Communication and complexity: The essence of cooking for others

For someone who is neither a good cook nor a fan of cooking, I sure write about it a lot. For the most part, I am of the type to cook once a week, imploding the kitchen for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, before packing it all up again in neat little Tupperware containers. The less time I spend in front of the stove, the better. 

For the longest time, I thought it was a matter of convenience. Food always felt like an unwanted but physiologically necessary interruption to whatever else I was doing. 

But it isn’t without reason that we are our mother’s daughters. My mother has always hated food and cooking, and therefore, I learned to as well.  Growing up, she cooked for my brother and I, but it was always with some degree of discontent or dissatisfaction. 

The food was nutritious and filling and I never wanted for anything (except for maybe some seasoning). But the kitchen, for whatever reason, was a difficult place to be in. The whole realm of food, cooking, and mealtimes existed as a mildly explosive peculiarity in our household. 

This is not to say there was no joy to be found in food—for as many complaints as there were, there were equally as many delightful moments: making dumplings on a flour dusted surface, chopping cabbage for hot pot, whisking yolk and salt together to make steamed egg. 

This is instead to say: there is an odd trauma to be found here, a complex relationship with food and family that extends beyond chopsticks and Chinese cuisine. 

A complicated narrative

Cooking and food as communication is not a practice unique to my family. The summer of this year alone has seen an incredible deluge of essays, stories, and videos about cut fruit as an act of love among the Asian community. There is a tender comfort to be found in swapping and consuming narratives that resonate with similar emotional heartbeats. 

We express affection through action. It’s no coincidence that we begin our calls, not with a “Hello,” but rather, “Did you eat yet?” And, as Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, we are deeply and fiercely proud of the food that we create and eat because they represent our heritage and diverse backgrounds. There’s a reason why boba has become a resonant cultural icon in Asian American culture. 

Korean comfort food kimbap and banchan on a table
Kimbap and banchan. Photo credit: rawkkim from Unsplash

For my mother, however, cooking was not a language of love, but another avenue for criticism. Her ability to cook, or lack thereof, always felt like a sore spot when she compared herself to other mothers, fathers, and grandmothers who could cook up delicious dishes, like beef noodle soup, spicy eggplant, or black bean fish. Growing up, my father was often gone on long business trips, so we never developed the habit of eating meals together. 

Consequently, food became something to be consumed quickly and quietly in the kitchen, preferably whilst preparing it to minimize time spent eating. When given the choice between a time-out and eating, my brother would rather stand in the corner. In other words, food was a chore rather than a source of pride.

When I moved out for college, I regarded cooking in much the same way. I was militant about it, in the same way that you are scrupulous with spring cleaning and vacuuming.

But I was happy with it. I didn’t necessarily know how to cook well—soy sauce fixed nearly everything—but my roommate would deign to eat my cooking, and that was good enough for me. 

The re-learning process

After graduation last summer, I moved back home to take care of my family while applying for graduate school. One of my goals during this gap year was to redefine what cooking was for my mother and myself. I was determined. “It doesn’t have to be painful,” I insisted. 

“My kitchen is currently spotless and my pans are pristine,” she informed me. That’s because you don’t cook, I thought. “I want to keep it this way. I don’t want to cook—I can just eat salad.” 

It was a process. To her, my cooking process was too messy. Plate after plate of food and still we fought about the ordeal that was cooking.  

At the beginning of the year, with the online influx of cooking stories and recipe swapping due to quarantine, I felt a little left out of conversations about Asian food. They felt like spaces I had no business getting involved with. 

For example, when we wanted Chinese food, we ordered out, because she didn’t know how to cook it and I had never learned how. Parents who peeled vegetables and minced garlic and put steaming plates of food on the table? I couldn’t imagine my mother doing such a thing.

Simple food, complex emotions

When I think too much about it, food sometimes seems like it’ll always be this complicated thing. But it isn’t, and doesn’t have to be. 

Some nights my mother and I will sit together in the kitchen, dipping cherry tomatoes into dried plum powder, as she paints vivid pictures of buying candied tomatoes after school from a street vendor in Taiwan. In the mornings, sometimes there will be a fried egg on the counter; for lunch, a bowl of udon in clear broth. 

Other days, she’ll hand me sliced fruit. Sliced fruit is a greeting and a truce. Sliced fruit is “I’m proud of you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I love you” all at once. She’ll give me slices of nectarines, especially the sweet ones. Or she’ll cut up a bowl of pears or apples, dipped in salt water, to stave off the browning. Once, she burst enthusiastically into my room midway through a work call, laden with a plate of cut-up oranges. “These are sweet!” 

Cut mangoes on a green cutting board
Cut mangoes. Photo credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash.

That’s one thing she likes to do in the kitchen: cut fruit. Cutting fruit is not comparable to cooking. There are far fewer steps and the whole process is relatively unfussy. 

But its unremarkable nature is what makes it lovely. The simplicity of removing bitter rinds and inedible pits give shape to the sentiments behind the gesture: I am choosing to do this ordinary task for you so that the things you consume may always be sweet

The essence of cooking for others

My mother asked to make cong you bing—scallion pancakes—together this year, with the green onions she’s been growing during quarantine. With hasty hands she pulls me out of my work, out of my world of words, to show me the little bulbs she placed in water last night. “Look! Look how they’ve grown!” She laughs, delighted, and promptly takes half a dozen photos, all from the same angle, of the inch-tall vegetable.

That evening, we stand in front of the chopping boards together, elbow to elbow. “Like this, like this,” she instructs, kneading the dough. I promptly send a plume of flour into her face and she flaps it away, fixing me with a glare that is all show and no heat. In these moments, when we are huddled together in the kitchen, I feel a glow of pride.

White dog next to table with bowls of cut fruit on top
Cut fruit and Tiffany’s dog. Courtesy of the author.

My mother may not know how to cook, may never learn how to cook in the style of her mother or her mother’s mother, but I think she’s learning to tolerate the process more—enjoy it, even. We stand outside the usual Asian American food narratives that I tend to read about, where recipes are passed on and the sizzle of oil in the house is warm and familiar.

But I think the emotional beats are the same. Cooking is a process of breaking things apart and reshaping them, only to break them down again in the act of eating. It’s a different kind of doing and undoing, but it makes use of cooking as a timeless, enduring language of love all the same.

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