It was the middle of the 20th century in rural China; most Chinese still struggled in their daily lives and the basic needs for food were barely satisfied. Mr. Lau—an immigrant who arrived in Canada 10 years ago—recalls this other time and place. His family was impoverished. He rarely had meat and so craved a meal with even a small bite of meat. It was almost always just too difficult to get.
Mr. Lau remembers one night when his mom made steamed minced pork with salted fish. He would never forget how tasty and precious it was. The smell‚ the salted taste of fish mixed with the steamed pork and his mother’s love are all embedded in his memory. Since he came to Canada‚ Mr. Lau has made the special dish several times‚ making him feel at home again. Even though all the ingredients are easily found in Canada and not expensive to buy‚ he never forgets how hard it was to make back in the old days‚ in the old country.
Now Mr. Lau has passed down his family recipe to his own children‚ with the reminder that the dish is imbued with the symbolism of the happiness that comes from hard work‚ as well as one of the most important values embedded in Chinese culture: a contented mind is a perpetual feast. Mr. Lau believes that no matter where his children go in the future‚ this philosophy will be carried by them and help them to live contentedly. For Mr. Lau‚ it is not simply a family recipe passed down to his children‚ but a way of living.
Culturally speaking‚ what one eats can define who one is and who one is not. Food is central to our sense of identity. For those who have left their culture of origin‚ re-creating traditional dishes can bring back feelings of home. Equally significant is how the sharing of family recipes can build bridges between family members of different generations and others who come from different cultures. A family recipe can be a connection‚ an understanding‚ and a way of communication in a new culture.
For Jennifer‚ a wife‚ mother‚ and university student‚ this kind of cross-cultural connection was made very close to home, and her heart. Shortly after Jennifer immigrated to Canada and had started her own family‚ her mother came to visit. As mothers often do‚ Jennifer’s mother set to cooking everyone a traditional meal—in this case‚ “zhajiangmian”‚ or noodles with soybean paste. The soybean paste is very popular in Northern China and the dish is like the combination of tomato sauce and pasta.
Jennifer’s mother was curious if Jennifer’s Canadian husband would like the zhajiangmian. When he told Jennifers’ mother that he loved this noodle with soybean paste‚ Jennifer’s mother was surprised. However‚ Jennifer’s husband didn’t know how to pronounce it exactly‚ so he named this paste “mama sauce”. Mama sauce has become the new name for soybean paste in Jennifer’s family. Jennifer has since made this noodle with mama sauce several times for her Canadian friends‚ much to their enjoyment. With fresh cucumber‚ carrots and cabbages‚ the dish is not only tasty, but also very healthy. Mama sauce— zhajiangmian —a very traditional and popular Chinese food‚ built a bridge that connects two distinct cultures and another generation. As an added bonus‚ Jennifer discovered that mama sauce is helpful when her children don’t want to eat carrots or other vegetables they dislike‚ because they can’t tell whether those vegetables are in the mama sauce or not. Picky-eater problem solved!
Jennifer’s family story is a model for Mustafa Koc and Jennifer Welsh’s suggestion in Food‚ Identity‚ and the Immigrant Experience that “others sharing ‘our’ taste offers [a] symbolic welcome” and that societies tend to [underestimate] the significance of cosmopolitan diets in introducing symbolic awareness of diversity‚ in challenging ethnocentrism‚ and, for many‚ in creating a feeling of home away from home. If we learn and define who we are through what we eat, the multicultural cuisine may offer a glimpse of the widening notions of identity‚ self‚ and belonging in Canada. It is through sharing seemingly mundane everyday acts‚ such as eating‚ dressing‚ and listening to music‚ that the cultural boundaries of membership become permeable. Koc and Welsh also assert that the key to food security for new immigrants‚ “[which] implies‚ firstly‚ access to sufficient, nutritious and quality food at all times”‚ is accessibility and that “feeling at home” is specifically created by having access to “culturally appropriate foods.”
For Japanese international student Saki‚ such access is hindered by both the limitations of her living arrangements and her lifestyle. While Japanese cuisine— particularly sushi—has become very popular in Canada, Saki reveals that in fact‚ miso soup or miso is more traditional in Japanese cuisine. When Saki was in Japan‚ she ate miso soup almost every day‚ and it was very simple to make. Since Saki arrived in Canada to study‚ she has missed the hot miso soup made by her mother—and the taste of home. Saki is temporarily living in a shared house where it is not convenient for her to cook‚ so she usually just makes the easiest and fastest food: instant noodles. Saki laughs at a photo on her phone of the full drawer of instant noodles she has in the dresser in her room. This is a common situation for many international students‚ and even more so for those who don’t know how to cook at all. Even though these students have the option to seek out their cultural cuisines at local restaurants‚ they express strong emotions around their own cultural food and a longing for the authentic family meals of home.
An immigrant’s or newcomer’s day-to-day is busy absorbing many new things‚ but establishing a place for oneself and feeling at home are also priorities. Adding some old‚ familiar culture to the new could mean home is as close as a bubbling pot on the stove and the memory of your mother’s guiding words in your ear.
Our writer’s story
When I was a child‚ I loved to stand by my grandma’s side watching her cook stewed pork with soy sauce. Every time I went to my grandma’s home‚ she made this dish for me. The sweetness within the soy sauce and softness of the pork, served with a bowl of steamed rice‚ was so satisfying. But this memory seemed so far away when I came to Canada to study. I missed home‚ friends‚ food—basically everything that I could not bring with me here. Now‚ I have been living in Canada for over five years. I still miss my family all the time‚ especially my grandma and her signature dish. Unfortunately‚ she passed away this year. It happened so suddenly. And I did not have a chance to say goodbye. This time‚ truly‚ all the good memories were gone with her. But I know there is one precious thing she left for me—the family recipe passed down from her: stewed pork with soy sauce. When I was that child by her side as she cooked, my grandma described each step of preparation and cooking. Even though I was not smart enough to know everything‚ I felt that I already knew something.
Since I came to Canada‚ I have tried to make stewed pork so many times. In the beginning‚ it was hard to replicate the same taste my grandma produced. However‚ I persevered‚ just as I have done while trying to live and adjust in a foreign country. After several failures‚ now I can successfully make my grandma’s stewed pork with soy sauce. My friends even compliment me on how delicious it is! More importantly‚ for me‚ it tastes almost the same as my grandma’s did when I was that young girl in her kitchen. The only difference between my recipe and my grandma’s is the love she put into it. She was always so delicate with every ingredient. With my grandma’s recipe and her teachings‚ I can always feel her presence and her love for me. No matter where I go‚ as long as I can taste my grandma’s stewed pork‚ even coming from my own hands‚ I will always feel at home and feel love.
Annie’s Grandma’s Stewed Pork in Sweet Soy Sauce Recipe
Ingredients: For the braising liquid: (as usual‚ please do a taste test)
6 cloves of garlic‚ minced 1.5 cups of water
3 slices of (thin) ginger 3/4 cups of thick (dark) soy sauce
2 green onions 3 tbsps of light soy sauce
2 star anise 4 tbsps of sugar
16 inches worth of pork or ribs (try to pick ribs with some fatty parts) coated with about 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of corn
flour for at least 1 hour placed in a refrigerator.
First‚ sauté the minced garlic‚ ginger‚ green onions and star anise in about 2 tbsps of cooking oil until fragrant. Then slice the pork into chunks and place the pork in the pan and pan-fry quickly for about 1-2 minutes. Remove from wok and set aside.
Prepare the braising liquid and adjust the sugar and light soy sauce according to your preference. Place the lightly pan-fried pork with the garlic into the braising liquid and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and allow to simmer with the lid on for at least 1 hour.
After 1 hour‚ the liquid should reduce to about 6 tbsps. Once you see the sauce caramelized‚ stir to coat the pork evenly again. Remove from heat and dish out to serve.