Welcome back readers (and to myself). The holiday season and the few weeks in January after them have been a whirlwind!
The holidays are when we really feel the emotional value and cultural traditions ingrained in eating and preparing these meals with family. This emotional connection is what we crave to create with our communal sharing of food and is also what we find most interesting when we hear others talk about their food traditions– much more so than how to create the perfect souffle.
Food can be very scientific. There are thousands of blogs out there with recipes that measure flour to the last gram and seasonings to the last teaspoon. This blog is not one of those; I’ll leave those up to the experts. In Top Chef, food is an objective standard based on a report card list of what is right or wrong – “not enough acid”, “did not render the fat long enough”, “halibut needed 2 more minutes on the pan”. Science has its place in the creation of food and drives great progress in terms of the types of well prepared cuisines and ingredients we can have today.
Food is also social and emotional. And this not only applies to food. In branding, we know that the brands and their associated products offer some sort of functionality but we also know that brands are also largely emotional. The merging of excellent functionality and an emotional connection that resonates with the consumer is apparent in every successful brand.
My favorite bakery in Boston is Flour Bakery. Not only does the bakery have the best sandwiches in town, it was the bakery I visited on the last day I was in Boston looking for an apartment in preparation for my move. The wide communal tables and cozy, rounded interior decor prompted me to stay an hour for a meal that probably would have taken me ten minutes. As I was finishing my sandwich, I recognized a familiar face from Princeton, same class but never met when we were in school. I made a new friend that day. When I moved to Boston permanently, I decided to visit the bakery again. A five year old girl shared her rice krispie treat with me and her parents were embarrassed at how talkative she was. Who knew that a few pieces of baked rice could create a whole morning of laughter.
In honor of the holidays now that they seem like a distant memory, below are photos of meals I shared with my family and the stories behind them:
Cantonese Seafood Tofu Pot. My family is Cantonese. This Seafood Tofu Pot is a decadent dish you would order at a nice Cantonese restaurant and my parents would have never dreamed of having something like this as children. They have really come a long way from their humble beginnings.
Taiwanese 3 Cups Chicken-– one cup of sesame oil, one cup of soy sauce, one cup of rice wine. I decided to cook this dish and juxtapose it alongside the Cantonese Seafood Tofu Pot on Christmas Eve. It was only fitting because this was one of the dishes that my parents and I were introduced to when we moved from Malaysia to Taiwan (where we call home now). It seemed utterly strange to them you would bring basil (a non-Cantonese ingredient), soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine together. It is now a family favorite. This was our “Welcome to Taiwan”.
Our Christmas Eve Dinner. My mom is a great cook and I watched her growing up. When my sister and I went to college, she threw out her pots and pans.
“I’m retired!” she said.
She puts on that scrunched up ‘bullshit’ face and laughs when celebrity chefs on TV say “cooking is about love”, “cooking is therapeutic”. She is a practical woman– cooking was a mission to her. It was about making sure my sister and I got tasty, healthy food on the table so we could grow properly into productive adults. Her mission is now accomplished.
Now this Christmas was my turn to cook for the family.
Christmas Day Dinner. Garlic Shrimp Pasta and Pigs in a Blanket. For a while, the only time I had western food was at the Taipei American School I attended as a kid from an expatriate family in Taiwan. Western cuisines slowly trickled into Taiwan around the time I was in the 5th grade. There was a dinky restaurant on a street that led up to the little expatriate community on a hill close to the American School. The restaurant served Italian food and was constantly packed. It was the only Italian place in town.
My family decided to try this place since we knew that spaghetti would be involved. We could deal with that: they would be like Chinese noodles and we wouldn’t have to deal with any “foreign” ingredients.
Ever since then, our family has been hooked on Italian food. Today, Italian food continues to be the dominant and most loved western cuisine consumed by Taiwanese. Italian food is so similar in many ways to Chinese food with its pastas, risottos and less meat-based dishes. We were always taught in school that Marco Polo brought back noodles from China and didn’t know how to make a sauce. He decided to use tomatoes instead of soy sauce and thus pasta was born.
On Christmas day, I decided it would be nice to have an Italian dish that any Chinese would love.
My sister also made some pigs in a blanket. She says she uses them to 1) say sorry 2) get people to like her 3) seem like a nice person without putting in too much effort. What a deal.