Discovering My Cultural Roots Through Cuisine

Amanda Chong
May 18 · 5 min read

At first glance, pretty much anyone would recognize that I’m Asian. I carry the telltale signs — dark hair, fair skin, squinty eyes, high cheekbones. But for the most part, people don’t dig any deeper than that. They don’t know that I’m actually mixed Asian descent — my mom being of Japanese descent, and my dad being of Chinese descent. But on both sides, we have deep roots in Hawaii. It’s complicated.

I believe that I’m the fourth or fifth generation on both of my parents’ sides to be raised in Hawaii. Although we carry all the physical traits of people from Japan and China, I couldn’t feel farther from either culture. I very much grew up surrounded by the local culture of Hawaii — enjoying the beaches, eating plate lunches, and speaking pidgin English.

But with all the different cultures and people that live in Hawaii, every home brings its own influences from the places that people have immigrated from. I know people who grew up in homes with strong Filipino influence, others with strong Chinese influence, and yet others with Samoan or other Pacific Island influence. I grew up in a home that had a pretty strong Japanese influence.

It’s hard to explain how or why this is, because my dad is of Chinese descent (like I said, it’s complicated), but somehow I’ve always felt more connected to my Japanese roots than my Chinese roots. I went to Japanese language school after school everyday to learn the language, heard the older folks at the temple every weekend saying things in Japanese, and was more familiar with the type of food. There were small pieces of Japanese culture around me throughout my childhood that interwove with my life and became a part of who I am.

I didn’t realize how little I knew about the other half of my ancestral roots until I started dating my boyfriend, who was born and raised in China. The culture that he came from seemed so distant from what I knew, yet somehow we share roots from the same country. I started learning the language, getting involved in traditions, and of course, trying more of the cuisine.

Technically speaking, China is a humongous country — both in landmass and population. There are over 50 different ethnic groups that are lumped into the identification of being “Chinese”. Imagine if the entirety of Europe were a single country — and referred to as one ethnic term. Being Chinese can mean so many different things, which is something that I hadn’t realized growing up.

Chinese food in Hawaii and most of America is commonly only associated with a few things — stir fry, egg foo yong, chow mien — greasy takeout food you can get for cheap. I began to discover that it is so much more than that, and that this association is such an injustice to the many facets of Chinese culture and cuisine.

Discovering the depth of Chinese cuisine has been one of the most exciting, eye-opening experiences I’ve undergone over the past few years. There are so many delicious dishes that I’ve tried and have yet to try — from home-cooked (thanks to my boyfriend’s parents and family) to restaurant prepared, high-end to street food, Sichuan to Shanghainese.

For the years we lived in California, we were lucky to have my boyfriend’s parents nearby who shared their cooking with us. We’d go to their house and enjoy a full home-cooked meal together, and get to bring leftovers home with us to enjoy throughout the week. There was something so delicious and special about the food we ate at home that far surpassed any meals we had in a restaurant, and I began to cherish these meals deeply.

It was difficult when we moved to Boston — I really began to miss home-cooked Chinese food. We’ve found a few restaurants nearby that satisfy our cravings, but nothing quite stands up to the food that we’d have in the comfort of my boyfriend’s parents’ home.

I wrote a few years ago about how much I hated cooking, and still despise it for the most part to this day. But lately, since I have the privilege of working at home more often, I’ve been able to put more time into preparing meals. That little bit of extra time has helped to make the process a little more enjoyable, a little less messy, and has helped me feel more confident foraying into different types of recipes.

Somehow, I was feeling adventurous one day and decided that I’d try to do some Chinese cooking myself. Not only would we be able to enjoy the home-cooked goodness of a Chinese meal, but it’d put me one step closer to being a better future daughter-in-law! I can’t remember what exactly was the first recipe I tried to make, but it definitely started with a Google search for something, and that’s how I discovered The Woks of Life. This website is a GODSEND. There were dishes I was familiar with, and many that I wasn’t — but all of them looked delicious and seemed like they were manageable to prepare. So I tried one, and it turned out pretty well! So, I tried a few more, they were tasty, bought a wok, and I started getting really excited to try them all.

Some of the dishes I’ve made!

Learning to cook with more traditional flavors has opened up an even deeper appreciation of the cultural roots I was previously unfamiliar with. I’ve developed an appreciation of the time, dedication, and historical circumstances that have shaped the cuisine into what it is today — and that’s something that I hope to pass on to our children in the future. Although I am American, it feels good to know more about my ancestral roots and helps me feel belonging in a world that I don’t always feel that I belong in. I’m excited to learn, grow, and try more dishes in the future, and discover more about my roots in the process.

These are a few of my favorite recipes that I’ve tried so far from the website — they incorporate traditional flavors with a modern twist (hello, Instant Pot!) I hope that you can give them a try one day and experience the breadth of Chinese cuisine.

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Amanda Chong

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Inspire Me

Thoughts and tidbits to get you going.

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