While lockdown has been marked by Uber Eats receipts and sourdough loaves for many in Australia, I’ve had the privilege (or misfortune, depending on the day) of living at home with my Chinese parents. In addition to ritual afternoon rounds of Chinese chequers and watching garish, fluorescent ’80s Cantonese films, my dear mum has been trying out traditional recipes every week.
What began as a hobby to pass the time has turned into a fully-fledged competitive cook-off with her relatives back in China. “Look what auntie made,” she says to me in Teochew, our Guangdong dialect, a tinge of envy in her voice as she thrusts her family Wechat into my hands. A slick line-up of shiny mooncakes appear in auntie’s video – hell, she’s even added classical music to the soundtrack. Show-off.
Mum’s on eBay ordering mooncake moulds before I even finish watching the video. These mooncakes will be her latest project in a long roster of traditional recipes she’s determined to conquer. We’ve watched Mum perfect her red-bean bao recipe; try her hand at xiao long bao; and blend mysterious, gloopy black soups into oblivion (she wouldn’t tell us what was in them, but promised it was good for our skin).
As her loyal subjects, we gather nightly around the table to sample dishes such as ginger-infused steamed fish; pan-fried tofu; and stir-fried egg and tomato. This has become a daily ceremony, creating some much-needed normalcy in the middle of the pandemic. But there’s something deeper happening here too – it feels special to enjoy a meal that my ancestors may have eaten as well. When your extended family is far, culinary traditions bring them closer to you, reminding you you’re not alone.
My relationship with Chinese food has always mirrored my relationship with my cultural identity. I entered university with a newfound sense of pride in my heritage as Asian-fusion dishes felt part of the mainstream. Saturday nights were incomplete without a visit to a greasy dumpling joint replete with the essential red chopsticks and fake plants.
I shudder when I remember how I used to view the food my mum carefully prepared by hand. She’d lovingly pack my school lunches with the previous night’s leftovers, and I’d shove the tofu box to the bottom of my bag, cheeks reddening at the thought of anyone even sniffing it.
There’s only a finite number of times you can be asked if you eat dogs, or have people pinching their noses around you, before you start to despise the food you’ve grown up with – even resent your ethnicity. I begged for white-bread Nutella sandwiches cut into triangles. I desperately craved the cling-wrapped symbols of assimilation. I wanted to be a “normal” (read: white) Australian. You know, the ones that play netball instead of going to Chinese school on Saturday mornings.
Now there’s no shortage of authentic Asian cooking in Australia, even when we’re stuck at home. Following home chefs such as Jessica Nguyen on Instagram, reading Adam Liaw’s weekly column in Sunday Life, and watching the string of Asian chefs led by Melissa Leong on Masterchef this year has only made me prouder of my community.
There are many minority groups where families don’t really communicate love with words – they do it with food. Food is its own language. We can’t travel or savour the warmth of face-to-face interactions with our extended families right now, but we can cook a meal – and share the experience via social media.
Homemade soy milk and Chinese doughnuts for breakfast take my parents back to the street vendors of their hometown. Mum’s vegan bao remind Dad of his university cafeteria. Oyster omelettes evoke special occasions during my Mum’s childhood. We might be stuck at home in Melbourne, but stories and dishes shared at the dining table transcend time and space.
Mum is currently putting together a recipe folder for us kids. It’s full of meals passed down from relatives (and also some found on Buzzfeed’s food vertical Tasty, but who’s checking). For people like me, who grew up in diaspora communities and may not speak their mother tongue fluently or be surrounded by extended family, food can be the cultural thread that gently tugs at us, reminding us of our roots. It gives us a seat at the table.
Maggie Zhou is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.