Everyday around noon, the aromas of waffle fries from the Chick-fil-A on 38th and 6th Avenue and the earthy zing of a sweetgreen Harvest Bowl begin to permeate throughout the office. Crowding around a rectangular table in the fluorescent lit kitchen, my co-workers and I unpack our lunches. It feels as if I am in grade school again, sitting in the cafeteria at one of those long wooden tables with attached benches, awaiting the verdict that determined whether I would be accepted by my peers.
As I unseal the lid concealing my lunch, I feel three pairs of eyes shift in my direction. And as we begin to eat, I hear from my right, “So what type of cuisine is that?” With chopsticks full of sesame and soy-tossed bean sprouts halfway to my mouth, I paused. “Japanese, right?” Then from the opposite side of the table, “Well, ya. The packaging is. It’s like a bento box.” I look down at the food in front of me, as if noticing what I was consuming for the first time. Cubes of steamed pumpkin, blanched bok choy halves, grilled eggplant, soy glazed oyster mushrooms, stir fried strands of melon and eggs, and slivers of pickled carrots and daikon, all tessellated into a rectangular well. Did an attempt to compartmentalize my lunch box, simply with the intent of maximizing the volume of food I could stuff inside and still close the lid, make my food Japanese? I surely didn’t think so. Instead, with a hint of childlike bravado and a sprinkle of pride, I respond to my co-workers’ inquiries. This is my cuisine.
As we witness the rise of so-called “ethnic” cuisines and the seemingly insatiable hunger for “authenticity,” I question, and encourage you to question, what we mean by “authentic” and why there is a need to categorize certain foods, and not others, as belonging to certain ethnic cuisines. While I have come a long way from having friends at school ridicule the homemade almond tofu my mom packed as a special treat (which I personally would say is a big step up from neon green Jell-O), I continue to experience the confines of an “ethnic” lunch box, defined by the imposition of boundaries rather than its contents. And though it may sound cliché, the true story is what lies on the inside.
From Guangdong to Cho Lon, my great grandparents carried with them flavors of thick, dark soy, sweetened by caramelized rock sugar, and laced with the perfume of old ginger, all tossed together in the breath of the wok. In the next fifty years of living in Vietnam, my grandfather would acquire a taste for cà phê and gỏi cuốn while my mother won a bet with her classmates by finishing ten cups of chè ba màu and ate so much chè trôi nước that she had to go to the hospital.
Fast forward a few decades, and I remember watching my grandmother whip fresh mayonnaise for egg bánh mì breakfasts and sitting together around the dining table wrapping enough gỏi cuốn for three families and filling freshly steamed cheung fun with shrimp. And as Thanksgiving approaches, I know there will be a turkey filled not with a bread-based stuffing, but with sweet sticky rice, balanced with soy sauce, lap cheong, and rehydrated shitake mushrooms. There will be congealed cranberry sauce from a can and warm pumpkin pie served with whipped cream, dispensed from a metal spray bottle. And there will be leafy greens, briefly boiled or sautéed with garlic and ginger, and perhaps a slurry of diced cauliflower tossed with minced pork, garlic, and oyster sauce that may be a better accompaniment than gravy.
The picture above is of me and my grandmother wearing a chef's apron I decorated for her birthday.
Just as people and cultures move and develop, so does food. And so, the food that I or my family prepares is not contrained by the container in which it is served, nor is it bound by our Chinese ethnicity, migration to Vietnam, or relocation to the United States. My cuisine is the cuisine of home, and home, in this case, is an ongoing journey, of where we have been and where we go from here.
This photo is a family portrait taken in Vietnam. My great grandmother is sitting in the center, with my grandfather standing behind her and my grandmother to his left. My mother is the little girl standing in front.
Upon rejoining his children in Dallas, Texas, my grandfather wrote, “There is not a large Chinese population here, and I do not know the language. But life is still good because my children have the opportunity to find new successes.”
This holiday season and every day, I am grateful for the opportunities and stories I have to tell, thanks to those who came before me. I encourage everyone to take the chance to learn about your family’s stories. Who knows, there might be a story hiding inside your Thanksgiving turkey just waiting to be discovered!