L is for Language. . .

I am pleased to have guest blogger, Jennifer Hong write about food for this month’s post (bio below).

L is for language . . . 

And loss joined hand-in-hand in the kitchen of clashing cultures that inevitably leads to miscommunication and a potentially disastrous meal.

As the sun goes down and my stomach chirps along with the crickets outside, I struggle with a slab of silk tofu, trying to emulate the sleek precision with which my mother usually cuts it. The large butcher knife slips in my hand and the horizontal cut becomes jaggedly diagonal.

“Finished?” My mother comes into the kitchen carrying with her a sizzling wok of nian gao — rice cakes — lightly tinted by soy sauce, scallions, Napa cabbage, and sliced pork. As she places her masterpiece down next to me, I shift to hide the ruined tofu.

“No,” I say lamely.

She peers around my shoulder immediately. She shakes her head, takes the knife away, and finishes the work with deft slices, producing exquisitely chopped cubes of raw, soft tofu. She then drizzles sesame oil and sour black vinegar over it and garnishes it with slits of green onion. Hers are perfect cubes of tofu, except for my malformed chunks falling out of military formation.

“Just one more dish now get me the hao you.”

She’s out the door again before I realize that after she’s told me a million times, I still don’t know what hao you is. I trek outside to the porch where my mother cooks to avoid the smell of oil and soy sauce in the house.

“What’s that again?” I ask.

Hao you,” she repeats. Seeing that I don’t fully understand, she switches to English. “Fish sauce. It’s in the refrigerator. Red…has a panda on it.”

I locate the red panda bottle and look at the label.

It’s oyster sauce.

My mother is an excellent cook who does not limit herself to one region of China or Asia. The home-cooked dishes that I ignorantly assumed to fall under the wide umbrella of Chinese food actually spanned a variety of regions: oyster sauce is often used in Cantonese food, the silken tofu dish that I constantly struggle to make is a variation of Japanese jakopi tofu, and nian gao, which resonates particularly of home for her, is primarily stir-fried in Shanghai and its surrounding regions.

So Chinese cuisine isn’t technically “Chinese” — it’s provincial. Knowing the ingredients in regional cooking is important; a simple slip of tongue and the dish turns into something else entirely. For example, nian gao, generally defined as a sticky rice cake, can be either sweet or salty depending on the regional taste: Shanghai nian gao is sliced white, chewy glutinous rice that is usually stir-fried while Cantonese nian gao is a sweet, dark yellow-brown dessert so sticky that it glues your mouth shut. One mistake and a main dish becomes the dessert.

As an American-born Chinese (ABC), I grew up knowing the words for some ingredients in English and others in Chinese. Unfortunately, I could often never match the terms together. For years, I avoided all dishes with scallions in their descriptions until an awkward conversation with a server (“Can I not have scallions? I don’t like seafood.” “Those are scallops, ma’am.”). I hated bringing mu er to school because its writhing black appearance always piqued questions (“What is that?”) to which the technical definition of “tree fungus” was not a socially acceptable answer. I always replied with a half-truth: “I don’t know what it’s called in English.”

The same applied in reverse. An ABC friend once told me that the only thing you really had to know to get around in China was the menu. Don’t know your foods and you stick out like a sore thumb; a woman who is an obvious foreigner. I tried to keep this in mind when I went back to China three years ago, but for someone whose Mandarin alone is mediocre, traveling in a country where regional dialects screen for foreigners made eating alone impossible. What, indeed, could I order when I didn’t know the reasons behind the particular flavors and culinary styles to each region I visited? The “steamed, roasted, and braised seafood . . . retaining original freshness, tenderness and softness” in my parents’ home province of Zhejiang stems from Zhejiang’s geographic location. Hangzhou’s soy-dark and sweet cooking is the feast of the literati “who mused about the pleasures of eating.” Most notoriously is Sichuan cuisine; as food writer Fuchsia Dunlop writes in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, “Sichuanese food is the spice girl among Chinese cuisines, bold and lipsticked, with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods.” The mantra of modern gourmets is “Go to China for food, but for flavor, you must go to Sichuan.” I knew nothing: that it was rude to order red meat in one of Zhejiang’s best seafood restaurants, that Peking Duck in the U.S. is pathetic imitation of its original, and that Sichuan food went beyond just making me the weakest link in the family when it came to spicy foods. The dinner table, which at home served as a reminder of my heritage, ostracized me completely in my motherland.

Language remains the stepping-stone to a cuisine where ingredients are only obtainable at ethnic grocery stores and menus at authentic restaurants have no English translations. When it comes to good Chinese cuisine, hardly any qualified cookbooks exist: cooking good Chinese is a heritable skill, one that cannot be learned from poorly translated cookbooks — never has my mother told me to simmer pork for precisely twenty minutes (“Look at the color, you’ll be able to tell”) nor has she ever told me to add “one teaspoon of soy sauce, then one teaspoon of white sugar” (“It’s trial and error.”) If I did not understand what hao you was or what regional flavor mapo tofu consisted of, I could not even approach making an authentic dish. I was an automatic failure in the kitchen, an outsider with no linguistic or cultural understanding.

I am not alone in my ignorance; a growing percentage of Asian Americans is experiencing a loss of native language in favor of fluency in English, which shows a valuable “acculturation” into Western communities. That precise loss of native language, though, ultimately means loss of culture, especially in the kitchen. If we can’t understand the ingredients and culture documented in cuisine since ancient times, we ABCs will be reduced to deep-frying and serving greasy sesame chicken and monochromatic Moo Shu Gai Pan as poor substitutes for the flavored dishes of our childhood. The future of my dinner table — with white Styrofoam take-out boxes and disposable chopsticks — terrified me.

We’re at a Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway in Atlanta, where the servers are called fu yuan and the empty Lazy Susan spins idly with a pot of steaming ju hua (chrysanthemum) tea as we order. The Chinese menu that I cannot read lays open in my mother’s hands, and as she peruses it with the seriousness of one who is about to make a very important business transaction, she turns to me.

“Do you want anything in particular?” my mom asks me.

I only know one dish. “Yu Xiang eggplant.

Albeit unspectacular, it’s an appropriate choice. Eggplant is generic, but Yu Xiang is a “fragrant fish” seasoning that is often combined with customary garlic, scallions, and ginger.7 Most importantly, it is often used in Sichuan cuisine, giving the dishes a distinct colorful flavor.

Conveniently, the restaurant is named “Little Sichuan.”

L is for learning too.

Jennifer Hong is a rising junior at Duke University, double majoring in Neuroscience and English. She is a lover of good conversation, good people, and good food, which brings all of the above together.

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