How Canadian Cooking Helped Me Embrace My Chinese Culture (5 minute read)

Food. We need it. We want it. We depend on it. We are what we eat. 

I started cooking when I was barely 10 years old. With over 20 years of slicing and dicing, stir-frying and baking, steaming and roasting, I'd like to consider myself a foodie who is comfortable in the kitchen.

Although I enjoy food from all countries, I generally make Chinese dishes at home. They're my go-to meals because it's something my husband and I want to preserve for our daughter.  

As much as I love Chinese food now, I wasn't always fond of it. Growing up as a Chinese-Canadian in the 90's, I'd frequently complain about the food at home.

"Dad, we're having bok choy and steamed egg for dinner again? Can't we have pizza?"

"Mom, I can't bring that for lunch. It's too fishy smelling and the kids will laugh at me."

"For my birthday, I want a tooth-achingly sweet cake with real icing not one of those fruit ones from Anna's Cake House."

"Why do we eat rice every day? It's so boring!"

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Despite struggling to appreciate Chinese cuisine as a kid, I still learned to love cooking at a young age. And it all started with having a wonderful Christmas dinner with a Canadian family. 

A Canadian Christmas Dinner

I'm 10 years old and it's Christmas. Our family's been invited to my dad's coworker's house for dinner. As the youngest of 3, I was the only one without plans and I wasn't old enough to stay home alone. So they take me with them.

We arrive and my dad's coworker, Gary comes out to greet us. His wife Lucia follows behind wearing a flashy red Christmas apron with all the bells and whistles (FYI: this was way before the whole Ugly Christmas Sweater trend came about). She looked like a mom from those 80's Christmas movies, feathery hair and all. 
Their house was completely decked out with lights and Santa figurines of all sizes. WHAM!'s "Last Christmas" was playing in the background as the succulent smell of a rosemary infused turkey roasting in the oven wafts through the hallways. 

I was like, "Is this what the house in Home Alone feels like?" 
They take our coats and Lucia asks my mom and me to follow her to the kitchen. 

She sits us down at the table and brings out all sorts of cheeses: tangy cream cheese, a mild brie, an aromatic Havarti, and lastly, a small Tupperware containing a mysterious cheese. I was fascinated because all I had ever known about cheese were the Kraft singles my mom had used to make my "fitting in" sandwiches. 

I try each one and my eyes light up after each nibble. As Lucia opens the small container that held the pungent Roquefort, she warns me, "This is a strong one so I'd only take a little bit."

I eagerly grab a cracker and going against her advice, I smear a healthy-sized portion onto it. I pop it in my mouth and without a hitch, she hands me a napkin. 
As I spit the veiny crumbles into the napkin, she grins, "I guess I won't be using that one for the shrimp dip." She then hands me a tree-shaped sugar cookie and tells me it'll help wash down the taste.

When it was time to go, Lucia asks me what my favourite dishes were that night. I tell her the shrimp dip and sugar cookies. She asks me if I would like the recipes and I nod. 

I follow her back to the kitchen where she grabs a large box from the shelf above the spice rack. In this box, there were hundreds of recipe cards, all handwritten, stained and greasy. She flicks through them and pulls two out. She then opens a drawer and grabs two blank ones. 

She transcribes the recipes onto the new ones and after she's done, she hands me these cards and warmly says, "Now you can make these at home too!". 

On the car ride back, I remember grasping onto those cards like they were sacred, excited to share with my sisters the experience I'd just had. 

Starting My Cooking Journey

The day after, I ask my parents to buy the ingredients in my newly acquired recipes. And that weekend, my mom let me have free rein in the kitchen, marking the beginning of my cooking journey. 

In high school, I started watching the Food Network. I remember racing home after school to catch Christine Cushing Live, Anna Olson's Sugar and Michael Smith's Chef At Large

I'd jot down recipes as the hosts were talking and would ask my parents to let me test things in the kitchen every Friday night after my piano lesson. It started with basic chocolate chip cookies, then lasagna and then demi-glazed pork chops. 

By the time I was in university, I had developed some decent cooking skills. I started going out for dinner with friends several nights of the week and I always gravitated towards Chinese seafood restaurants, Hong Kong cafes, and noodle houses. I realized those flavours were innate to my taste buds, igniting a familiar sense of comfort and delight, something I had taken for granted growing up. 

Embracing My Chinese Culture Through Cooking

It was at this time when I started to embrace my Chinese culture. So I began asking my mom for her recipes, watching her cook and helping her prepare dinner. With the wonders of the Internet, I was able to look up recipes for the Chinese dishes my mom didn't know how to make. 

The skills I had developed 10 years prior cooking Western-style meals were seamlessly transferred to Chinese cuisine, demonstrating how the art of cooking truly transcends all cultures.   

Potato Canadian bacon soup became congee. Spaghetti and meatballs became prawn and egg swirl rice noodles. Buttermilk pancakes became green onion pancakes. Quinoa salad became fried rice. Blueberry muffins turned into lo bak gou (turnip cake). Ham and cheese scones turned into pork and cabbage dumplings. 
Lo Bak Go (蘿蔔糕)
I'm eternally grateful to Lucia, a Canadian mom who introduced me to her love of food. She inspired me to begin my own cooking journey by inviting me into her kitchen and showing me how her family comes together through food. She allowed me to discover my own passion for cooking, which ultimately helped me embrace my own culture.

I'm grateful to my parents who didn't bat an eye whenever I added a "peculiar" non-Asian item like nutmeg to their grocery list. 

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My mom's lack of knowledge about Canadian cooking was actually helpful as it prevented her "mom ego" from getting in the way. Because she was relatively hands-off, I was able to stretch my creativity in the kitchen.

My Cooking Hopes and Dreams As A Mom

As parents, I think it's important to recognize both the Eastern and Western influences we had growing up and to have the autonomy to pick and choose what to preserve.

However, sometimes it's not about viewing each culture as different, but rather how they've intertwined throughout our lives growing up and creating something unique that reflects our current generation and then integrating that into the way we parent. 

I know having a healthy relationship with food can do wonders for the mind, body, and soul; therefore, as a mom, I'm hoping to bring it to another level by going beyond what my own mom and Lucia did for me. 

Unlike my parents, I'm fortunate I'm raising my daughter during a time and place where I can literally make meals from all over the world. I can Google a recipe, go to my local supermarket, buy the imported ingredients, watch a YouTube video and make it that night. So I'm excited to explore world flavours with my daughter right in my own kitchen.
I want to inspire my daughter to appreciate food as a global experience, involving her in the cooking process, teaching her how to mindfully enjoy her meal while preserving my Chinese and Canadian values that food is the glue that brings families together.

So Readers, do you enjoy cooking? What's your relationship with food like? How has that changed growing up?

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