A home-cooked meal

Chinese food may not usually be very…Chinese. But does it really matter?

At the heart of any home are the comforting smells that waft out of the kitchen around meal times. Food is such an important link to our comfort, isn’t it? Restaurants market their food as “homemade” or “home-cooked” even when, clearly, that’s not the case (unless the restaurant is in someone’s actual house). We like eating comfort food for just that reason – because it’s comforting. I derive the same feeling of comfort from a kitchen. When I move into a new “home”, it doesn’t feel like a home until I’ve cooked something in the kitchen.

We are absolutely in love with food and, as our village grows more global, we’re exposed to more variety and choice than our grandparents could ever have imagined. So if cheaper travel, multiple cooking shows, and countless foodie blogs have taught us so much about what we can eat – is there anything that we’re doing wrong?

My first dumplings

One of the most baffling cuisine mysteries that I could never quite wrap my head around is the world’s take on Chinese food. If you’ve eaten Chinese food in several countries (including Hong Kong) you’ll know what I’m getting at. Somehow, Chinese food has managed to morph its way around the globe and has settled into some very unrecognizable variations of what it (possibly) once was. Let’s take Canadian Chinese food as our first example. Eating at a Chinese restaurant here usually involves chicken balls, cherry sauce, and rice that would never stand a chance of making it into your mouth via chopsticks.

Salade a la Asianesque, St. John's. Photo by Nancy Cater
Salade a la Asianesque, St. John’s. Photo by Nancy Cater.

A few years ago, I shared an apartment in Korea with a young woman from northern China. I took pictures of the Chinese restaurants in my hometown and showed them to her. I also tried to explain what Almond Soo Guy was and wondered if she was familiar with anything I considered to be “Chinese food”. She, in fact, was not familiar and couldn’t really understand any of the dishes I tried to describe. She promised me I hadn’t been eating Chinese food when I asked for the Number 7 with an extra egg roll. Maybe because she pitied me, or maybe because she was homesick too, Jing Nan often whipped up homemade dumplings and soups in our tiny kitchen. When I came back to Newfoundland for a visit, she wrote out a menu in Chinese for me and told me to bring it to my local Chinese restaurant so that the chef would cook me and my family some proper Chinese food. That was some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.

So near, yet so far away

Needless to say, I was beginning to see just how much food changes when it starts to cross country boundaries and taste-buds alike. It turns out it isn’t only Canada which offers an unrecognizable version of Chinese food. During my years in South Korea, I learned that the Chinese restaurants there had done the same equation when deciding what to serve. Take the original dish, factor in the local palate and available ingredients, and then adjust accordingly.

I had thought that Korea, being so close to China, would offer a fairly close variation of the food of its neighbor. However, the meals I ate with my Chinese friends were never offered on the menus, and even in restaurants where they knew the chefs hailed from China. It was a completely different taste from the dishes my Korean friends craved when we went out to the local Chinese restaurant. I ate another variation on Chinese food entirely while I was living in Spain, but there isn’t enough space in this column to get into the finer details of the Spanish version of chicken balls and rice. There is a very insightful TED talk available online that delves much deeper into this topic, with very curious bits of history woven throughout.

Tacos in our backyard

Salade a la Asianesque, St. John's. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Salade a la Asianesque, St. John’s. Photo by Nancy Cater.

I hadn’t thought much more about other countries’ cuisines until my partner pointed out to me that Mexican food has suffered in much the same way. He lived in the southern part of Mexico for a while and couldn’t get over the difference between what he ate there, and what is on offer in Mexican restaurants here. Perhaps the most confusing part of the American/Canadian take on Mexican food is that adjusting for local taste seems completely unnecessary. Who thought that the rest of the continent wouldn’t want to eat soft corn tortillas, or needed sour cream all over everything? I can see how queso blanco may not have been available for those who were trying to mimic Mexican food in the frigid parts of Canada, but I’m not entirely convinced that shredded cheddar cheese was the best choice for a stand-in. Also, why was it decided that ground beef was preferable to shredded meat that’s been slowed cooked in its own juices to perfection? Mexican food seems like a cuisine that experienced a pre-emptive overhaul. Judging from the food that comes out of my own kitchen on Mexican night, there is nothing on my plate anyone with taste buds wouldn’t love.

At the kitchen table

My friends and I often trade stories about how picky we were as children while trading recipes for dishes involving ceviche, couscous, or crème fraîche. Sometimes I wonder how it happened that my tastes changed so drastically. I have vivid memories of hating a lot of different things as a child. My mother slaved away over a hot stove all day, and I would have no part of it. I thought spaghetti was the grossest thing I’d ever seen on a plate. Luckily, taste is an unpredictable and easily influenced thing.


Breakfast - and photo - by Nancy Cater
Breakfast – and photo – by Nancy Cater.

By the time I left Canada as a wide-eyed twenty-something, I was ready to sit down to a plate of almost anything. And so the home-cooked meals of my western life were replaced by those in the Far East. Interestingly, in a conversation about homesickness with a Korean co-worker once, I mentioned how I missed having someone cook for me. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it clearly made an impact because soon after she invited me over for supper. She had clearly been stressfully stirring pots in the kitchen the entire day, and was determined to make me eat so much I thought I was going to burst. She told me, with the help of a dictionary, that a certain kind of love can only be found in food that’s been cooked in a kitchen by a mother.

Okay, I take it all back. Even if the Canadian version of Chinese food is a bit of an abomination when compared to the Cantonese fare it was supposed to replicate, it was done with the best of intentions. Long ago, travelers more courageous than I crossed the globe and wanted to cook for people. They did the best they could with the ingredients they had and with the understanding that we wanted comfort in our food.

We wanted to feel like we were home.

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