Dear Asian Youth,
Food is not only a necessity for survival; it also serves a larger purpose in so many facets of our lives. When you want to catch up with a friend, you ask them to grab lunch. Special occasions are celebrated by going out for dinner. When someone loses a loved one, you support them by dropping off baked goods. Many of us can relate to Asian relatives calling to check in only to start the conversation with, “have you eaten yet?” Food not only nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our relationships with our families, friends, and cultures.
Many of us grew up being teased about the food we brought to school for lunch because it looked different to our non-Asian peers. Some of us grew up being teased by our peers for “eating dogs”, taunted when we pulled out a thermos of fried rice, or mocked for smelling like garlic or curry. This type of food-related racism has only escalated. When the COVID-19 outbreak began, I was scrolling through my for you page on TikTok when I came across racist jokes about “LingLing” eating “bat soup.” I was disheartened to realize that the racism I experienced around food growing up has not gone away. In fact, it is directly a part of the larger anti-Asian sentiment that has unfortunately risen out of the current pandemic. Growing up constantly hearing this racially charged dialogue surrounding the food we eat, it can be hard not to feel a sense of embarrassment. But foods from our cultures do not need to be a source of shame. In fact, the foods our families prepare for us with care should be a source of pride! Through food, we get to know our histories and ourselves. In this column, we will delve into the histories and significance of all the mouth-wateringly delicious Asian American foods that fill our bellies, nurture our souls, and connect us to our heritage starting with the most basic: congee!
Congee is prevalent in many Asian cultures and goes by many different names: jook, báizhōu, okayu, arroz caldo. Simply put, it is a rice porridge made by boiling rice in water until it disintegrates into a thick, soup-like texture. Congee has been around for what seems like forever. While some date it back to the Han dynasty, circa 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, others date it back even further to approximately 1,000 B.C., during the Zhou dynasty. Whatever the case may be, congee has stood the test of time and established itself as a staple of Asian diets. The only required ingredients are rice and water, but other ingredients such as poultry meats, beans, peanuts, and green onions can be added to give the dish more flavor and pizzazz. Congee was initially created to stretch a meal when there was not enough food to go around and it serves many purposes. It is often the first food that babies eat before they can chew solid foods. It also serves as a common remedy when you are feeling under the weather as it is warm, comforting, and mild on the stomach. Because of its versatility in the ingredients which may be added, congee can be made at any time with whatever you happen to have leftover in your fridge.
My family is Cantonese, so we call congee by its Cantonese name: jook. I first ate jook when I was a baby, and I most recently had jook just last week, after my college graduation. Ever since I can remember, my grandpa has made a large pot of jook every year on the day after Thanksgiving. Why? Because what better way not to waste the giant leftover turkey carcass than to make it into a big delicious pot of comfort? My grandpa spent his early childhood in Guangdong, China before fleeing to the U.S. at the start of World War II when the Japanese military invaded his village. He often cites memories of his childhood in China and recalls never having enough food for the family. Each year for his birthday present, he got a chicken leg all to himself that he would keep under his bed for a week, taking a small bite every night so as not to waste it away too quickly. He used to tell me stories of his village’s “pet” pig, who would go around visiting all the neighbors and getting fattened up just so that the villagers could eventually slaughter him and divide the meat amongst themselves. After moving to the U.S., my grandpa grew up working in his family’s diner so that they could make ends meet. Although his life in the U.S. offered new opportunities, food security for his family was not much better than it had been in China. Making jook was always a sure way to stretch a meal and resourcefully utilize leftover ingredients. To this day, I have never seen my grandpa let a shred of food on his plate go to waste. Leftover rice, beans, and poultry always become jook!
Today, I am lucky to say that food insecurity is not an issue for my family. With that, jook has taken on a new meaning for us. What once served as a necessary tool of survival now presents itself as a celebratory dish. When I eat jook, I am reminded of the day after a holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas, when my aunties and uncles are still in town visiting us. The craziness of the holiday has died down, and we are left to spend quality time together over a fresh, steaming pot of jook.
I am fortunate that the recipe for jook has continued to be passed down in my family through generations, as it is not only a delicious treat, but one that tells a story of generations of hard work and sacrifice that all led to the life I lead today as a proud, recent UCLA graduate. The day after my virtual graduation ceremony, I went to my grandparents’ house to return something they had forgotten. When I arrived, my grandpa had a fresh pot of jook made with his leftover chicken bones waiting for me to take back home. It was enough lunch for an entire week! I thought back to my grandpa’s childhood, when he felt so fortunate just to get a measly chicken leg for his birthday. I thought about the fact that my grandpa would save his chicken leg to make it last an entire week and the fact that now he made sure I had enough jook that this would never possibly be a concern for me. At this moment I realized that jook is more than just a Cantonese rice porridge; it is a tool of survival which has been adapted into a love language. It is a love language passed down from generation to generation, each adding new ingredients and bringing more significance. But no matter how many ingredients are added, how many holidays celebrated, how many names it goes by, jook is a dish from simple and humble beginnings with the potential to flourish into something so beautiful that it stands the test of time. What was once a source of embarrassment, I now see as a symbol of love and pride for my roots. So, next time someone tries to make fun of your cultural foods, tell them to STFU because our food is our history and we are proud of who we are.