Food, pride, and family values! Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! It’s a great time to reach out to friends, school, and library and have them join you to explore the fascinating Asian Pacific cultures.
First we eat, then we do everything else. -M.F.K. Fisher
This quote by Fisher is close to a well-known Chinese expression about food: Mín yǐ shí wéi tiān 民以食為天 | 民以食为天 from Records of the Grand Historian by Si-ma Qian.
My mother is a wonderful chef. The way my mother cooks is like an art. When she is in the kitchen everything seems to have magical power. The dry tofu pieces for a simple stirred-fry vegetarian dish are cut into perfect little cubes. The Chinese cabbage my mother uses for making Chinese dumplings are shredded gorgeously with a knife. Her chicken soup with red dates and shitake mushroom are usually slowly cooked over 10 hours.
As simple as a bowl of Chinese chicken soup may be, it is the flavor of home. My friends are always excited when they are invited over for dinner when my mother is visiting. They come with excitement and a hungry tummy.
These friends don’t speak Mandarin. They didn’t grow up with Chinese culture. First, we met through schools, events, or work. Then, we connected with each other on a deeper level with food.
My friends know that my mother feels much more comfortable speaking Mandarin. They also have learned from my children how Chinese people call their grandparents in Mandarin Chinese from previous parties at my place.
They show my mother their respect by offering to help her in the kitchen as soon as they arrive. In the meantime, they call my Mom the Chinese way, instead of Mrs. So-and-So. These friends call my mother, “Hsiung Mama”(Hsiung is my last name, Mama is mom). This is the most common way Chinese people call their friends’ mothers. It is what my Chinese peers call her. My friends’ children call my mother, “Hsiung Popo” (Popo is grandma on mother’s side).
We are connecting beyond the basic culture level. They dive into a deeper level of Chinese culture. On the surface, it is a party to try authentic food. In a profound level, it is sharing and connecting cultures. Friends are here to enjoy the homemade Chinese dishes from my kids’ grandma.
The experiences they take home is immersion in the culture.
As my friends enjoy each dish, and as my mother busily makes sure that everyone eats more, she reminds me to tell my friends how she makes the broth from scratch and how she pulls the noodles so they have a taste with a special texture. Meanwhile, she wants them to join her and make these pulled noodles themselves.
For my kids, this is always a beautiful moment. They listen to grandma and they act like young interpreters for their peers. It is from Mandarin to English for their friends who are new to some of the dishes. Then it is from English to Chinese for grandma who is always happy to know if their young friends like the taste of her food. More importantly, my mother wants to know if these kids are open to trying her homemade dishes that are different from the everyday meals they have at home. Furthermore, she is always delighted to hear the compliments the kids give to her.
My children might not know everything grandma tries to explain to the guests about the Chinese food ingredients and cooking techniques, but they listen patiently and help her to talk to their friends who don’t speak Chinese.
All the kids at the dining room table see different kinds of table manners, respect, and maybe, just maybe, a peek of filial piety from the grandchildren to a visiting grandmother.
From Sharing to Connecting
I believe you have a similar experience with your friends. It doesn’t matter if you are the host or the guest. We all start by sharing something we enjoy with our friends – the authentic dishes from our hometown.
When someone asks about one dish that has an amazing flavor or aroma, a beautiful story begins unfolding. It is a story about how it is made and whose recipe it is.
Just one dish, there might be a big family story behind it.
When We Share Food We Connect Cultures
Did you know Chinese dumplings have different names? The name sometimes goes with the cooking method of the dumplings. And, there is symbolic meaning for Chinese dumplings during the major cultural festivals.
I call the boiled cooked Chinese dumplings shui3 jiao3 水餃 | 水饺. In Turkmenistan, my friends call the dumplings Pelmeni that they shared with me. My Malaysian friends make the best kind of baked dumplings called Curry Puffs. The kind of dumplings my boy really enjoys from Italy is ravioli. And, our family’s new favorite dumplings that we have enjoyed tremendously are empanadas! Empanadas are made by our friends in Ecuador.
Food is more than just a dish. It is pride. It reflects family values when you share, converse, and listen to the story that comes with it.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is not just for Asian Pacific Americans. It is for everyone who is open to sharing homemade food, home cultures, and family stories that you and I have in that special dish.
Who’s coming for dinner?
People who love to eat are always the best people. – Julia Child
Welcome to our sixth annual Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month Blog Hop! Below you can explore ideas about sharing with kids the rich cultures of this vast and varied region.