Food Without Borders: A Chinese Childhood in Toronto

Sometimes the simplest dish is the most complex in flavors: lightly sauteed soy beans with young bamboo shoots.

I grew up in Toronto, a city that was more of a salad than a melting pot. Each community had street signs in English and in the native language residents. There would be Greek and English in Greektown, Chinese and English in Chinatown and so on throughout the city. We mixed, but we also maintained our own identities.

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Real Chinese

As a kid my friends would ask to come over for dinner, and when they sat down expecting egg rolls and chop suey, they were not pleasantly surprised to be served real traditional Chinese cooking. Steamed fish, stir fried beef with broccoli, Chinese style sausages and pork bone soup. After the shock wore off, they would slowly dig in. The flavors would be new, and their taste buds would tingle with the sweetness of the soy sauce and the tenderness of the perfectly steamed halibut. I was always proud of my parents for expanding my friends' idea of our culture through food. Dinner at our house was a visit to the old country for both myself and my friends. They learned what "real Chinese" food was, not this sticky, sweet red sauce covering battered deep fried chunks of pork. It was subtle, simple and fresh.

My Soy Sauce is Your Ketchup

As for me, I looked forward to eating at my friends' homes. Baked beans, bread dipped in beaten eggs and fried, sprinkled with sugar and slathered in maple syrup, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I was in heaven. When I was served French toast at home, I would slather it with ketchup, not maple syrup. It was how my mother served it, and I still eat it that way. My mother would do her spin on pancakes by adding essence of almond extract or her version of spaghetti Bolognese with soy sauce. She was fusion before there was fusion.

My Life at 30Ë?F

I went to my fridge to get a cold drink and as I stood there looking for the rogue can of diet soda, I had to paw through jars of mayonnaise, Chinese pork sauce, kalbi marinade, capers, a brick of cheddar cheese and small jars of stinky Chinese fish pastes. My fridge was an international cornucopia of flavors. I can put together an Italian meal or a traditional southern Chinese dinner, complete with a dessert of coconut pudding. As I stood there, I could see parts of my life from Canada to the U.S. My fridge is my diary. It records where I have been and hopefully where I will travel one day. I am forever grateful for the dinners my parents hosted for my friends, I am grateful that they opened the door to the world just a bit more and showed the complexity of our culture. I am grateful that I can partake in all cultures because my parents never built a wall around my perception of the world.

Image: Ophelia Chong

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog.

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