Photos: Aaron Aguhob
Our heritage is passed down through the food on our plates. And for many, the idea that “you are what you eat” centers around the dinner table, around a particular meal or recipe. I have always been fascinated and inspired by the ways food can reveal so much about a person – their likes and dislikes, their habits, and their background. What a person eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is telling of the sort of life they lead day-to-day. For me, food and culture concurrently shape our heritage. Food allows us to taste traditions and feed our personal narratives during a time of cultural and social hemorrhaging, where immigrant histories are diluted by American ideals. I gathered meaningful recipes from friends not only to better understand their cuisine but also to learn their perspectives and explore how food influences their Asian-American identities. While each recipe I’ve collected to cook and photograph is unique in ingredients and technique, the stories behind them are infused with strikingly similar sensibilities.
Kalguksu - Larry Han
From his childhood watching his grandmother make noodles to how he now navigates the in-between of Korean and American identities, Korean dishes like kalguksu allowed Larry to connect to his culture: “food served as a medium for me to learn more about my heritage, it let conversations open up easily with my family, and because we were all there at the dinner table I’d be able to pick up on small pieces of my culture.”
Away from home, kalguksu always served as a refuge that allowed for a mental reset, which gives Larry comfort by reaffirming his identity.
Wonton Soup - Celine Nguyen
“While language is the first way you can communicate, I would say food is the second and says a lot more,” Celine told me. As a daughter of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, Celine grew up with takeout due to her parents’ work schedules. Despite their busy lifestyle, Celine’s mom made the time to teach her how to make homemade wontons – precious time together for the family to reconnect and learn.
The simple repetition of folding shrimp and pork wontons with her family gave her a sense of ownership of not just the food on her plate, but also her heritage that continues to drive her identity today. Although bits of culture, including language, was lost in translation between her and her immigrant parents, food continues to fill and enrich that void. Her limited Hokkien, founded on phrases like “have you eaten?” and “are you hungry?”, tells of how food became a form of unspoken love and legacy.
Pancit - Aaron Aguhob
I never learned to speak Tagalog – the words always felt funny in my mouth as a child. I also can’t remember any meaningful connections to a Filipino community growing up except for my extended family. There was an implicit sense of otherness about exploring individual cultures in the so-called “melting pot” of American suburbia – to me, that phrase always felt like cultural identity was meant to be diluted for the sake of “diversity and inclusion”, that to provide a space accepting of all cultures meant to ignore rather than celebrate cultures. But once I entered university and gradually learned how to cook, food became a gateway to reconnecting to my Filipino heritage. Learning to cook traditional Filipino food from my mom was an opportunity to bond and learn more about my family history – stories of my grandmother’s food truck, the snack carts waiting for my mom and her siblings outside of their elementary school, and of course, the family recipes.
For me, pancit is a special chapter of my family narrative – it is my mom’s and grandmother’s signature recipe traditionally served for special occasions. My earliest memories of pancit are birthday dinners over the years – back then, it appeared to be so simple and unassuming on a plate, but in reality, I have since learned it can be deceptively complex to cook. And for me, it will always be a dish of comfort and celebration.
Pad Kaprow Gai - Eclair Junchaya
The diversity and stories behind each dish in Thai cuisine play a large part in Eclair’s identity and her family’s heritage. Pad kaprow gai is a spicy Thai stir-fry of a protein with basil served with rice and a fried egg –” it’s comfort food but exciting and experimental at the same time because of its versatility.”
Food contextualizes her heritage, where, at the hand of her mother’s expertise, stories and histories accompany each dish, explaining its regionality and its influence on flavor. But for Eclair, culture and heritage are not limited to Thai food: “My mom’s formal training in other cuisines and her passion for those foods, and the stories of her lessons and how she teaches me these dishes are examples of her sharing her heritage to me” – values and family history that have taught her to live on and evolve with her experiences.
Chicken Mami - Jane Canteros
“There is history here, which I love, the imprints of people who first introduced and have cooked this dish” Jane says, recalling memories associated with chicken mami. “I see rainy days and sunny days, days I come home late, days of my dad missing home, and the food he frequented in his youth.”
Although there is less fanfare nowadays, every time her dad makes chicken mami is special for her; it is a signature household meal for the Canteros family. And while food is not Jane’s primary connection to the Filipino culture, it plays a strong part by bringing people and stories together.
Bánh Patê Sô - Alyssa Nghiem
Throughout her time living away from home, Alyssa’s parents would make the drive to wherever she was with the sole purpose of dropping off food for her: “My favorite was the bánh patê sô and my mom always made it a point to pack extra for my roommate and friends. It was her way of sharing her love – being able to eat a warm and hearty meat pastry that she spent so much time and effort making helped me feel all the more connected to her.”
For Alyssa, cooking with her mom was the bulk of their quality time together. Cooking with her family was how she picked up the language, it was how she learned about their lives back in Vietnam, and it is the bridge between multiple generations of her family members. Recipes are passed from person to person, from parent to child, from friend to family member.
Many of the dishes in this collection are seasoned to taste, carried by a palate conditioned and inherited by years of tradition and practice, contextualizing culture within a family through flavor. They are vignettes telling of a desire to seek and explore culture, to remember and celebrate histories, and ultimately to find comfort and familiarity with a full belly.