One of my favorite things about food is its history and deep roots in culture on both large and small scales. Certain methods of preparation have become the norm for families, whether it’s adding a hint of brown sugar to meat sauces or using another secret ingredient to give each dish its unique twist.
At home, my dad will often ask my mom if she can add different ingredients or if she can change how long she cooks certain dishes — because that’s how his mom and his grandmother used to make these dishes when he was growing up in Taiwan.
My mom would sometimes respond to these requests by wrinkling her nose. To be clear, she didn’t think these requests would taste bad or that my dad was crazy for asking it. She’d just never heard of doing such a thing to that particular dish because her mom never did it.
(Also, let it be known that my mom so very often reminisces on how wonderful her mom/my grandmother’s cooking was. I am regretful that I didn’t get into cooking early enough, and that she passed away too soon, for me to have learned from her.)
Although my mom was born and raised in Taiwan like my dad, her family was originally from China while my dad’s family has deeper roots in Taiwan. It’s inevitable that their families’ cooking traditions would differ.
My parents never told me precisely how to distinguish between their respective cooking styles, and by this point, I suspect that my part of the family has now also developed its own set of flavors and methods.
What’s amusing to me though, is that even though I’m aware of the cultural differences within my own family, it still surprises me to hear that my friends’ family practices are different from mine.
Let me clarify, so it doesn’t seem like I’m perpetuating (East) Asian stereotypes.
One of my friends’ family is from China. Another four are from Taiwan; one of them was born in Taiwan and moved here when she was in high school, the others were born in the States.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if my friend from China had different practices in the kitchen from me, given that her family background was already distinct from mine. When it came to my Taiwanese American friends however, I somehow felt that we would have more overlaps.
This is somewhat true; we all cook mapo tofu and know to stir fry spinach with smashed garlic. Dòu bàn jiàng is a common condiment we had in our households, as was the spicy garlic chili sauce rather than Sriracha (something I only had after I came to Berkeley and saw others adding it to their Asian foods).
But when it comes to making tea eggs, beef noodle soup, or dumplings; stewing meat; preparing hot pot; naming certain Taiwanese treats; or even deciding how much of each ingredient goes into a simple dish — the differences run abound.
This was the experience I had when I attended a cooking class with Chef Melissa King this Friday, where she taught us how to make pork and kimchi gyoza, as well as shrimp and kaffir wontons in a lemongrass broth.
I’d never made wontons before, but the kaffir lime leaves added a fresh, vibrant burst of flavor that I don’t often encounter in Chinese cooking. Herbs are ingredients I more commonly associate with Vietnamese dishes.
The recipe for the pork dumplings (or gyoza, if pan fry them) is similar to what my mom makes at home. Just as hot pot became our family’s go-to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, shui jiao was occasionally our 4th of July BBQ substitute.
Both my mom and Melissa’s recipe start with ground pork, but while my mom sticks with simple ingredients and flavors (chives and soy sauce), Melissa finds her style by blending cultures — adding Korean kimchi — making the flavor more complex with fresh herbs (ginger and scallions) and Chinese rice wine; and finishing the dish off with a vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil dipping sauce.
Even the way the dumplings are folded is different. My mom taught my brother and me to fold the wrappers; Melissa was a fan of crimping the edge, but just on one side and not both (as Molly Yeh does).
The finished products — my mom’s dumplings and Melissa’s gyoza — are both delicious and evoke memories of home in different ways. They’re also, however, small, simple reminders of how much we can learn from each other simply by sharing our backgrounds, cultures, and traditions.
Even within the Asian American, or the Chinese and/or Taiwanese Asian American community, we might share certain backgrounds, but there’s so much individuality that each of us can bring to the table and learn from one another.
Huge thank you to Spoon University for organizing this tasty event and to Chef Melissa King for coming out to Williams-Sonoma to teach us how to make dumplings. I cannot wait to see what you will accomplish next!