Memories through Food: How Taste Passes on Culture

Food shapes memory and experience in unexpected ways

Now that my kids have gone back to in-person learning, they’ve started coming home every day complaining about the food at the school cafeteria. Having enjoyed home-cooked lunches for most of the lockdown, they are once again having to adapt to the cuisine served outside our home. Witnessing this has made me reflect on my own childhood, the experience I had with food growing up, and how it shaped my life.

This is a departure from my normal style of post, but I wanted to use it as a tribute to the food that shapes all of us. I also wanted to take this opportunity to share some must-try recipes that you and your family can enjoy.  

Learning Culture Through Food

Growing up as an Asian American girl in a small town in the deep South, I lived in two distinct worlds. At school, I lived a typical childhood, albeit looking utterly foreign to everyone around me. Meanwhile, at home, my parents raised us with the traditions of their own childhoods. They saved money carefully to take me and my sister back to Asia so that we could meet our extended families and connect with the place where they were raised. 

I remember summers in the humid heat of Hong Kong, when my grandmother taught me to cook. One of my favorite memories was of her teaching me to make a fun gor (粉果), a translucent steamed dumpling with cooked filling. I watched as she took boiling water and poured it over tapioca and cornstarch. We then kneaded the hot dough on the marble tabletop together. I remember her laughing at me as I struggled to roll out one single wrapper without tearing it. Meanwhile, she would take several dough balls, flour them, stack them, and roll them out simultaneously, tossing out four to five at a time with machine-like speed. She joked that I ate more of the cooked filling—pork sausage, dried shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms—than I wrapped. When we finished, she showed me how to steam the fragrant dumplings, and we ate them together. 

Food Is Memory 

In modern times, we are disconnected from the tradition of the food that we consume. It comes boxed and wrapped up, sanitized to the point where no one can see the human connection anymore. But food encodes culture. Each dish tells a story about a group of people, their traditions, and their collective experiences. It represents generations of history passed down through flavors. It demonstrates how communities adapt to changing tastes, the availability of ingredients, and migration.

As I was growing up, my mother would tell me the story of where our food came from. Legend holds that thousand-year-old eggs were first created over six hundred years ago, when eggs were accidentally buried in mud and cured. The delicate translucent skins my grandmother taught me to make are part of the tradition of Cantonese dim sum, a weekend morning family affair that lasts multiple hours.

These recipes bring a legacy of culture and history, one that is often retranslated and adapted for America. Tofu is one example of this; what is often seen as a “diet food” in the United States has been consumed for two thousand years as a protein staple, but new ways of using it have brought a new thread to the story. 

Traditional Chinese Food in a South Carolina Lunchroom 

In my hometown, I was often one of the first Asian Americans that many people met. I was perceived as foreign and different, and I wore it like a cloak that I could not shed. No amount of unaccented English, Gap clothes, or MTV could change what I looked like. It was impossible to hide. 

At school, I ate standard cafeteria fare: pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and meatloaf. Years of overcooked broccoli, limp french fries, and dry cakes convinced me that cafeteria food was mostly unhealthy or just plain terrible. My mom always cooked Chinese food at home, so I began asking if I could bring it for lunch. Though the nearest Chinese grocery store was hours away from where we lived, she assiduously sourced ingredients from far and wide, often growing vegetables that were not sold in stores in our home garden. She did this all so that she could recreate the dishes my grandmother had taught her. My father used to joke that if he went one day without rice, he would faint, so she cooked him three meals every day to go with his rice. It took until I was nearly a teenager before he agreed to let us eat pizza for dinner. 

The dichotomy between food from home and school could not have been more stark. At home, we made soymilk by grinding up beans in a food processor and squeezing the rich liquid through a cheesecloth by hand. We rolled out our own dumpling wrappers and made neatly-folded potstickers. We steamed Chinese chicken buns. We prepared rich, slow-cooked pork and thousand-year-old egg congee. 

I remember bringing the lunches my mom had lovingly packed to school and eating them in the cafeteria, surrounded by sandwiches, chips, and burgers. The steamed buns, red bean soup, stir-fried noodles, and other family favorites stood out amidst the American fare. Many kids teased me about the “strange” food that I brought to school with me. 

But I knew a secret. I had been to Asia many times, and I had seen a world where these foods were not exotic, but rather part of a vibrant and beautiful culture. As I shared my lunch with friends, I told them of the places where these traditional dishes originated and explained the history behind them. I taught my classmates the names of the foods and how they were made, sharing what made them special. Many of them listened and learned more about my Asian culture, and some even asked that I bring more to share. Eventually, my friends and I created an event during high school in which each of us brought food from our heritage to share with our class. The Chinese food my family made was some of the most popular, and yes, lo mein and egg rolls were included. 

A Different Path to the Same Destination 

I first started dating my now-husband, David, when I was 19. As we got to know each other, he told me he hadn’t started eating Chinese food until he graduated from high school. I was shocked. Though he had also grown up in a Chinese home in the South, with parents who never took to American food, his childhood was completely different from my own. From a young age, he refused to eat the foods of our heritage, so his parents would cook Chinese food for themselves and then make a second American meal for him. 

To me, David’s act of defiance repudiated the traditions of our families. I could not imagine my parents allowing this for even one meal, let alone my entire childhood. By the time we met, however, David had experienced many cuisines, including Asian ones, which prompted me to ask him what had changed. He replied, “I went to Taiwan for the summer for ‘Love Boat’ [a Chinese language exchange program], and there was nothing else to eat. I learned to eat it and love it because it was so much a part of the culture there.” 

Made with Love and Passed Down 

Many years later, David and I started a family. Together we decided that we would raise our children in a household that let them enjoy the entire spectrum of foods available, while also making sure that Asian food was something they embraced. Today, our kids love Asian food even more than we do. 

One night, after spending nearly a month in Asia, David and I asked the kids what they wanted to eat. 

They replied, “Asian food, of course.” 

David said, “How about we take a break from Asian food for a bit?” 

They looked at us, and all three of them asked, “Why?” 

We have prepared all of our family favorites for our kids over the years, from wrapping our dumplings to making Taiwanese beef noodle soup and mapo tofu. We have taught them to make Hong Kong egg balls and lychee boba tea on their own. We’ve even added our favorite butter chicken, homemade naan, and sushi handrolls to the menu in order to broaden their horizons. Our children have been fortunate to live in a place where the foods of many cultures come together, and they have grown up without the cognitive dissonance that David and I experienced. 

In these dishes, I hope our children are building memories of living in a home where food connected them to family, and that they can cherish the hundreds—or even thousands—of years of tradition and love that have been passed down through generations. When they grow up, I hope they can then take these flavors of their childhoods and pass them on to their children and beyond. 

Some of our household favorites:

  • Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (Instant Pot): Delicious and great for cold winter nights. This recipe was adapted from my mother-in-law, who is an amazing cook. 

  • Mapo Tofu: Our nine-year-old loves this dish but hates spice of any type. For a non-spicy version, you can make it without the different kinds of chilis. You can also use non-spicy bean sauce. 

  • Hong Kong Egg Waffles: You need a special waffle iron for this, but it is well worth it. We triple the recipe, drop it into the blender, and have egg waffle batter to last us about ten days. No need to strain. 

  • Daifuku Mochi: Microwave mochi is a hit at our house. We adapted this recipe so even the kids can make it.

  • David’s Grandma’s Bolognese (Instant Pot): David grew up with his Chinese grandma’s special bolognese. It took us several tries to perfect the recipe in the Instant Pot, but now it is a family favorite. 

  • Butter Chicken (Instant Pot): We make this without the cream and use a bit of milk instead. 

  • Homemade Naan: You can multiply the recipe by six and make enough to freeze for two months. Reheat in the toaster oven to have with your favorite dishes.