Growing up Chinese-Canadian in Quebec, cultures constantly clashed in my household and food was at the frontlines of the struggle. While my sister and I clamored for spaghetti and Popsicles, Grandma bluntly served up tripe and chicken feet. Coming home to a sink full of jellyfish was a perfectly normal occurrence, as was finding dried worms and plastic containers full of soft, watery tofu (“brains,” according to my sister) in the fridge.
Once, Mom caved in and bought us a tub of Smarties ice cream. We salivated at the frozen multicolored stripes dotted with candy-covered chocolate buttons, but were forbidden from having much more than a thimble’s worth at a time.
One day, she left us in Grandma’s care to run errands. My sister and I waited for our slow-moving warden to settle into her afternoon nap, then sprang the ice cream from the freezer and ate the entire tub. By the time Mom got home, Grandma was nursing two drooping children who’d made a rainbow-colored mess in the toilet.
Food battles extended outside the home. In kindergarten, Mom often packed a whole tomato in my lunch box. At snack time, the other kids would give me funny looks before biting into their enviably dull apples and bananas. And sweets? Forget it; I was lucky if I got dried prunes, candied ginger, or rubbery coconut strips, never mind Oreos or Dunk-a-Roos.
In primary school, Mom experimented with more “western” lunches – or in other words, whatever was on sale at Costco at the time. My sister and I cycled through a Russian roulette of predominantly brown and yellow foods: chuck wagon sandwiches (bologna, ham, salami, and cheese), Jamaican patties, fish sticks, Pillsbury Pizza Pops – you name it.
But it wasn’t all bad. Growing up in a city as diverse as Montreal meant that I could be eating Middle Eastern manakish, Greek souvlaki, Jewish latkes, Indian samosas, or Quebec poutine in any given week. At the same time, I loved having friends over for a bowl of wonton soup or a plate of dumplings. They might gawk at the dried wood ears and pork floss in our pantry, but their kitchens contained equally bizarre things from their own home countries.
In Guangzhou, I experienced a number of “firsts” during my time at international school: my first plate of Korean japchae (sweet potato noodles stir-fried with sesame oil and vegetables), my first Anzac biscuit (a sweet biscuit made of rolled oats and named after the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), and my first pigeon in a coconut (a Cantonese delicacy, apparently).
On family trips, food was the key to each destination. In Thailand, we sighed over crunchy papaya salads and monstrous tiger prawns. In Malaysia, it was banana fritters and creamy laksa lemak. Even on comparatively dull trips to see relatives in southwest China, we uncovered steaming baba (a kind of chewy pancake from Yunnan with sweet or savory fillings) and new, even more pain-inducing varieties of Chongqing hotpot.
In Beijing, we have practically all of the above. Even poutine, the heart-stopping trio of fries, cheese, and gravy from my home province, can be found at 4Corners just south of the Drum and Bell Towers. If there’s nothing to eat at home, grab the kids and start exploring the city’s food scene. Dig in!
photos by Sijia Chen
This article originally appeared on p9 of the beijingkids January 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com