…these restaurants are also the stage for inspiring immigration stories that highlight Asian culture’s strong family ties while celebrating the creation of new dishes that define new immigrant traditions.”Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish
Exploring the rich international cuisine available at local restaurants for many of us is a fun pastime. Indeed, you may have already developed an expertise in tasting certain national dishes (I, for instance, will drive long distances for a new variety of iconic Latin American empanadas), or you may just enjoy discovering new flavors within the exotic settings of the so-called ethnic restaurants. For international individuals, whether recent arrivals, long-time residents or first-generation U.S. Americans, these restaurants are welcoming meeting places, where homesickness is often quenched over that one special dish that brings so many memories of the homeland or homemade cooking. The geographical coordinates of a “homeland” and even “homemade cooking,” are not, however, so easily defined as explored in Chop Suey Nation and Eat a Peach. An ancestral “home” can be found hidden behind the kitchens of Chinese and Korean-inspired restaurants throughout Canada and the United States. As the authors stress, these restaurants are also the stage for inspiring immigration stories that highlight Asian culture’s strong family ties while celebrating the creation of new dishes that define new immigrant traditions.
Bridging diverse cultures through food is the subject of Chop Suey Nation. First-generation Chinese-Canadian journalist Ann Hui sets out to explore the origins of “chop suey,” a national culinary innovation that her own family, owners of traditional Chinese restaurants, often belittled as “fake” Chinese food (18). It is a quest that took Hui around the expansive Canadian geography. While traveling by car around the country she visited many family-owned Chinese restaurants where she tried out a variety of local chop suey dishes. Her discoveries, such as “ginger beef is uniquely Canadian” (80), go beyond a simple listing of Chinese contributions to modern popular Canadian eating habits. What started as a documentation of chop suey restaurants led Hui to write about the historical impact of Chinese immigrants in Canada (first arrivals, overwhelmingly large numbers of men, worked in the construction of a national train system beginning in the mid-nineteenth century), leading to the development of “China towns.” Hui’s conversations with owners of restaurants reveal the plight of Chinese immigrants as part of a harsh immigrational history: “They had created a cuisine that was a testament to creativity, perseverance and resourcefulness” (199).
David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach, examines the modern cuisine trend popularly known as fusion, or the blending of national flavors as unique dishes. Chang is a celebrated chef and founder of Momofuku, an international conglomerate of Asian-inspired restaurants well-known for their experimentation of traditional Asian ingredients, such as ramen noodles. As Chang traces in his book, his exploration of iconic Asian flavors, although initially a culinary hit, did not go without challenges. At a television interview with CBS Morning on September 9, 2020 Chang stressed his background as a first generation Korean-American chef: “I always felt in between… not ever going to be part of white culture and never going to be part of Korean American culture” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUN_jgwsvic). His memoir fully explores such subjects as “cultural conditioning” and “cultural appropriation” related to the processes behind modern fusion cooking: “I began to question the validity of various cultural truths. Who gets to assign value to certain foods? What makes something acceptable or not?” (210-211).
Eating with family members in the intimacy of home is the central subject of In Bibi’s Kitchen, a compilation of delicious family recipes by bibis, grandmothers who have kept alive the culinary traditions from eight African countries along the Indian Ocean border: Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, and Comoros. A handsomely produced cookbook with beautiful photographs in color of the dishes, the central protagonists are a variety of elder women, some of them living in the African cities and rural areas of their birth, some of them refugees in Africa or living abroad. As the editors of the recipes underscore, the cooks speak “this language of food” (1). And the bibi cooks do have a lot to say about African “home cooking,” including their opinions about their favorite blends of African spices and teas, best ways to cook rice and pasta (because of the strong Italian colonial past, pasta sauce with beef, or Suugo Suqaar, is a popular dish in Somalia), or how best to incorporate tropical fruits in their dishes. These charming bibis have lived extremely rich lives and overcame terrible challenges; their outlook toward the future of their native countries is truly inspiring.
As we thankfully move to an end of the pandemic quarantine, I invite you to support your local family-owned international cuisine restaurants. Better yet, learn about their cooking staff and servers. You will be pleasantly surprised to discover about their rich life stories. Ah, if you check out In Bibi’s Kitchen and you need an unbiased taster, please reach out to me. I do love to try out different kinds of cuisines! Happy reading and may you have a relaxed summer!
To check out any of these books, check out the Smith Collection on WorldCat and place a hold to utilize our Grab & Go services.
Books Reviewed: Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui
Eat a Peach by David Chang
In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan, Julia Turshen, and more