By Xinyuan Xu
For me, the meaning of food is the culture, language, geography, and people behind it. Eating specific foodstuffs on a specific date, at a festival, say, not just a routine, but a way to gather people together—when we gather together for a meal.
Culture is how I relate to the food experience. Food has nurtured me to become the person who I am. Classic food with a fresh taste is what I want to express about the food that I write about.
Depending on the individual, childhood memories could be recalled in different ways. For me, it might be found in a small street food restaurant. Flavors could connect me to a specific location and time. It could be grandmother’s homemade sweet potato starch cake. Once I taste it, I am back in my grandmother’s home. Grandmother’s kitchen is old, not quite organized, clean, and with a lot of treasures. The bamboo colander made flat, lots of sweet potatoes settled inside a cardboard beer box.
I hope my writing about food allows my readers to remember the origin of the food. Also, I wish it will arouse their interest to the place it comes from.
Take as an example the “oyster omelet”, the city behind the dish is my hometown––Quanzhou. How we named the dish relates to the dialect we speak. We translate “oyster omelet” to Mandarin through what we called it in our dialect. Omelet might not be a Chinese culinary term. In Hokkien, the dialect we speak, “oyster omelet” is called “oyster fry”. Native residents name it in a most direct way by stating how we cook it. Ordering the dish in Hokkien in a traditional market is how I feel I belong in the city.
These foods shaped me. At the same time, food can be a way to eliminate my nostalgia. Sometimes, I will browse my photo archive to walk through my memories. I walk through the traditional market. The seafood scents, sweet smells, meat roasting, and the freshness of vegetables hug me.
The traditional market contains portions of my memories of various festivals. My mom buys ingredients from here to prepare the ritual sacrifice, especially the fried food. Why prepare so many fried foods to experience the whole spring festival? For the needs of rituals, for worshiping our ancestors. Food is a connection with the people who have passed. The rituals look tedious. However, it is worthy. For younger generation, there might not have a chance to get close to our native culture.
Furthermore, making a dish for my own is a way that I calm myself down and chillax. I like to cook, starting from shopping for the ingredients at the market. During the process, I will motivate my sense organs to feel the food. Holding a tomato, my finger can feel whether its peel is smooth. Also, its weight and stiffness could tell my brain if it is overripe or unripe. If I get it closer to my nose, I will know if it is fresh.
I do not cook anything really complicated. Cooking something simple is a way to reward myself. Red pepper and shrimp stir fry, tomato and egg stir fry, or avocado and chicken breast salad. I do not add too much seasoning to cover the original scents. Instead, I tend to taste the freshness of the ingredients themselves.
In 2020, my flight home was canceled four times because of Covid. I was stuck here and couldn’t go back home during the summer break. I cooked every day and take a photo for every meal. The simple rituals did not frustrate me. Instead, it brought me a sense of achievement. Also, it made me notice my life is still moving. Now, Cooking a meal for myself is becoming a date with myself. I get chillax and stay quiet. Feeding myself is not just a subsisting way. I just want to dedicate myself to my own life and record it.
The same way as I am writing poems, poetry and the dish are the feedbacks of my senses. If I do not live with effort, I can’t have any feelings. Then my words will be insipid and flat. If I randomly cooked and treated the food carelessly, the dish will lose its flavor. I do not read my poetry; I will take a bite to taste it. I know what aroma of each of my poetries. There is one piece.
Don’t touch my strawberries
Waiting for opening the refrigerator
Sadly, finding out sweet scents have been taken away by that thief
without being noticed
The stuff that I stealthily take care of
is the sweetest strawberry in winter.
Don’t hide the secrets in the refrigerator.
Won’t what I please be stolen by someone else.
Sucking the remaining sweet and sour on my finger,
Don’t touch my strawberries.
Should I blame the strawberries or the thief?
Go buy another one