Noodles in China and Italy: A Reflection on Food, Culture, Identity, and Love

by Abigail Chin


The noodle is a remarkable culture bearer for China and Italy because noodles reflect and illustrate the unique societal values and identities of both countries and their respective cultures in different ways. Noodles are made from simple ingredients, but the context in which they are produced and consumed within Italy and China imbue the noodle with great meaning and identity beyond the noodle’s simple categorization as a food product.

At the most basic level, the noodle performs the basic function of giving people affordable nutrition in both China and Italy. The base ingredients for noodles are some combination of flour, water, and/or eggs. As such, noodles contain protein, minerals, and carbohydrates, along with some minerals. Noodles in China are considered a staple food, as seen in “Bite of China: Staples Foods.” Noodles are a cereal food, and “cereal food is the main body of the traditional Chinese diet, the main source of energy for the human body, and also the most economical energy food” (Journal of Ethnic Foods, Ma and Zhang 212). Noodles have performed the all-important role of feeding millions of Chinese people for hundreds of years, and China is the largest consumer of noodles in present-day. Italy also relied on noodles as an economical staple food during different times in history. For example, in Let the Meatballs Rest we learn that around 1630, pasta was very popular in Sicily but less so in Naples, where it was still considered a luxury. During that time, Neapolitans suffered from terrible famine and poverty as a result of Spain’s poor governance. There was an extreme shortage of the former staple food meat, and the Neapolitans took advantage of the mechanical pasta maker and made macaroni their new, economical staple food in the place of meat. During that time, they were given the nickname “macaroni-eaters” because of their love of pasta, and in the 1800s Italy as a whole country took on that label (Montanari161-162). Noodles have played an essential part in providing wholesome nutrition to both China and Italy. The rise in popularity of macaroni in Naples is a great example of how different regions of Italy and China experience noodles in different ways, according to different regional characteristics and traditions.

In China, noodles are a staple food, but there are thousands of different noodles varieties throughout the different regions, provinces, and cities of China. Each region of China has its own signature noodle dishes with vastly different preparation methods and flavor combinations. China is a large country with so many different types of climates, so many food traditions remain popular in specific regions in part because their respective geographic environments and climates are conducive for growing and preparing certain foods. However, perhaps just as significant is the fact that certain food traditions arose in a specific region, and people in that particular region care to continue the tradition, or perhaps people in other regions do not have quite the same affinity for the tastes of other regions’ noodle dishes. It has been said Chinese are the most food-oriented people in the world, and food traditions are among the most important traditions that the Chinese people keep. This is illustrated beautifully by the way noodles are prepared and eaten throughout China.

Bamboo pole pressed noodles are a remarkable noodle dish that can only be found in southern China, while pulled noodles are a proud tradition of Northern China. Bamboo pole noodles are made in a small area of China that includes Canton and Hong Kong, while pulled noodles are made throughout a large area of Northern China. The art of making bamboo pole noodles is a strenuous and lengthy process that was invented one hundred years ago and has been passed down between each generation since then (Hsiang Ju Lin 309-311). The art of bamboo pole noodles requires patience, discipline, and precise attention to detail in order to achieve the proper texture and form of noodle. The process of making these noodles is detailed by Hsiang Ju Lin in “Slippery Noodles.” The dough is made by mixing duck eggs straight into wheat without water, and then pole operator must bounce and pivot on the bamboo pole for hours, folding the dough at certain intervals (309-311). A person who makes this type of noodle does so as his or her full-time job or career, because making these noodles properly requires a good amount of training and experience; it seems it is not the type of dish that a person can make at home on a whim. This noodle reflects the culture and discipline of the Southern Chinese people in the Canton and Hong Kong areas, because this process requires an hours-long commitment to excellence and quality in order to enjoy even one bowl of noodles. On an individual level, the bamboo pole operators’ dedication, strong work ethic, and craftsmanship is embodied in these noodles. The fact that these particular noodles have remained popular, and that the art has been passed down over a hundred years shows the value that Chinese culture places on the art of quality food.

On the other hand, pulled noodles give us a window into the cultural fabric of northern China. These noodles have a long history in northern China. While pulling the noodles, the “noodle-maker would give a riveting performance” (Hsiang Ju Lin 312). The fact that noodle-makers would put on a show in a street stall or in a restaurant reveals that they had a ready audience for their noodle-making. The Chinese are a food-oriented culture, and the ready audience for noodle-makers illustrates that Chinese people appreciated and continue to appreciate the artisanship and hard work that goes into making the noodles. This presents a stark contrast to American restaurants, where the chef and cooks most often remain behind the closed double doors of the kitchen, and never come out to show how food is made. In the USA, it seems that at nicer restaurants, it is essential that the process of cooking be hidden from the customer, with a distinct separation between front-end wait staff and back-end chefs and cooks. The emphasis and value are placed on the appearance and taste of the food when it lands on the dining table, but less so in the process behind it. The performance of noodle pullers illustrates that the Chinese, specifically the northern Chinese in this case, value every step of the noodle-making process, not just what ends up in their bowl on the table. Lanzhou pulled noodles are a different type of pulled noodles that were invented by Muslims who settled in the Xian and Lanzhou cities of northern China after they traveled in from the west on the Silk Road (Hsiang Ju Lin 313-314). This dish marries traditional Muslim beef soup with pulled noodles native to northern China. The soup was made from green parsley, red pepper oil, white noodles, radish, coriander, beef, spice blends, and a signature clear broth. The clear broth of this noodle dish is very different from the rich and heavy sauce that is often served with pulled noodles in northern China (314-315). This particular noodle dish is a great example of how other cultures could influence and contribute to the noodle culture in China. Lanzhou pulled noodles are a direct result of the Silk Road and how the Silk Road changed and influenced Chinese culture in the northern region.

In Italy, the noodle is a wonderful symbol of the entire Italian culture and more specific regional traditions. The earlier example of the Neapolitan development of a macaroni culture reveals an important aspect of Italian culture. When discussing Italian culture, it is important to recognize that each region of Italy has a distinct history. Each region was conquered, occupied, and liberated multiple times by different rulers and countries, and during different time periods. Some regions of Italy did not interact with other regions for hundreds of years at a time, so each region developed its own cultural identity and food culture. In addition, different regions of Italy have geographies that are suited to raising different kinds of crops and livestock, furthering the regional difference in cuisine. While pasta is now recognized as the signature food of Italy, each region has a very different history with pasta. In the Middle Ages, Sicily “was the region of Italy where industrialized dry pasta first took hold” (Montanari 161). Up to this point, Sicilians were known as “macaroni eaters” (161). However, around 1630 after pasta became an economical staple food in Naples following a period of famine, Neapolitans became known as “macaroni-eaters” (162). It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the entire country of Italy was known as “macaroni-eaters” (162). Since this date coincides with the unification of Italy in 1861, I imagine that perhaps the unification enabled pasta in all its forms to travel and become widespread throughout the entire country, rather than stay confined within specific regions.

In addition, the example of cappelletti and tortellini further illustrates the different food traditions in the different regions of Italy. In the present-day region of Emilia-Romagna, the noodle dishes of cappelletti and tortellini are filled differently (Montanari 42). In Romagna, cappelletti are filled with cheese as a result of the sheep culture in the region. On the other hand, in Emilia tortellini are filled with meat as a result of the native pork culture 42). Both regions incorporate filled pasta dough into their regional cuisine, but the different fillings are a nod to their separate histories of occupation. While the landscape differences between Emilia and Romagna contributed to this difference, the fact that the Longobards occupied Emilia and the Byzantines ruled Romagna is a likely cause of different food traditions illustrated by these stuffed pasta dishes (42-43).

The noodle is an important cultural element of both Italian and Chinese societies and their respective cultures. Both the Chinese and Italians demonstrate their commitment to high quality food made with love and expert-level care through noodles. In the article “Noodles, Traditionally and Today”, we learn that there are thousands of noodle varieties in China (Zhang and Ma 210). These noodles are crafted with great care and hard work, such as with bamboo pole noodles and hand pulled noodles. Within Italy, there are hundreds of varieties of noodle shapes, from capellini to bucatini to the classic spaghetti. There must be thousands of unique pasta dish varieties after accounting for sauce varieties. The overwhelming variety of noodle shapes and forms indicates that both Chinese and Italian culture truly value the art and form of noodles. In Italian culture, “different shapes of pasta, although alike in substance, produce different effects on the taste buds” (Montanari10-11). There is an understanding in Italian culture that the form of food, such as pasta, will profoundly affect the taste or flavor of a dish. With this belief, the number of pasta shapes that have been created over the years clearly illustrates the Italian commitment to seeking excellent taste and flavor in food. In Chinese culture, the value of the balancing of the five flavors in conjunction with the hard work in making noodles illustrates the Chinese dedication to quality food.

Noodles play an important role in Italian culture because pasta is the food most associated with Italian food culture by both Italians themselves and by people throughout the world. The traditional pasta and tomato sauce is a great example of the signature of Italian cuisine. Italians, perhaps more than any other culture in the world, perfected the art of drawing from a variety of gastronomical cultures to create superb food. There is great debate over which part of the world first invented noodles, and we may never truly know if China or Italy or the Middle East created the first proper noodle. Regardless, the Italians took the noodle tradition and perfected the production and drying of noodles and pasta. Tomatoes and tomato sauce were brought to Italy from the Americas, and they are not native to Italy. However, because of the masterful Italian cooking techniques, pasta and tomato sauce will forever be associated with Italy’s cultural identity. Pasta is the perfect “metaphor for the unity and variety of Italian alimentary styles” (Montanari 160). The Italians’ ability to draw from different gastronomical cultures is an important part of Italian food culture, and the noodle personifies this ability more than any other food.

Noodles have an incredibly important position in Chinese food culture because of the Chinese are an incredibly food-oriented culture. Food is interwoven into all of the significant Chinese customs, rituals, life events, and holidays. Noodles in China are especially imbued with customs and meaning. For example, many noodle dishes have other names that reflect their place in Chinese culture rather than the food in the dish Qishan minced noodles are also known as “sister-in-law noodles” because it is said that a poor student was able to pass his civil service exam only because of the great noodles his sister-in-law prepared for him. Later, many people tried to cook the same noodle dish to seek success for their sons in their exam. So, the noodles also took on another epithet of “ashamed son noodles,” in reference to parents’ shame when the same noodle dish did not lead to their son’s success. The naming of noodle dishes shows that many noodles dishes are linked with other aspects of life, and the food is always connected to other aspects of life. There are many other noodle dishes that are forever linked with certain traditions or customs in Chinese culture. For example, longevity noodles or long-life noodles, are served at birthday parties. In “Bite of China: Staples Foods”, we see that there is a beautiful noodle tradition that is performed at a 70th birthday celebration in one village in China. Since long noodles are associated with a long life, every member of a village is served a bowl of noodles upon arriving at a birthday party. Each person picks the longest noodle out of his or her bowl, and places it in the bowl of the man who is celebrating his birthday. The birthday celebration can only be complete after the man eats the bowl of the longest noodles. Here, the noodles symbolize the love and good wishes from every member of the community to this man. It is clear that noodles in Chinese culture are much more than the ingredients, they are a special food that represents love and can guide one through both big and small life events.

Both Italian and Chinese cultures emphasize the importance of eating meals with loved ones. In China, it is incredibly important to eat food with family. In Italy, a big part of the Mediterranean diet tradition is eating with others, whether that be friends or family. The amount of hard work, care, and attention to detail that goes into selecting, preparing, and eating noodles is more than the sum of its parts: it is love. There is love that goes into preparing noodles well in both Italian and Chinese culture. In the story “Crossing the Bridge”, a family chef labored over many noodle dishes and experimented with many techniques and styles of cooking until he found the perfect technique to keep noodles warm for the beloved son in the family (Durack 182-183). In the “Art of the Feast”, we see the time and care the women in an Italian family put into shaping hundreds of little tortellini by hand. In the same episode, we see two men go around to several different shops over the course of a whole day to collect the perfect ingredients for just one noodle dinner, as is common in Italian culture. Making noodles with pride and care for others is an act of love. In “A Bite of China: Staple Foods”, a cameraman named Bih-Bo lives in Beijing with his wife, while his two daughters, parents, and parents-in-law live far away in the countryside. He is only able to see his parents and twin daughters once a year, at the Spring Festival celebration. He mentions that his favorite dish is his mother’s braised noodles. He explains that the traditional noodles and jaozi that his family makes together during this time will remain a “seed planted in [his children’s] soul” that they can always remember and think of as a happy memory with family. All of these examples stand in stark contrast to the American culture of fast food, where speed and hunger gratification are valued highest, and there is much less emphasis on the source of ingredients or what it actually takes to bring wonderful food to the table.

What is the noodle/what are noodles?

The noodle is a combination of flour and some liquid that can be shaped into hundreds of shapes, with varying thickness and hundreds of textures, by a variety of methods such as pulling, pressing, and casting with molds. The noodle provides a healthy form of nutrition and sustenance for all people across the world’s many cultures. It is a nutritious, wholesome food that comes from a global gastronomic tradition of quality, care, wholesome nutrition, and love. Throughout human creativity and hard work, society has created thousands of different noodle dishes.

Noodles have fed people for hundreds of years, during times of prosperity and times of desperation. They can convey nonverbal messages such as well-wishes, good luck, celebration, and love. When the noodle is prepared with love, it can bond families, build friendships, and strengthen communities.



Pad See Ew ผัดซีอิ๊ว by Abi Chin

Pad See Ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว) is a Chinese-influenced Thai noodle dish found in street food stalls and restaurants throughout Thailand, and in most every Thai restaurant across the United States. Pad See Ew literally means “soy sauce stir-fried noodles.” It is a wide rice noodle dish mixed with protein, vegetables, and a sweet brown sauce. The base ingredient, fresh extra-wide rice noodles, can be found at Asian grocery stores. The Thai version, sen yai, is what I use in this recipe. If you cannot find sen yai, use fresh Chinese or Vietnamese noodles of the same shape. I find that thinner noodles or dried rice noodles are absolutely dreadful substitutes, as they make each bite less substantial and indubitably throw off the overall mouthfeel texture of the entire dish. Usually, restaurants will offer Pad See Ew with a few variable selections of either beef, chicken, shrimp, pork, or tofu. It is hard to say which variety of Pad See Ew is most popular nowadays, although pork is most traditional. I typically prepare Pad See Ew with chicken, pork, or beef. During warmer months, a lighter chicken or shrimp version works well with the humidity. In wintertime, pork or beef makes this a heartier, more satisfying dish. At any time of year, I enjoy inviting my friends over to my apartment for a meal of Pad See Ew, and it is quite fun to watch their incredulity as I cook up this seemingly complex dish in a matter of minutes. As with any fried rice noodle dish, it is best served fresh and hot off the wok, but leftovers can keep for a day or two.

Place one pound of broad rice noodles at room temperature for a few hours. Pull the noodles apart. Work with caution, as the noodles can rip easily. Prepare 4 or 5 cups of Chinese broccoli, “gai lan”, as follows: wash well, peel the stalk, separate stalk pieces, and slice both the leaves and stalk into 1 ½-inch strips. Peel and mince 4 garlic cloves. Cut your protein-pork, shrimp, or beef-into 1-inch strips. If you are using tofu, chop into 1-inch cubes. Put the wok on a gas burner and turn the heat to medium high. Warm some cooking oil that can tolerate high heat, and then sauté the garlic until fragrant. Add protein to the wok and stir rapidly until the protein is just underdone. Move the protein over to one side of the wok. Add some oil to the other side of the wok, and scramble 2 eggs very quickly just until solid. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the broccoli stalk pieces to the wok. Toss the ingredients for a minute or two until stalks soften. Reduce the heat to low. Add the noodles, Chinese broccoli leaves, a tablespoon of light Thai soy sauce, a tablespoon of sweet dark soy sauce, 2 teaspoons oyster sauce, a teaspoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of white ground pepper to the wok. Stir fry very gently. Pick up the noodles from the bottom of the pan with a spatula and fold them over the top of the ingredients (this prevents the noodles from falling apart) just until sauce is absorbed. Turn up the heat to high and stir fry gently for 30 to 60 seconds (this gives the noodles a crisp char). Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with chili flakes, sriracha sauce, and cilantro leaves on the side, if desired. Serves 4 as a meal, or 6-8 as a side dish.

1. What piece did you choose to imitate?

I chose to imitate recipes from  Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. Specifically, I chose to imitate the headnote style from the Winter Bruschetta and Wild Mushroom Lasagna recipes, but I wrote the actual recipe in a style drawn from all her collective recipes.

2,  Why did you choose this piece?

I found Mayes’ memoir-style recipes and writing style to be incredibly evocative and engaging. Her smooth conversational style of writing seems somehow both effortless and carefully composed at the same time, and her writing made me feel that I was either listening to a very refined friend of my parents’ speak, while other times evoking the essence of a friend who is sharing cooking tips with me, such as when she admits “I’ve often burned eggplant on the grill” (Mayes 223). I chose to imitate Frances Mayes’ recipe style because I found her tone and style of writing intriguing, in large part because of the way she danced between the role of a privileged, well-traveled connoisseur and the role of friend and confidante.

On the one hand, she is a culinary expert who has more knowledge and wisdom in the kitchen than most, and this is a book that is largely about food and cooking. On the other hand, she was a newcomer in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language, and faced bumps and hurdles as such. She is not afraid to reveal her identity as someone who is new to Italian cooking. She freely admits that the vegetable cardoon and the Italian apples she finds in Tuscany are unfamiliar to her at first (Mayes 230-231). Nevertheless, she is an authority on Italian cooking in the eyes of her mostly non-Italian readers, as she possesses more knowledge than most of those who will read and try her recipes. Perhaps this is why her voice as an author is able to move so well between friend and expert.

I also chose to imitate her because on some level I believe I can relate to her position when it comes to Thai cuisine. On the one hand, as an American-born daughter of a Thai immigrant, I have a certain insight into Thai cuisine that my fellow Americans do not have. On the other hand, if I were to go to Thailand, I would find that my cooking and food knowledge and skills would be very far behind those of Thai natives. So, as a Thai-American person, I might be an authority on Thai food to my American friends (as Mayes was to her primary audience), but when in Thailand I would need to learn and absorb information from those around me from trial and error, as Mayes did in Tuscany.

Although Frances Mayes’ voice is clear in all of her writing, I found that she went into much greater depth in certain recipe headnotes, such as in the Winter Bruschetta and Wild Mushroom Lasagna recipes, using detail and elaboration for the reader’s benefit.  For example, in Winter Bruschetta, Mayes writes about items that appear on “every menu in Tuscany” (Mayes 222), which is insightful information on the food culture of Tuscany during the 1990s. I tried to give similarly relevant anthropological information on where one could find the dish “Pad See Ew” in my recipe headnote. In Wild Mushroom Lasagna, Mayes reveals her own ingredient preferences by explaining how prepackaged lasagna “leaves [her] “cold” (223), an exaggerated, dramatic description that imprints her idea in the readers mind. In my recipe headnote, I imitated this style closely by asserting that noodles of the wrong width for the dish are “dreadful” in order to catch the reader’s attention. In reading excerpts from Under the Tuscan Sun, some of the most engaging elements were in the recipe headnotes, so I imitated two headnotes that went into greater detail and revealed more information.

3. What did you learn about the culture of the original author through imitating his or her style?

I learned a good amount about Frances Mayes’ cultural background by imitating her work. In her recipes, she refers to her Southern upbringing. She mentions her Southern heritage directly in her Lemon Cake recipe, and explains that the cake is from her family and is southern. Her decision to bring “Georgia pecans” (Mayes 221) back to Italy gives away her Southern American heritage. In addition, we learn that she is Christian because she mentioned that her family used to have a Christmas turkey every year in the headnote for her Roast Chickens Stuffed with Polenta recipe (Mayes 227). So, we know that she is from the Southern United States and of the Christian faith. By reading her style and tone of writing, it becomes clear that she is both very well-educated and from a privileged upbringing and background. She speaks in a highly educated vernacular, and uses a vast vocabulary. The absence of certain details revealed Mayes’ privilege in some ways. Often, recipe authors might mention cost or the concept of getting good value from a particular ingredient or meal. However, these concepts are entirely absent in the excerpts from Under the Tuscan Sun. Even when her recipes call for ingredients that seem extravagant, she does not touch on the topic of cost. That indicates that cost was not a natural concern for her when cooking, as it is for many other food authors, which we have seen in other food memoirs . She alludes to her privilege overtly in her recipe for Quail, Slowly Braised with Juniper Berries and Pancetta. In this recipe, Frances Mayes mentions her family cook, Willie Bell. The fact that she had a family cook growing up indicates a certain level of affluence. On a larger scale, the entire premise of the book-that she was able to move to another country and purchase a villa-also reveals that she enjoyed a certain level of economic advantage. She uses language that portrays her as someone full of daydream, whimsy, and amused determination. These traits are more often possessed by those who have the means to behave as such. Her cultural perspective works well with her style of book, because her recipes are sumptuous and decadent, meant to be cooked slowly with the Italian virtue of patience for a good meal. These are not quick, street food recipes for hardworking hands that need to stretch every dollar, euro, or yen.

4. What did you learn about your own culture while writing?

I also learned a lot about my own cultural perspective by imitating Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun. I realized that although I am both Thai and American, when I think of the cultural foods that my heart and soul find to be “home foods”, I think of Thai food. When it came time to decide what type of recipe to use, I knew in an instant that the recipes I would be best equipped to write about were the ones that I saw being made in my kitchen growing up, and the dishes I ate in the Thai restaurants my family frequented whenever we could. Although I have made countless American-style dinners by improvising or following a recipe word-for-word, the techniques and values of those recipes don’t seem as balanced and intuitive as Thai recipes do for me. I realized that my food cultural roots are rooted in Thai and Chinese-influenced Thai food.

On the other hand, I also realized that I do have certain American instincts when it comes to cooking and cuisine. As I read Mayes’ recipes, I realized that there were no notes at the top indicating exactly how long the recipe would take and I almost became alarmed. I instinctively tried to calculate how long a recipe would take. I am entrenched in the American lifestyle of speed, efficiency, and convenience when it comes to food, and my instinct to figure out the amount of time for a recipe indicates that. I saw one recipe that I wanted to make, and when I saw it I wanted to write down the exact ingredient list, each cooking step, and estimate the time required for each cooking step. The Italian virtue of patience (as mentioned in “Art of the Feast” on BBC) with cooking is something that I admire and aspire to, but it is clear I will need to practice that patience if I am to fully embrace the slow, careful Italian style of cooking. It does not come as naturally to me as I might like. As I wrote my recipe in the style of Mayes, I found the task difficult at first because I am used to reading and writing recipes with a clear ingredient list and numbered cooking steps, which is very American and geared toward speed. However, by the end of the Pad See Ew recipe, I rather enjoyed writing my recipe in this new style. This style of writing, which took time and care, really made me appreciate the most important techniques and the flow of the recipe because I was focused on the instructions rather than dividing everything into logical steps.

5. Is there cultural DNA embedded in the piece you read and in your piece? How does this DNA manifest in the texts?

Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun revealed the history and cultural DNA of Italy in many of her recipes. Specifically, her work reveals Italy’s cultural DNA in relation to food. For example, she alludes to the Italian value of eating with loved ones in the Winter Bruschette recipe, when she says, “when friends stop in, we open a hefty vino nobile” (Mayes 222). The idea of friends coming to her home to share food is very Italian. Drinking wine with a meal as she mentions is also an important part of Italian culture. Mayes’ focus on Tuscan cuisine reveals an important part of Italy’s history and DNA. Due to the way that various regions of Italy were conquered and invaded, each region of Italy has its own signature style of cuisine. By including recipes from Tuscany’s signature cooking style rather than recipes from other regions such as Sicily or Naples, Mayes illustrates Italy’s history of regional cooking styles, which is a key part of its DNA. The regional cooking tradition is also is closely linked with Italian culture’s regional pride and identity that goes back thousands of years.

Mayes certainly practices the Tuscan way of using seasonal fruit and vegetables, cured meats, and drinking wine in her recipes and stories. Those practices are key elements of Tuscany’s history and culture, and therefore its cultural DNA.  Mayes mentions using new ingredients that she finds locally, such as cardoons and a specific type of disfigured apple. It seems that all of the ingredients she uses in her recipes are ones that can be found growing and living locally in Italy. The idea of living off the land and eating foods that are fresh and in season is also a big part of Italy’s cultural identity in general, in addition to in Tuscany specifically. This is connected to Italian culture because historically, Italians would farm, harvest, and eat foods that came almost exclusively from Italy’s  land and sea. Regions of Italy consume different types of food based on what grows on the local land. Italians in the north eat pasta with egg because of the soft wheat, whereas Italians in the south eat pasta made without egg because of the nature of their harder local wheat.

My piece of writing has some cultural DNA embedded within in, but it as not as significant or as easily spotted as in Frances Mayes’ work. At the beginning of my recipe headnote, I mention the street food stalls in Thailand. This is a nod to the fact that I have been to Thailand, and may have more than a fleeting connection with the country. The street food stalls are a reference to the street food culture that is popular in many Asian countries, Thailand included. In addition, my recipe calls for specific Asian ingredients that can only be found in Asia or at an Asian grocery, so it reveals that my cultural environment,  is one that includes access to Asian grocery stores. Overall, there is not as much cultural DNA in my writing, in comparison to Under the Tuscan Sun.

Francis Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun served as a wonderful inspiration for writing my own recipe in her style of patient, high-quality Italian cooking in the Tuscan tradition. Her writing brought Italian cuisine and cultural concepts to life. Writing like her made me question my own cultural food identity, and how my background influences the way that I approach cooking food, and food in general.


















My Food Upbringing

I grew up biracial, with one Asian parent and one Caucasian parent. My father was born in Thailand and considers himself Thai, but has ethnic Chinese lineage. My parents actually met in Japan. My mother really did not cook or have any cultural foods she passed on to us. Therefore, I grew up on a blend of Asian foods; mostly Chinese and Thai, with a Japanese influence. When I think of food that is important to my family, there are several foods that come to mind. My parents moved to the United States when they knew they were having their first child (me), and with that move my father left his life in Thailand behind for the most part. All of his other siblings and family have remained in Thailand, to this day. Shortly after he moved to the United States, his mother passed away. She taught him everything he knew about cooking, and I think cooking for us helped him keep his cultural identity, and also helped remind him of his mother cooking for him as he grew up. When I think of the food I ate growing up, the first food I think of is rice, always served soft and steaming. There was always one or more rice cookers in my house, and rice was served with every dinner, no matter what. We would often eat rice with homemade Thai green chicken curry. The curry always contained a delicate blend of spices and herbs, green beans, soft chicken, and just the right amount of coconut milk. I can smell it as I write. The ingredients were purchased from our local Asian supermarket. Creating curry with coconut milk came straight from my father’s Thai background, and using coconut milk is a frequent characteristic of Thai cooking. As a child, I remember seeing cans and spice packets with characters I could not read, and that always meant we were in for a delicious meal.

We also had eggs with almost every dinner. Eggs were typically prepared one of two ways. First, we often had a kind of egg omelette made with soy sauce, scallions, and garlic. It was served like a pancake and we would cut it into pizza slice-like triangles to be portioned out for everyone at the table. Just as often, we would eat boiled eggs. Looking back on it, our tradition of eating boiled eggs held a special significance. My father grew up in rural Thailand in a small home with his seven brothers and sisters. He told us that for birthdays, the birthday boy or girl would always receive one gift from their mother. That gift was one hard-boiled egg. This was special because he lived on a farm with many chickens, and they would usually collect and sell the eggs in town. The act of eating a hard boiled egg, though it may not seem significant to us, was actually a treat that my father and his siblings looked forward to greatly. So, the fact that my family was able to eat eggs (hard-boiled or otherwise) every night was a tradition that carried personal significance. I feel a great appreciation for his upbringing now that I look at it from this point of view.

As I mentioned, rice was served at every dinner. However, we rarely ate rice without some sort of complement. We sprinkled “fu,” a traditional dried pork product, over the rice whenever we could find it. My father would often buy “fu” on his trips to Asia, so it was always a special treat when it was in the house. As such, the “fu” supply was rationed and limited, and we viewed it as an extra special treat. Frequently my sibling and I would argue about who got more fu than the other at one meal, or we would accuse one another of stealing extra fu when no one was looking. They were such fun, wonderful meals together. It may sound unusual, but the dried salty sweetness of fu has to be tried to be appreciated. Another  favorite accompaniment to rice was “nori,” or dried seaweed. We would eat the nori out of big jars from the Asian supermarket. Now, I still eat nori with rice with my dinner as frequently as I can. We ate the fu because my father always loved it as a kid and he wanted us to be able to enjoy it, too. The nori was a popular food in Japan when my parents lived there, so they brought that tradition home. It was a nod to their time in Japan.

Last but certainly not least, my family regularly attended Sunday Dim Sum together. I would get so excited every time I knew we were going to dim sum; I feel excited just thinking about it right now. My father insisted that most Chinese restaurants in the United States were not authentic, but he assured us that the Dim Sum places he took us were authentic. Sometimes we would even go into Chinatown in New York City to get dim sum if we were feeling especially adventurous. We always ordered “cha shu bao” buns, shiny white buns filled with sweet pork in a red paste. Other favorites were shrimp shu mai and sticky rice. My personal favorite was turnip cakes, a solid turnip puree that was grilled and then sliced into rectangles. As we ate sticky rice with pork, we always heard the same story about how farmers in China and Thailand would eat sticky rice for breakfast early in the morning so that they could fill up their bellies before the long day of work ahead. I guess that explains why I always felt so full afterwards!

When I studied abroad in Spain, I gained exposure to a multitude of different ethnic communities. I lived with South Korean roommates, who taught me all about creating food carefully and with beautiful presentation. They would often make a triangle shaped food called “kimbabp,” and I will never forget how carefully they shaped the food and folded the edges into a perfect triangle. In addition, I had German friends in Spain who would make meats and a lot of egg noodles. In addition, they put mayonnaise on anything they could, such as meats, French fries, salads, etc. To be honest, it sometimes seemed that the food was just a vehicle for mayonnaise. The cultural affinity for beer among my German friends, however, was another story. Lastly, while I was in Spain I was able to experience what it meant to live like a European. More than any specific food, I learned that Spaniards enjoy their meals and take their time eating. They eat heartily and happily, with wine to accompany all good food. I admire the Spanish way of eating. In addition, the warmer the weather was, the later that people in Spain ate dinner. They valued happiness and enjoying their surroundigs outdoors, which I tried to adopt at the time.

I am very grateful for my upbringing, and the way that I was exposed to so many foods outside the American cultural norm at such a young age. Honestly, I have never thought about my family’s food history in such great depth and detail until now. I realize it is really remarkable the way that my father kept his cultural identity and traditions alive with food and cooking. I do not speak Thai or Chinese, but I do know how to cook traditional Chinese and Thai dishes. Those skills are part of my identity, and cooking and eating those foods reminds me of home and fills me with happiness. My family’s cultural traditions will continue through the food we make, eat, and pass on to the next generation.



Thai Green Curry


1 1/2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons 
green curry paste , Mae Ploy brand preferred
8 oz chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup water
4 oz bamboo shoot
5 kaffir lime leaves, lightly bruised
2 red chilies, cut into thick strips
1 tablespoon 
fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar or palm sugar (preferred)
1/4 cup Thai basil leaves


Heat up a pot over medium heat and add the oil. Saute the green curry paste until aromatic, add the chicken and stir to combine well with the curry paste. Add the coconut milk and water and bring it to a quick boil.

Add the bamboo shoots, kaffir lime leaves, and red chilies. Lower the heat to simmer, cover the pot and let simmer for 10 minutes or until the curry slightly thickens.

Add the fish sauce, sugar, and basil leaves. Stir to mix well. Turn off the heat and serve immediately with steamed rice.



Above: Fresh, steaming rice in a rice cooker

Below: Fu, a dried shredded pork, over rice

Above: a version of the egg and scallion omelette. This particular photo shows that other vegetables were added; my family often ate the egg omelette with whatever vegetables were fresh and available, too.

Below: Fu as it is often sold in Asian grocery stores. It can be sold as pictures, in plastic canisters or in plastic bags.

Bottom: Traditional Thai green curry. This curry has hot peppers added, which is typical.