A silver lining during the pandemic quarantine: the unexpected joy of cooking for myself. From getting groceries to preparing the ingredients to putting them in the pan, cooking is not only a life-sustaining skill, but it is also a much needed reprieve from the world that allows one to indulge in the taste of memories and home. Living in America, there is no greater intrigue than learning to master two decidedly different culinary traditions, and there is no better time than during a gratuitously excessive self-isolation period to parse them out.
The difference between Eastern and Western cuisine lies in designing, preparing, cooking and serving. In China, gourmet food emulates the highest ideal of cooking, and it is not hard to attain; families of all walks of life can count eating carefully crafted food as a hearty refuge against an outside world that is otherwise unrelenting and unforgiving. Kitchen maneuvers in China reflect the guiding philosophies of many historical eras. For example, “se,” “xiang” and “wei” (colours, aromas and taste) are the three pillars from which most traditional Chinese dishes are crafted. “Meishi” (gourmet food, literally “beautiful” food) or “jiachangcai” (common household food) are colloquialisms referring to tasty dishes that are easy to make, good for the soul and fill you with nostalgia for home.
Indeed, there is radical democratic potential in planting ingredients, sustaining livelihoods and crafting beautifully balanced plates. Over millennia, the emphasis on eating well as a part of public welfare was deeply entrenched in Chinese art, literature and politics. A Chinese king famously wrote in the third century B.C. that a “king’s majesty depends on people’s welfare; food is the irreplaceable sky of the masses.”
Living in other culinary cultures means more than simply adapting to different tastes. It is also a conversion from one mode of eating to another. Making food from home is more than a search for what tastes good—it’s a state of mind. Chinese and other Eastern foods emphasize balance and juxtaposition between ingredients that are not similar in taste. Adding spices, salt and fermented sauces (sweet, sour or savory) complement the taste of main ingredients such as grains and meat. They add lush and multilayered tastes to bring out the food’s natural aroma (like soy sauce with pork) or play down the fishiness of raw ingredients (like garlic with beef).
Sauces comprise a big part of eating and work to exact the very best potential out of each ingredient. Contrary to popular belief, adding to taste can be done in more sophisticated ways than the knee-jerk reaction to reach for a soy sauce bottle. In China, sauce as a concept can be blurred to include thick, seasoned broth or stock that absorbs flavors from the ingredients and spices during preparation. As a meat dish matures, tastes of umami, spice and sweet starches coalesce into the broth, which thickens rapidly upon serving, when the cook repeatedly rinses the meat with broth, curated to fit specifically how salty or savory a particular plate should be. The same idea applies to noodles and pho in other cuisines and is also why General Tso’s chicken, despite being a notoriously inauthentic and “westernized” dish, still relies heavily on the sweet and sour coating to bring out the taste in its chicken tenders.
Chinese cooks use large woks and pots to bring together a large array of ingredients and carefully calibrate heat levels to simmer (“dun”), pan-fry (“chao”) or sauté (“jian”), depending on the specific nature of the ingredients and whether they brown or burn easily or lose their moisture or nutrition over time. For serving, a traditional Chinese meal involves a round table gathering of family and friends, a main course of rice (steamed or fried) and a number of distinct, balanced dishes featuring both “hun” (meats) and “su” (veggies) meant for sharing using chopsticks. There are regional variations in style and preference of flavor, some using sweet ingredients while others opt for spicy.
Especially around the time of Chinese New Year, “tuan yuan” becomes some of the most heartfelt expressions—it is symbolic of roundness, completeness and togetherness. Indeed, it was on the round tables back home that we used to make dumplings and “baozi” and celebrate cheerfully with youthful cousins and energetic toddlers. Eating is a romance of chaos, laughter, banter and jokes, sharing the moment under the backdrop of a table full of choices, possibilities, longings and gratifications. Cooking, now more than ever, encapsulates a courageous expression of love and a technicoloured gratitude. Gratitude for the company of family, friends and lovers, even when physical distances seem insurmountable.
“There is no sweeter accomplishment than living off your own mastery,” they say. Despite the recurrent theme of trial-and-error, flurried FaceTime calls back home and multiple scares of setting off Bowdoin’s sophisticated fire alarms, cooking (and looking forward to being good enough to cook for my friends one day soon) has been a great joy for me during these times of uncertainty, ire and hopelessness. I strongly encourage anyone who’s able and has been feeling occupied but nonetheless bored to try as well. It’s hard—but let’s all make it out with minimal weight loss and, more importantly, a stomach full of love, devotion and gastronomic delights.