so strongly define what it means to be an Italian. However, the cultural DNA within “Ravioli, Artichokes, and Figs” extends much further than this, providing commentary on regionalism by highlighting the differences between her family’s Sicilian background and the Neapolitan heritage of her sister’s husband and his family. Finally, there is also a discussion of space occupied by immigrants in a society, specifically through reference to the coming together of people from different areas in the face of foreignness. In my own story, familial connection remains the central aspect of culture that manifests through the narrative and how my father sought to ensure that we were okay despite the situation. However, there is also an interesting exploration of the idea of foreignness from the perspective of a traveller as opposed to an immigrant, with similar ideas regarding how daunting it might be. However, the cultural views diverge in terms of how to deal with this foreignness, mainly due to the difference in circumstance for travellers and immigrants. This reinforces the idea that unique cultural DNA is embedded throughout these two works and are manifested throughout their narratives.