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.