Chicken feet & culinary curiosity

By Andrea Chiu, CBC Radio Digital

When my parents first moved from Hong Kong to Canada in the late 1970s there were only a few restaurants and cafes offering Chinese food. Still, I grew up with a childhood rich with congee, dim sum and windows of hanging roasted animals -- faces and all.

Food, then and now, plays a central role in our family. We love to cook and eat and while we do those things, we talk about it.

I can't say with certainty that had I grown up in a family of a different heritage I wouldn't appreciate food as much as I do. But I know that my Chinese roots have much to do with my foodie fascination.

China has a rich culinary history that may not be as well documented as French or Italian gastronomy, but is nonetheless significant. Food in Chinese culture is the centre of all gatherings. Wedding banquets seem endless with multiple courses of vegetables, meats, seafood, more meat, rice and noodles and finally dessert. Chinese New Year is celebrated with more banquets of equal excess, each dish signifying good luck, prosperity or health.

So when I'm asked why there is a recent surge of foodie-ism, I point to my childhood supper table. I can't argue that the sexy food programming isn't a major contributor to Canada's interest in food, but we should also credit the diversification of our collective palette. Our interest in food would be much smaller today if we didn't have an increasing number of Japanese restaurants, roti shops and Ethiopian joints to fuel new taste experiences.

Since my parents first arrived in Canada, there has been a great surge in the number of Chinese restaurants and cuisine available where we live in Toronto. But it's not just Chinese food that helps Canadians develop their tastes.

Food is much more interesting when your co-worker has a lunch you've never tasted before. Suddenly, you're curious about flavours from these new cuisines and how they could be incorporated into your cooking. How would smoked paprika or star anise taste in your favourite chili recipe?

While I'm still intimidated by the idea of cooking complicated Chinese dishes, it is my ancestry that has influenced my curiosity in love of food. I wasn't restricted to chicken breast, I ate chicken feet, livers and stared down at chicken heads garnishing a restaurant plate. This unabashed love of all kinds of food has allowed me to maintain an open mind when it comes to gastronomy.

How has your family or heritage shaped the way you feel about food?