Heritage

IMG_2621_2I have always identified myself as a Chinese-American: “Chinese” as a reference to the ethnicity of my ancestors, and “American” as a reference to the country of which I am proud to be a citizen. However, it is difficult to identify as “Chinese” nowadays.

My parents were born and raised in Hong Kong, but when they came to America for college, the differences between the Hong Kongese and Chinese seemed negligible in the face of the larger Western culture shocks. In Hong Kong and China, the divide remains. I once tutored a Chinese Hong Kong University student who bitterly told me that he wanted to improve his English because the native Hong Kong students at HKU spoke perfect English and mocked him and the other mainland Chinese for their lack of fluency, and by extension, their perceived provinciality. Though its population is ethnically the same as and shares cultural customs with China, Hong Kong Westernized politically, economically, and culturally under British sovereignty.

Now, Hong Kong is fighting for its rights to democratic elections. When sovereignty over Hong Kong transferred from the British to the Chinese government in 1997, China promised democratic elections. What China is now offering Hong Kong is not democracy – it is competitive authoritarianism. In competitive authoritarianism, political competition exists, but is unfair. China, in vetting the potential candidates to limit choices to pro-Chinese options, is manipulating the election and undermining the democratic nature of elections in Hong Kong.

China may no longer be truly Communist (as communism is technically an economic concept, not a governmental one, and China’s economy is increasingly market-driven), but its government still maintains authoritarian control over the mainland populace, enforcing censorship and cracking down harshly on dissent, as demonstrated by Tiananmen Square, and more recently, Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang. Now, the question is how the Chinese government will react to Hong Kong, and the implications for a populace accustomed to social rights.

It is also increasingly difficult to identify as “American” in light of events on Hong Kong. Early settlers strived to appear as a “city upon a hill,” a beacon of morality. JFK, Reagan, and other American leaders referenced the image to describe America as a symbol of freedom and democracy. The American government committed to encouraging and protecting democracy around the world, especially during the Cold War. However, the American government only weakly censured Russian aggression in Ukraine and has not taken any official stance on the protests in Hong Kong.

While I understand that the United States cannot unilaterally make decisions on the international stage, there is a difference between compromising with other nations on market access for pork and beef, and compromising the beliefs on which the United States was founded to maintain trade relations.

The Hong Kong protesters have been referred to as the politest protestors, regularly picking up trash and even sorting recycling, and forming channels for emergency vehicles to pass through. However, their civility does not belie a lack of conviction. What they ask for is legitimate. They ask for a promise to be kept. As the final symbol of British subjugation of the peoples of Asia, Hong Kong learned about but could never fully access the rights and freedoms of the West. They deserve better than continued oppression under authoritarian rule.

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Tour of a Witch’s Garden

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The Mulford Farmhouse in East Hampton, NY, is described on multiple websites as “one of America’s most significant English colonial farmsteads.” Being a bit of an early colonial history aficionado, I eagerly searched online for what traits made this farmhouse so ‘significant’ – maybe it housed a legendary colonial figure, or stood on the site of some crucial battlefield – and found…not much.

Mulford Farmhouse, you tease. Of course we had to go check it out.

We ended up getting a tour from an enthusiastic woman, a self-confessed colonial re-enactor whose reenactments had crossed from her work life into her home life – she described how her husband had built a bed with straw bedding and rope slats, as well as a full-on 18th century fireplace in which she made a turkey that she brined, soaked in alcohol, stuffed, and cooked over the course of four days.

As an added bonus to our tour, we received a human rights lecture and other political statements, but the real highlight was our tour of Rachel’s Garden, an herb garden where familiar herbs took on significant and mystical meaning. They could reveal to you your true love, they could save you from smallpox, they could cure the common cold.

By the end of the tour, I almost believed what she had said, not only about the extraordinary healing powers of herbs, but also about the completeness of colonial life. She gushed about her four-day turkey as the most flavorful, most tender turkey she had ever had and recounted how fermented food had saved Civil War soldiers from disease. She wondered out loud whether our diet and lifestyle today was missing something, if we had lost something crucial along the way.

And while I don’t condone a return to the colonial way of life – after all, the Mulfords owned slaves and women were treated as witches, or worse, property – I do wonder about how different, and simpler life was back then when it seemed that good things would happen if you believed hard enough.

We now live in an age where we don’t even know where most of our food comes from (though that’s slowly changing) and yet we know the contradicting statements our politicians have made, we know about conflicts in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine a time when people had such an intimate relationship with food that they believed it held supernatural powers.

So maybe I still don’t know what makes Mulford Farmhouse so ‘significant,’ but I’m glad their attempt to attract more tourism enticed me to visit. We laugh at the superstition, the ignorance, of the colonial era, but would they not laugh at us for our ignorance about how to produce our own food, our own clothing, our complete dependence on others for our comfort – and survival?

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Captivated by Caraway

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Cooking for one person is no easy task. Lately, my pantry has been getting precariously full and some of my perishable items were beginning to edge dangerously close to expiration. I needed a sweet recipe that involved zero new ingredients.

I settled on a scone recipe (because you can never have too many scone recipes) which called for fruits — great, I have blueberries that I bought for no reason — and a tablespoon of caraway seeds, which I also had and honestly never expected to use. Before making goulash, I had never used or even heard of caraway seeds. The goulash had so many flavors, mainly paprika, that I wasn’t really sure what caraway seeds would add.

I don’t know if this is a testament to caraway seeds or to the fact that I have no life, but that first bite of scone was the best part of my day. The seeds added an earthy, sharp flavor and a spice-y aroma that I instantly fell for. So of course I had to do a little research on the origins of caraway seeds. According to NPR, caraway was Europe’s oldest condiment and became a staple in Northern European cuisine before being spread by the Romans to Southern Europe. However, it was shunted aside in favor of exotic spices and because it appeared mainly in homier dishes consumed by the lower-class, it never garnered the same appreciation as cinnamon or even dill and parsley, members of the same plant family as caraway.

Funny how history works — I’d say more people know the flavors of cinnamon and pepper than the that of caraway. Traditional North European dishes like sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread and some Scandanavian spirit called aquavit still use it, but it has disappeared from the mainstream diet, while pepper is part of basically all cuisines.

Caraway deserves a comeback in a big way. It is no longer the spice of your German grandma; it imparts a truly unique flavor and adds texture to baked goods. I look forward to future forays with caraway seeds…though I guess I’ll have to wait until I clear out a couple more items in pantry :p.

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Backlog Pt. 2

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When I posted this on Instagram, here’s some of the responses I got:

“Why did you post this?”

“Out of all the things you’ve made, of course you chose to Insta this one.”

“That looks gross.”

“Ew, is that Spam?”

I present to you the sweet yet salty, kind-of-disgusting-if-you-think-about-it-too-hard, absolutely delicious delicacy known as spam musubi. This creation, deceptively minimal in design, requires its own special musubi molder. As we all know, any dish that requires special equipment must be exotic and/or gourmet.

I’ve always found it kind of funny that spam musubi originates from Hawaii. When I think of Hawaii, I imagine the beautiful beaches, the volcanos, the plantations of sugar and pineapple, the abundance of sea life. Enter spam musubi, a bastardization of sushi using canned meat. It combines two non-native, and yet pervasive aspects of Hawaiian culture: the large Japanese population, and the presence of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The first Japanese to arrive in the late 1800s were survivors of a shipwreck, and subsequent Japanese arrived as laborers on sugar cane and pineapple plantations.  Then in 1940, the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved from San Diego, CA, to Pearl Harbor, where they had an unfortunate run-in with the daring and desperate Imperial Japanese Navy. Though the day continues to “live in infamy,” the U.S. fleet remains garrisoned in Pearl Harbor.

Spam was created in 1937 and fed troops and civilians in the US and in war-ravaged Europe. And despite the war and internment and all the general animosity between Japan and US, Spam then caught on with Asian cultures, becoming popular in China, Japan, and South Korea as a cheap accompaniment to rice. And somewhere along the way, some insane, brilliant person decided to take one of the fanciest forms of Japanese cuisine and combine it with a food created expressly for people with tight budgets.

And so this unassuming, budget-friendly, exotic yet familiar snack actually represents a kind of beautiful conclusion to a story of mistrust and mistreatment, of war and reconciliation, and as an understated yet well-loved representation the alliance of security and friendship that has somehow arisen between two former adversaries. And to top it all off, it’s pretty darn tasty.

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A Little Late for Pumpkins?

IMG_1637I’ve always found it interesting that people associate pumpkins with autumn when really, pumpkins are available all year round. People associate corn with summer, yet have less of an aversion to enjoying some canned corn in the winter than munching on some pumpkin in not-autumn.

…it’s only been a year or so and I fear I’m already starting to get repetitive.

But hear me out here. Pumpkins are native to North America. The Native Americans first introduced settlers to pumpkins and apples and corn. And we repaid them with, uh, diseases (sometimes intentionally inflicted) and forced hikes and their very own fertile, highly desirable parcels of land.

Anyways, pumpkin has become a staple in American culture – what would Thanksgiving be without some kind of pumpkin-based dessert? Or Halloween with no carved pumpkins?

Things that become staples in American culture tend to become overexposed, like Cold Stone and cupcakes. (Or as my dad just suggested most sinisterly, the American dream of a suburban house with two cars.) We burn through popular things in a never-ending, ferociously turning cycle of fads.

And yet, some things endure because they somehow become enshrined, become something that we voluntarily enjoy only infrequently. Like Thanksgiving turkey, strawberry shortcakes, and pumpkin pie. Last I checked, turkey, strawberries, and canned pumpkin are sold in supermarkets all year round (and in the case of strawberries, at surprisingly high quality even in the winter), and yet, we save them for the right moment. We imbue them with special value.

Back to pumpkin – it’s interesting, the Native Americans just ate them roasted, as a staple part of their diet. But in those early years, cold-resistant crops must have seemed like some kind of godsend to the early settlers, something to be celebrated.

Guess we’re not so ‘native’ to this land after all.

Personally, I would make this cheesecake all the time, I love it that much. It might be my favorite new recipe of 2013. But my mom, who actually is an immigrant from Hong Kong, was shocked (and maybe even a little appalled) that I’d suggest such blasphemy. Spoken like a true American, mom. Guess I’ll just have to wait (with baited breath) for the next holiday season.

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From Hungary, With Love

IMG_1519Before my sophomore year of college, I knew little about Eastern Europe and even less about the little country of Hungary. Back then, I was a self-proclaimed francophile, and in true French spirit, I also had an interest in Japan. (To be fair, my interests lay in Japan’s “economic miracle” rather than the artistic glorification of Japanese culture, but close enough.) I took a class on the the history of financial crises and completely by chance, my academic focus changed completely.

Each student had the opportunity to choose a country that had been affected by the 2008 financial crisis. I was (surprise, surprise) sick on the day we chose countries, so I missed out on Japan and France. My professor suggested Hungary. I agreed, apathetically believing that I would have to write yet another paper about a topic for which I cared little.

However, Hungary turned out to be more enthralling than I could have imagined. Since that initial paper about how Hungary was one of the countries in the Eurozone hit hardest by the crisis, I have since studied everything from why the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 failed, to brain drain and refugee inflow problems post-1989, to the evolution of Hungary’s citizenship policies. The political culture of Hungary has proved especially fascinating, as more extremist parties gain power amidst riots and general social unrest.

When I started this blog, I knew it was a matter of time until Hungary made its inevitable appearance. Friends who’d visited Hungary while abroad raved about the food and the beauty of Budapest and I realized that while I might intimately understand the political culture, the simple culture remained an unknown. I came across a recipe for Budapest coffee Bundt cake and decided to do a little research on the name. Turns out, Hungary once had a thriving coffee house culture before even Paris or Austria. Not only did Hungarians brew great coffee, but they also made delicious cakes and pastries in accompaniment. Artists and writers, many of whom had no heating in their homes, flocked to coffee houses for the warmth, but also the company and the refreshments. (The stereotype of ‘starving artist’ has deep historical roots – just look at what happened to poor Mozart.)

However, Hungary fell under the iron curtain after World War II and the Soviet Union, fearing that the coffee houses would become hotbeds of dissent, moved to shut them all down. In the 24 years following the fall of the iron curtain, coffeehouse culture has made a sort of comeback, though many coffee shops are frequented by tourists rather than locals.

While I continue my quest to learn everything (literally, everything) about my new favorite country, I’ll content myself with enjoying moist, cinnamon-cocoa slices of Budapest coffee cake and imagining the day when I can actually visit the vibrant coffee houses of Budapest. One day.
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The New Nutella

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My friends once told me that if I were to be any country in the world, I would be Belgium. I personally saw myself as more of a Netherlands, but after all of them unanimously agreed I was Belgium, I began to see their point.

Belgium just gets me. It’s a tiny country, I’m 5’1″. It has delicious chocolate. I love delicious chocolate. Belgians also make this liège waffle, which is perfect and delicious and chewy with crunchy pearls of sugar. And Belgium created Nutella, which I love dearly.

Belgium also has a beautiful and almost impenetrable forest, the Ardennes. (Of course, the Germans used it in both world wars to successfully launch attacks on France. Clearly, Europe learned its lessons.) Belgium also swore neutrality in both world wars, which I’ve always admired. World War I began for such ridiculous reasons, and World War II was, in my eyes, simply a continuation.

And Belgium is torn between two languages and two cultures, that of the Flemish and the Walloons. As a Chinese-American, I can understand the difficulties of straddling two cultures. Sometimes there is no compromise between the two, and I’m left in some sort of limbo. For example, paying the check is a fight for honor in Chinese culture, whereas in America, I feel like there’s always one person trying to avoid paying his full share. I end up embarrassed and upset either way.

Sometimes, you can’t win. But then sometimes, something comes along so winning and wonderful that all the bad just melts away. Once again, I owe it to Belgium. Thank you, oh great Belgian people, for discovering that speculoos could be made into a delicious, slightly spiced, crunchy yet creamy spread. But also, curse you, oh terrible Belgian people, for creating a substance that I literally cannot stop eating. It tastes good on bread, it tastes good just licked off a spoon, hell, it even makes oatmeal taste good.

Belgium, you’re the foodie of Europe and I love you for it. Thank you for creating so many delicious sweets and spreads, and despite all your political complications, I still think you’re a pretty cool place.

Then again, I would probably say anything for a lifetime supply of speculoos. You think I’m joking? As the Chinese would say, 我不是开玩笑。

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