My kids, 12 and 9, are Chinese and Japanese American, their elementary school in Oakland, Calif. primarily Asian American, and the two branches of their families both began immigrating to California over a century ago. Thanks to their family and community, they are surrounded by various reminders of their cultural heritage. Of these, food might be the most prominent and pervasive.
If we let them, our kids would probably eat instant ramen everyday. When we do yank open the plastic seams, we make sure to poach vegetables or an egg to elevate this pedestrian meal. I’ve even seen online “recipes” that tout these innovations, but we’re most delighted with an innovation my partner discovered. Because we ration one flavor packet for every two bricks of noodles, we had extra foil pouches that we threw away until she sprinkled them on a hard-boiled egg and then popcorn. It was a revelation, and an open packet waits in our fridge right now. What if we were to sprinkle it on an omelet? Add it to butter or an avocado? What if it was sold in a bottle, so it could be shaken over anything?
This delight isn’t new, but it certainly feels different than my childhood.
I still remember the disgust on my friend’s face when I told him I loved sashimi, which was confusing because my grandfather bragged about how I loved maguro at a young age.
As if eating raw fish could make me more Japanese and a better grandson. But this seems silly, too, since by that logic my sister and cousins who don’t like fish would be less Japanese than my daughter’s friends who claim sushi to be their favorite food.
A favorite breakfast in our Chinese and Japanese American home isn’t nearly so rarified, a concoction I first saw my Chinese American friend throw together a year ago: rice noodle rolls with scrambled eggs. The kids top it with fish and soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil, and I add something spicy, chili oil, crisp or flakes. The ramen packet has yet to make an appearance.
This is not to say that we’re able to avoid all conflict or confusion.
We debate which wrappers are best: Japanese gyoza circles, thin and dainty, which highlight the filling, or Chinese pot sticker skins, doughy and rustic. We experiment with fried rice and noodle soups, mixing and matching sauces and rice, noodles and broths, never the same meal twice. Our cupboard includes risotto, white and brown basmati, jasmine and brown medium grain, with a small bag of sushi rice tucked behind the rest. My mother once commented on the lack of “regular” short grain. When I told her I preferred jasmine, I wondered if I was undoing what had made my grandfather proud.
On our shelves sit the passed-down, spiral-bound community cookbooks, like the “Women’s Society of Christian Services” in Stockton, Calif. or “East Meets West II” from the Buddhist Church of Sacramento. We keep them because they’re nostalgic, reminders of the communities from which we came, but we rarely reference them. We no longer search them for Betty Crocker-like dishes called, “Tuna Casserole Chinese,” or a poached fish with bacon named “Very Nice Fish.” We don’t call aunties for ingredients or look at my grandmother’s recipe clippings cut from old newspapers like Nichi Bei Times and taped into a notebook with commentary.
Recently, my wife took an ancient remedies class, and for the final project made her grandmother’s pork bone soup. The dried dates and barley, longan and ginger, goji berries and lotus root were boiled in an Instapot, the steam releasing earthy aromas and memories of her Chinese grandmother that she shared with our kids. In autumn, we buy mooncakes, for Lunar New Year we make dumplings, and for Japanese New Year, in addition to other traditional foods, we make salads, stews and tempura out of lotus root.
Renkon is a specialty of my father’s hometown, Iwakuni, and though we eat it as a tribute to that past, they say if you look through the root’s holes, you can peer into the future.
Maybe the past always frames the future.
In our family, the future of recipes and cooking — Japanese or Chinese or otherwise — all points to the Internet. That’s where we’ve found the best options for pork bone soup, dumpling fillings, and even New Year’s dishes, like nishime. If it were not for an online recipe, I’m not sure if I would have made it.
Unlike the stained cookbooks of the past, these recipes come with precise ingredient lists and substitutions, easy-to-follow videos and lessons on culinary technique from Japan and history from China. We can learn about our past, feel connected to these evolving cultures and cuisines, and with access to so many ingredients, cook more types of food and with more variation than our immigrant ancestors might have thought possible or necessary.
Some might say that all this access has made these once precious meals too easy to replicate and impossible to appreciate. Food and culture delivered through a screen rather than a person and place. But I don’t think our kids will care much. They’ve known nothing else and will have tried more food because of it. This nostalgia is my own and comes when I realize that they’ll never have a meal at my grandmother’s table.
I no longer share my grandfather’s sentiment that eating a particular food is worthy of pride, but I do hope my children retain some sense of this past through cooking and eating.
If it’s making pork bone soup or choosing short grain rice, trying different holiday dishes, that’d be amazing. But strangely, I’m rooting for them to find new applications for those leftover packets of ramen soup base. Maybe they’ll sprinkle some in a sourdough baguette or on top of fried calamari. Maybe it’ll taste great or be thrown in the trash, become family lore or forgotten forever, but at least they’ll have taken one thing from the past, looked through the holes in the lotus root and made their own future.
Scott Hoshida writes fiction and teaches at Berkeley City College; he grew up in Sacramento and now lives in Oakland, Calif. with his family. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.