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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?

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Comments

Hannah

www.cbc.ca/bookclub

Great column. You bring up a good point about multiculturalism and food but I think it takes a *long* time for acceptance of new foods (and cultures) to take place. Also, living in an urban center helps. I remember eating great Ethiopian when I visited Regina, which I didn't expect before I got there. Still, when my mom went to a work potluck in the 80s, she took homemade sushi ("California rolls") and I remember the whole thing went untouched. I still meet people today who have never tried sushi.

Posted October 21, 2009 08:22 AM

Mark

This was quite an interesting read. Being Canadian in China has been a wild ride, and I can fully appreciate what new Canadians might go through in terms of food when they first arrive.
In China for the most part, if you want Western food, you have to use the D.Y.I. method. This includes making such things as spaghetti sauce and pesto. Good luck finding hickory BBQ sauce for your steak, and even better luck finding cheese.
Even things that we might traditionally eat during holidays such as whole hams, turkey, cranberry sauce, etc. are virtually unheard of.
Unless you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you can essentially forget about having home-baked pizza, lasagna, Yorkshire puddings with gravy, dill pickles, or even Mexican food (which by the way has been my observation that most Chinese detest).
And even if you wanted to make things from scratch, it is almost mission impossible to find decent oregeno, paprika, or garlic powder. Simon and Garfunkel would not be understood at all if they sung "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme"--because they do not have it here!!
So I can fully understand having to seek out ways to get the familiar tastes; to learn how to make foods from scratch; to save up enough money for that train ticket and hotel stay in Beijing shopping the in embassy district for rare goodies and spices.
Thanks for the godo read.

Posted October 21, 2009 08:32 AM

James

I think this is particularly insightful. For me becoming interested in food and gastronomy in general (which is how I see being a "foodie") as an art form came with greater exposure to the multitude of cultures in the Canadian mosaic. I have a pet theory that areas with strong acceptance of multiculturalism also foster a love of food and exploration thereof.

Posted October 21, 2009 08:49 AM

Christina

Toronto

I grew up in not-even-remotely-diverse suburbs to a Pacific Islander mother and American father. I can distinctly remember a friend coming over, lifting a lid on the stove and recoiling when she saw a fish cooking in a pan -- complete with the head. I was probably embarrassed at the time but now I appreciate that I was exposed to such food diversity.

Posted October 21, 2009 09:15 AM

Sarah Pugh

Victoria

I don't think even multicultural exposure is totally necessary - I grew up in Whitehorse - not exactly hugely multicultural in the 70s - but even just the partial living-off-the-land we did and eating moose and wild ducks instead of beef and chicken (and liking it) was sufficient to convince my sisters and me that good food is not just what's familiar. And, too, my parents always prized quality of food over quantity and inexpensiveness, and I think that makes a difference too.

Posted October 21, 2009 09:54 AM

Roger Mooking

Toronto

I love this article and can certainly appreciate certain aspects of it. Although I would argue that China does indeed have a very well documented history of its culinary traditions. Their food traditions are primarily passed down through the generations verbally and experentially but there are some well documented food records as well. Hunt around and find them, the journey is as exciting as the discovery; promise.

Posted October 21, 2009 11:08 AM

Ross Williams

I ate chicken feet when in Hong Kong. There wasn't much to them and I wouldn't want to make a meal of them. Chicken heads on a plate don't appeal to me , nor do snake or any insects. It's funny because I love frog's legs and escargot served in a restaurant but I don't like preparing escargot at home and I don't like the idea of butchering a frog. Snake meat is probably very good; it's just that the image of the live snake is always there.

Posted October 21, 2009 11:55 AM

Michael Lee

Calgary

Geat read Andree.
Your article struck a cord in me, having grown up with the same family roots from HK and then having emmigrated to Edmonton.
I love the blossom of diversity that is available in Western Canada now and look salivatingly towards further new cuisines.
Really enjoy www.ugonnaeatthat.com as well.
Thanks so much!

Posted October 21, 2009 09:42 PM

Barbara Cowan

I grew up in downtown Toronto at the end of WW11. My parents had both come to Canada from Europe in the'20's and had met and married in Toronto. They both enjoyed food and we quite often had culinary delights from other countries as our "melting pot" area offered a large choice. My problem started when we moved away from this area to a more "Canadian" area where people didn't even know what garlic was. My friends were quite interested in what I ate and my lunch was usually the first to get traded! It was their parents who quite often looked askance at my diet. I am glad that food from other countries are quite acceptable now because that is the first step in learning other cultures.

Posted October 23, 2009 05:38 AM

Andrea

Toronto

Thanks for all the comments, everyone!

@Michael: Sorry, I'm Andrea, not Andree of www.ugonnaeatthat.com but thanks for your comments and I'm glad it you liked my post.

Posted October 26, 2009 09:10 AM

Kristel's Kitchen

Montreal

Every culture has its own deeply rooted culinary culture. What is wonderful about living in Canada is that we get exposed to so much variety that unwillingly we end up integrating all these different aspects into our own. Think about all the little things you eat and where they come from and i'm sure you will notice how multicultural your plate is, and how all these different flavours from around the world merge together. In my kitchen i make things from all over the world, only it is my way of making them that make up part of who I am. =)

www.kristelskitchen.com

Posted October 26, 2009 02:07 PM

Desiree Kazaure

I lived in Nigeria, where a lot of different nationalities came to live and work.(Still do). This was a wonderful oportunity to experience different cultures and their foods. The chinese friends I had did not eat much fried foods, they were healthy soups, lots of vegetables and bursting with flavour. The fist and only time I tasted snake was by a chinese friend. It was similar to smoked salmon but sweet and sour. Very good, I must say. I asked an Indian friend if they every got fedup of eating vegetables all the time being vegetarian, her mum made a spread that up to this day,I remember. The table was full of different vegetables made in different ways with different spices. I must have wobbled home that day! Then I had a Hungarian friends, Meditaranean food, I could go on and on. Again every African tribe has it's own menu too and I think because I tried all these culinary wonders, I always try something before deciding if I like it or not. At home I cook a lot of recipes from all over the world. Most of all home cooking made with love is the best. By the way in some parts of Nigeria, chicken feet are deep fried and given to the children to eat!

Posted October 26, 2009 07:00 PM

Peter

Hi, I came to rural Alberta from England when I was 9 years old in the early 60's. My parents were disgusted to find they couldn't buy things such as horseradish, dry mustard, mushrooms, brussel sprouts, garlic etc. Their neighbours considered these "exotic" foods.

My mum cooked a variety of international foods as well as good old English staples for special occasions. Our holiday dinners might see roast goose, chicken, beef or lamb with roast potatoes (perhaps new potatoes in the spring). The occasional cold tongue or ham might also be featured. Veggies might consist of peas, green beans, broad (fava) beans, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower etc. My parents were always amazed that "Canadian" holiday dinners always featured roast turkey, mashed potatoes, glutinous gravy and green beans or canned niblets.

I am glad Canada's gastronomical scene is far different today. We are all richer (and perhaps better fed) for it.

Incidentally my partner is originally from Asia and her friends are suprised that I like their food and don't just eat "Canadian" food. I always tell them that their food is just as "Canadian" as is roast beef or poutine or bannock.

Posted November 3, 2009 09:44 AM

Michael Lee

Calgary

Andrea Chiu,
Sincere apologies for my mix-up: "tellabo solly!" You should have and pix bio on the writers section too.

Posted November 11, 2009 07:49 AM

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About the blog

From trends and culture to politics and nutrition, Food Bytes serves up tasty tidbits about food and the issues surrounding it that flavour our everyday lives.

About the writers

Amber Hildebrandt Amber Hildebrandt writes for CBCNews.ca in Toronto. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, she acquired an insatiable appetite, but it was during a stint in Japan that she developed her discerning tastebuds and "foodie" ways.

Andrea Chiu Andrea Chiu is an associate producer at CBC Radio Digital. Though she loves to eat, cook and discuss food, don't ask her to bake. It never turns out well. She tweets as @TOfoodie on Twitter and organizes food and wine events in Toronto called FoodieMeet.

Tara Kimura Tara Kimura is the consumer life reporter for CBCNews.ca, covering a wide range of issues that range from rising food costs and the growing organic movement, to new trends in the marketplace.

Andree Lau Andree Lau is a CBC web reporter in Calgary. Her journalism career includes seven years as a CBC-TV reporter. Her own blog called "are you gonna eat that?" chronicles her eating adventures (including sampling snake and camel hoof tendon).

Jessica Wong Jessica Wong is a CBCNews.ca writer who loves to eat and cook, as well as discuss, read and watch programming about food, sometimes all at once.

Kevin Yarr Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca's writer in Prince Edward Island, wrote about food and beer for national and regional magazines before joining the CBC. He acquired a desire for new tastes on his first trip to Europe, and an appreciation of eating locally and in season when he finally settled down on P.E.I.

Elizabeth Bridge Elizabeth Bridge is a writer with the CBC Digital Archives in Toronto. She first ventured into the kitchen as a child to indulge a sweet tooth by baking cookies and making fudge. A student budget compelled her to be a vegetarian (for a while) and instilled in her an ongoing curiosity about food and cooking.

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