Food is a Door to Culture
by Cathleen Shi | 10.17.2020
When I was in Kindergarten, my mom would make the most delectable lunches for me every day. I remember that one day, my mom made cabbage and pork dumplings. In Chinese culture, dumplings represent good fortune and well wishes.
I opened my lunchbox to hear, “What is that smell? It’s so stinky.” A couple of my non-Asian classmates who were sitting near me scrunched up their noses and stuck out their tongues. They quickly looked over at me and asked, “Is that smell coming from your lunch?” I didn’t know how to respond. Something like this had never happened to me before. My classmates concluded that, yes, the smell did come from my lunch, and proceeded to knock it over. I remember feeling a little bit like an oddball since I didn’t have the Lunchables that my non-Asian classmates would normally eat.
Food connects us with our heritage, and gives us a sense of belonging.
Whether it’s a Korean girl eating Bibimbap or an Indian boy eating samosas. Or if it’s a Chinese girl eating stinky dumplings for lunch. We’re lucky enough to be in this melting pot of cultures where we’re exposed to so many different ways of life beside our own. By keeping cherished recipes near and dear to the heart, despite sometimes being discouraged to do so, we keep our own cultures alive in the US. The simple act of enjoying cultural cuisines helps us represent Asian culture in all of its diversity
Food is also a part of memory.
We associate eating food from our childhood with positive memories and safe spaces. I always remember my parents making longevity noodles for my birthday every year. Whenever they are made, my parents also remind me of the labor and care that goes into preparing the meal–from the work of the wheat growers, to the effort of the produce harvesters, and finally, to the mindfulness of the cook who makes the dough and selects the ingredients. These handmade noodles are an unspoken language of love, from not just family, but also the work of all those who made this meal possible. These are the precious memories we hold on to because they remind us of happy feelings and warm moments.
Food is tradition, but also innovation.
It represents how culture can honor the past while evolving continuously. Traditional cuisine is passed down from generation to generation. Immigrants bring food and recipes with them, and cooking traditional cuisine preserves their culture when they move to new places. Cooking these recipes is a sign of pride for their homeland. Many of these people open restaurants and serve traditional dishes to spread and preserve their culture. I’ve seen this through working with Neisha Thai Cuisine, Gourmet Inspirations, and Pho & Grill–all Woks for Washington partners who strive to share their traditional cuisines with new communities.
However, as the saying goes, “Preserve the old, but know the new.” Restaurants serving dishes from another country or culture can serve a wide range of customers spanning from people who share the same culture as them, to people who come from all different backgrounds. Even though restaurants strive to preserve and share food from their own cultures with others, they also look to make alterations to some dishes to match a wider range of tastes and preferences. Our partners, BAB Korean Fusion and Momo’s Cafe, look to bring innovations to traditional Asian food to create new flavors and sensations.
That’s why we have both traditional Asian restaurants and Asian fusion–both valuable in their own right, and both contributing to sharing and representing Asian cuisine.
Finally, food is an open door to culture. We’re here to preserve Asian cuisine, but more importantly, the meaning–the history, values, and beliefs–behind it.