3 ounces of guajillo chiles; wiped clean, stemmed, slit open, and seeded. 2 cloves of peeled garlic, 1½ teaspoons of apple cider vinegar, a ¾ teaspoon of fine salt, a ¾ teaspoon of sugar, and a ¼ rounded teaspoon of ground cumin. This is the recipe for adobo sauce, part of a Filipino dish that I can remember eating at least once a week as a child.
I did not write this recipe from memory. I never knew how to make adobo for myself until I wrote this, and googled the ingredients needed. My mother always makes it for me, with all the love in her bones. She holds onto this, onto food—a vestige of something that I’d never be able to do for myself. If I crave adobo “made right,” I have to come home.
In many Asian cultures, food is love. It symbolizes family. It is our way of expressing care and protection. Here, in our cultures, family comes before all.
Family before all. This idea comes to a head in the dumpling folding scene in Crazy Rich Asians, which symbolizes the clashing of protagonist Rachel Chu with the Young family matriarch, Eleanor—and, more broadly, the tensions when marrying modernity and tradition. In one scene, Rachel learns to fold dumplings from the Young family, who all learned the same tender art from their elders. The implications of this scene come in waves. The first and most obvious implication is that to marry into this new family, Rachel must integrate herself into it seamlessly. There are obvious motifs around tradition, togetherness, and intergenerational culture. Still, below this lies the sinister subtext: if Rachel cannot thrive alongside traditional Asian values—where the needs and protection of the family come before that of your own desires—then she will not be welcome as a daughter-in-law.
This is why, in many parts of east Asia, last names come first. This is why my mother will never see the inside of a nursing home. Why the concept of “cutting family out” is unheard of to most of us, for better or for worse.
I never learned to speak Tagalog. The only Filipino to touch my tongue was the cuisine. Perhaps, this is why food and family are inherently part of us as the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Maybe we are desperate to cling to these last ties to our culture.
My Mother’s Cooking
I find that food is a particularly strong language for the children of immigrants. To us, it symbolizes a home that was never our home. To me, the tastes make my heart ache for an island 15,000km away—an island I have spent cumulatively less than a year on. Quietly, to myself, I claim this place “mine,” but I know that I have no right. The culture we share is few and far between.
Still, few things say “home” like passing through a doorway to the smell of fresh ingredients in an ancient dish. The meats that fall off the bone after stewing for eight hours. The sour soups of tomato and tamarind, bubbling up to the surface of the pot to meet your nose. It is an aroma so closely associated with my family—with safety and with affection—that I sometimes feel it moving me backwards in time to the first house that my parents bought together.
For Asians, our relationship with food has mirrored many of our childhoods. In Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang moves to a predominantly-white neighborhood. When he pulls the lid off his noodles, the other kids heckle ruthlessly. “Eddie brought WORMS!” they holler. These are the small needles that quickly deflate the idea of the American Dream. A familiar query for us children and grandchildren of immigrants: If our families came to this “better” country for a “better” life, what did they really leave behind? We ask, at an age too young: Is this all there is for us? To pretend that we are grateful for blurry memories of porcelain faces looking on in disgust and muttering “dog” under their breath?
Years later, it’s 2019 and “purple ice cream” is the food trend of the year. Influencers are “discovering” ube paste, Kimchi is everyone’s favourite way to eat cabbage, and pho is the newest diet trend. Instagrammers are wondering where these delicacies have been all this time.
They’ve been in our lunchboxes.
My Own Kitchen
These days, my family is never short of love. However, we are not exempt from the same Western cultural outcries of my peers. As a teenager, I brimmed to the lid with angst and red-hot anger. I felt that surprisingly universal experience: That I was a chili pepper in a world full of potato salad. The truth was that I was simply not yet comfortable with myself, and it’s hard to know where you stand among others—your peers, your community, and your culture—when you don’t really know where you stand on your own.
I baked for my friends. I made them Oreo cheesecake cupcakes and withheld the recipe with righteousness. Before trips, my mom and I would sneak down to the kitchen and I’d fry greasy, oily, delicious grilled cheese for her. It was a taste of Canada before we went off to play tourist in countries that looked more like my mother’s birthplace than this one did. I would help my brother sneak back into the house after partying, and we’d discover new foods that only we knew the recipes to—secrets upon secrets.
I did this because I did not know how to say “I love you.” Often, food was my only means of sincere communication with my friends and family, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants themselves. They understood me. Food was my affection, my apology, and my blood. It was my means of closing and reconciling the many cultural gaps in my life.
In films like The Flavours of Youth (2018), this cross-cultural (or maybe mid-cultural) language of food is spoken fluently. In this series of vignettes, a shroud of a man recounts the memories of a small noodle shop in Hunan province in China, where he’d visit with his grandma years ago. He associates these San Xian noodles with the magic innocence of his childhood: They are both untouchable memories that wither with time. The noodle shop closes down. His grandmother passes. Beijing doesn’t hold the same wonder that Hunan does. The noodle shop is a place and time that shaped him unknowably, one that he can never return to.
This language is spoken between us bruised few whose childhood experiences sat in the cracks of various intersecting identities. It is for us who are not deemed visible enough to be token characters, let alone footnotes. We are the fine soft sand of the Palawan beaches; we slip through even finer nets of inclusion. It is so that we can say, “At least we have this.”
This tiny, shared experience is a beacon for us outsiders who are not even considered outsider enough to speak our mother’s tongue.
We speak this language back to it, to our ancestors, to comfort our identities. We speak in recipes that remind us of home. We speak in dishes that our grandmothers made us as children, though they will never taste the same.