In many cultures, it has traditionally been women who lead in the kitchen, from harvesting or purchasing vegetables, prepping ingredients and cooking a meal for the full family. Today, the role of cooking has transcended cultural boundaries and opened up new opportunities for shared responsibilities and new leaders in the kitchen.
Angela, a busy tech professional from the Bay Area, does not cook much. Thankfully, Zach, Angela’s husband, does most of the cooking in their family. Angela doesn’t hesitate to note that he is by far the better cook – something she is not ashamed to share with others.
Zach and Angela are both second generation Chinese immigrants who live in San Francisco.
Angela grew up in the Bay Area, which features a significant population of Asians, especially the Chinese population. Growing up, it was commonplace to see and eat traditional Chinese dishes, even at school. For Angela, there wasn’t a stigma around food.
“I had a very beneficial experience where I didn’t feel embarrassed or shy about the food I was eating,” says Angela. “In fact, I had the opposite experience, where I didn’t have an american casserole until I was in college.”
Being surrounded by traditional dishes helped ground Angela in her culture. As the community and her family celebrated special holidays and festivals, she slowly understood more of the history, the story and the traditions behind the foods she was eating. Something she cherishes to this day.
For Zach, the experience was very different.
“I grew up in a high school that had about 1,500 people and three asians,” says Zach. “I would never be caught bringing in Chinese food. Absolutely not.”
Zach grew up in Pittsburgh, an area that had less diversity in the surrounding population and also in the types of ingredients used to prepare food. It was hard for Zach’s parents to find the necessary ingredients to make their traditional cuisine, but they adjusted. They adapted.
Instead of Chinese broccoli, they used American broccoli. They replaced the thinner, lighter Chinese eggplant with the thicker, darker Italian eggplant we commonly see in supermarkets. Essentially they were creating a fusion of food, not because it was the newest trend, but because there was a lack of choice.
Similarly, Angela and Zach’s families grew up in different regions within China where family dishes were prepared based on access to different types of produce and ingredients. The colder northern region featured more meat dishes and was historically known for their dough-based products, producing noodles and buns. The southern region featured dishes that highlight a variety of vegetables and utilized more rice. However, both families were familiar with one dish that overlooked regional divides – the dumpling.
Dumplings are a well understood traditional Chinese dish and are typically made during the holidays or in honor of celebratory events due to their time-consuming preparation process. Between steamed and boiled varieties, to dumplings filled with seafood, a mix of meats and veggies, or soup, each family typically has a recipe they pass down.
It is something both Angela and her husband have committed to learning to do by themselves. It is also something that Angela hopes to pass down to her children when they get older.
“Our tradition and history comes through food,” notes Angela.
It is important to Angela that her children also understand these details because it is how she herself learned. Communicating with people, understanding the nuances of the language, eating the cuisine and knowing the history of a dish – it is all part of carrying the cultural context forward to future generations.
For a culture that steeps so much tradition and history in their dishes, it also makes sense that certain foods would also carry additional symbolism.
“For birthdays you always have noodles for a long life,” explains Angela. “Sticky balls represent togetherness and it celebrates bringing family together. Fish means abundance and plenty and is prepared during the New Year.”
The amount of dishes is also an important detail. During holidays and celebrations, it is common to see tables full of dish after dish after dish. Hosts want to have leftovers at the end of the night, otherwise it is seen as impolite. If every dish is eaten, it means you have not prepared enough food to properly feed your guests.
“In our culture, food is very important,” says Angela. “It's what brings families together. We show our appreciation, our love and our affection through food.”