Musings on cultural food

I’m half White half Chinese Filipino, so some of my foods and food practices might be considered “ethnic”. But it doesn’t really feel like I’m doing anything strange. Instead, what it feels like is, gee, White people sure are strange. In particular, my fiancé has funny eating practices. It’s a constant source of in-jokes among us.

In the US, portion sizes at restaurants tend to be very big, and they get bigger at more expensive restaurants, up to a point. But for the most expensive restaurants, the trend reverses, and suddenly you’re getting a small piece of sea bass with a single piece of cauliflower and two mushrooms. These are the kinds of restaurants that my fiancé goes to with his family. They’re foodies. Eating with them is quite the experience. They spend the whole time talking about the food, selecting their favorite and least favorite among the dishes, expressing satisfaction or regret with their choices, comparing to the food they had at some other restaurant years ago. For a while, they were concerned that I didn’t like the food because I didn’t continuously lavish praise upon it. Yeah, I mean, I like the food but I’m not sure I’m capable of liking anything to such a degree.

One common pattern of praise went something like “these mushrooms perfectly complement the sea bass”. And it doesn’t sound like much, but the more I thought about it, the more it blew my mind. Because it seems to me, it doesn’t particularly matter what entree is paired with what garnish. It’s just the sum of its parts. But for my fiancé’s family, there’s some magical value not just in the food itself, but in the pairings of different foods. And I think it speaks to a totally different mindset, a different way of experiencing food. I suppose this is why each dish is composed of only a few parts, meticulously selected, and then exhaustively listed on the menu even when it’s just a sprig of parsley.

And I’m always thinking, where’s the rice? Rice plus anything–there you go, apparently I believe in magical food pairings too.

I guess it’s just part of his European heritage, you know? In the 17th century, the spice trade made spices widely available in Europe, and there was an elitist backlash against them. They moved towards a different aesthetic theory of foods, which sought to make food “taste like itself”. I just, I don’t even know. I refuse to think of Asian cuisine as weird in comparison to that.

Growing up, I didn’t eat at very many restaurants, and my mother would cook instead. Her cooking has a wide range of influences, including a number of Chinese and Filipino dishes. But I wouldn’t always know the origin of the dishes, they were just ordinary dishes to me. When I started cooking for myself, I was astonished by the number of ingredients I wanted, which are apparently Asian. A few examples:

  • Tofu. Although, it’s not in the Asian section of the store, it’s in the vegetarian section. So explain this to me: when White people go vegetarian and “switch” to soy, are they literally switching to a food they weren’t already eating?
  • Baby corn. Apparently people associate this with Asia even though it is literally corn, it can grow anywhere corn grows.
  • Longanisa. It’s just a sausage, that I would have with fried rice when I was a kid. Apparently it’s a Filipino/Spanish thing. Our grocery store stopped stocking it, and also I’m kinda vegetarian. 🙁

There are also many dishes that I thought were ordinary, but turn out to be more unusual than I thought. Cream corn egg drop soup, apparently that’s Cantonese. Adobo, apparently the national Filipino dish. Tikoy, a Filipino rice cake I had periodically as a kid, and then nearly forgot about until recently. The Filipino dishes particularly stick in my mind because there aren’t really Filipino restaurants around, and the only way I can eat these again is cooking them. But I only learned to cook a few of them.

I think among second generation immigrants, it’s common to use foods as a way of connecting to our ancestral culture. And from that perspective maybe I’d want to seek out other Filipino dishes and learn how to make them. I figure there are many more Filipino foods that I’ve forgotten, or which my mother simply never made. But I’m not sure I’m particularly interested. I guess it’s not really about connecting to my heritage, it’s just about eating foods that I’m familiar with.


  1. says

    “So explain this to me: when White people go vegetarian and “switch” to soy, are they literally switching to a food they weren’t already eating?”

    For me, yes – I had never had tofu until I got it as a meat substitute at a Thai restaurant (though soy derivatives were, of course, additives in tons of things I’d eaten). Come to think of it, that was the first time I’d ever eaten at a Thai restaurant. Growing up, the most “adventurous” cuisine my family had was Mexican.

  2. jazzlet says

    I first encountered tofu when cooking from the BBC book ‘Chinese Cookery’ by Ken Hom having watched the series he made for them. Or possibly when third brother cooked from the same book; second brother worked for the BBC and got huge discounts on their books so the rest of us got a lot of BBC books for christmas presents, often the same ones. So not when I went vegetarian, but when I started cooking outside of the things my British mother cooked and taught me to cook. My mother didn’t confine herself to traditional British food, but it was what she cooked most often.

  3. sennkestra says

    Re: tofu – I would say that many people are indeed eating tofu for the first time when they go vegetarian and decide to try it. I think partially because of that, you can sort of tell whether a store is targeting tofu at asian shoppers or vegetarian/health shoppers: Stores targeting vegetarians tend to mostly have firm tofu, often in pre-seasoned forms, while stores targeting asian shoppers have a wider range of silken/soft/medium tofu and less of the pre-seasoned kinds. (I haven’t noticed the section thing as much, but that’s probably because most of the mainstream grocery stores I go to don’t have seperate refrigerator sections for asian or vegetarian foods, so it usually ends up near cheese or fresh salsa or whatever else needs to be refridgerated.)

    I still find it odd how many vegetarians eat firm tofu but still think the silken stuff is icky, but I’m a picky eater about so many other things that I can’t really fault them that much.

  4. sennkestra says

    I’m not sure the pairing thing is a white thing so much as a foodie thing – the conversation sounds exactly the same when I go to dinner at fancy restaurants with my largely-asian set of foodie friends, whereas my non-foodie friends of all backgrounds seem equally bored by it. I figure it’s sort of like cinema geeks vs. casual movie fans, – some people are really into analyzing how all the details play into each other and have a whole vocabulary for it, while other people just appreciate the end product and don’t feel the need to spend that much time thinking about why. Both can be pretty enjoyable.I feel like I have the opposite food attitude to the approach you mentioned though – I’m the kind of person who gets pretty excited about most food, even stuff that some of my more ‘discerning’ friends write off as noticeably not up to standards. So I think I just have a low threshold for food excitement.

    And yeah, part of the fun of interacting with other peoples food cultures is learning which things are part of other people’s repertoire’s and what are not. Like, it was a revelation for me when I started living with other people in college that not everyone had a rice cooker – I used to think it was like the #1 kitchen appliance after a stove and an oven, and that that was just what everyone did. I was also surprised to find out that lots of white people had no idea what (classically italian) pesto was and were very dubious about my “green spaghetti sauce”.

    I always feel a little weird about food culture, though, because most of my cooking I learned from my dad, who didn’t actually learn how to cook until he was a college student – so most of our “traditional” family recipes are less than a decade old, because they are just things that my parents picked up from cooking classes or food magazines, and many of my childhood staples have no link to my actual ethnic background.

  5. blf says

    I’ve never associated tofu with vegetarianism per se, but with south-east Asian cuisine, and (later) Japanese. I cannot now recall where the tofu was located in the shops when I first started buying it (in California). Nowadays, in the Mediterranean coastal village where I now live in S.France, it’s almost something of an oddity. (This is despite Thai cuisine, e.g., having French influences — there are no Thai restaurants locally, and typically-Thai ingredients are virtually impossible to find.†) Some fine restaurants will use it, as do the local “Chinese” and sushi places, but that’s all I can think of.

    When I buy tofu now, it’s at the local organic market (which is the only place I know which stocks it), in a “tofu” section all of its own. Quite a lot of it is flavoured tofu, that is tofu-with-something-added, which tends to annoy me.

      † Until about a year ago, there was a shop specializing in Francophone products (mostly foods) from around the world. Besides being the best place get Belgium beers, they also a had fair amount of south-eastern Asian ingredients (and the proprietor visited the area every year-ish).

  6. says

    I was thinking about the tofu thing earlier when H Bomberguy made a video about a silly experiment he tried where he ate soy for two months. Apparently “soy boy” is one of those nonsensical insults that the alt right likes these days.

    I Have Forgiven Jesus @1,

    Yeah, I’ve heard from a few people who lived in the midwest that many of these ethnic cuisines are very unusual and difficult to find. I eat a lot of Thai, but not because I grew up with it. It’s because there are like a dozen Thai restaurants within walking distance. There’s cuisine from all over the world here.

    Sennkestra @3 &4,

    Yeah, many of the habits of my fiance and his family are particular to them, and not representative of White people in general. My fiance also has a prejudice against family-style food, but then I realized that’s not from his family at all, it’s just him.

    I did not realize that for newcomers, it’s common to prefer firm tofu over silken. I always preferred softer tofu as a kid.

    Pesto was also an occasional thing for my mother to cook. Italian foods were a mainstay for us, and we even owned an Italian restaurant for some years.

  7. says

    I was a child in the 80s and early nineties, and during that time tofu entered popular culture as a punchline about what is eaten by out-of-touch leftish rich people in places like los angeles. Or more generally, as a subject of derision in diet food.

    Those connotations entered my head, but I think seeing tofu made on an episode of Mr. Rogers didn’t help. Did not look appealing. Still haven’t really given it a chance, but I should probably do it.

  8. says

    GAS @7,
    I grew up in Los Angeles, and I would say that the leftist rich characterization is mostly true to me. But tofu’s not exactly high cuisine.

    If you do try tofu, don’t expect anything too exciting. It’s a food like rice or bread–it doesn’t taste like much, but that’s not the point. It’s something you mix with other foods.

  9. Curt Sampson says

    I guess it’s just part of his European heritage, you know? In the 17th century, the spice trade made spices widely available in Europe, and there was an elitist backlash against them. They moved towards a different aesthetic theory of foods, which sought to make food “taste like itself”. I just, I don’t even know. I refuse to think of Asian cuisine as weird in comparison to that.

    That almost is some Asian cuisines. Japanese food, for example, mostly uses little spice or additional flavourings and tends to focus more on texture rather than flavour. (At least, the “Japanese” dishes that are not adopted and adapted from other cultures, such as China.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *