Cooking our families' foods: The journey away from and back to the kitchen for children of immigrants

Reconnecting with our cuisine can require reconciling racism, patriarchy — and our own cultures.

Reconnecting with our cuisine can require reconciling racism, patriarchy — and our own cultures

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

At the age of 20, my maternal grandmother (my ammama) had two children and was running her household. Similarly, in her 20s and early 30s, my mom was cooking her way through three continents — moving from India to Ireland and then to Canada, building her career and feeding a family all along the way. Meanwhile, at the age of 20, I am a semi-functioning human, living at home, tackling grad school one reading at a time and not cooking at anywhere near their level when they were my age. 

When I was younger, I didn't give much thought to learning to cook my traditional foods, though it's not as if I didn't do it. I spent hours in the kitchen, observing, helping and, I thought, learning. But I don't have the instinctive relationship with our foods that my mom and ammama have — I can't just wake up and make a perfectly crispy dosa.  

From speaking with friends, I know I'm not alone in this. So why is it that kids of immigrants hit this bump on the road to learning how to cook the food we grew up eating and sometimes making too? 

There seems to be a preconceived notion that food traditions are passed down by mothers to children as they grow up — an inbuilt generational pattern. Sinikka Elliott, co-author of the book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, argues this process of acquiring culinary knowledge for immigrants and their children often looks different than that. She has done extensive research on the role of food in families. "If you just casually ask someone, they might just say … I learned from my mom," she said. "But in fact, if you actually interview people and you ask them how they learned how to cook, you find out that it's usually in young adulthood and when they have to cook for themselves."

This ideal of children cooking with their mothers "can be especially challenging, say, for low-income or food-insecure moms who may be more likely to work odd hours that don't line up with mealtimes," said Merin Oleschuk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph specializing in the sociology of food. For immigrants, she said, "the expectations that mothers are going to [pass down food traditions are] even more heightened because food itself holds more layers of symbolic significance or meaning." 

Add to the practical hurdles: the materials and spaces ideal for making traditional food far from home. 

When cultural anthropologist Glen Chua was a child, his family migrated from Singapore to Kelowna, B.C., into a house with an open-concept kitchen with white marble, which he described as "great to look at [but] horrible for cooking Asian food." They converted a section of their three-car garage into a kitchen, complete with a gas stove. "What we called our Asian kitchen," he said. "We went to great lengths to find big woks that we could fry stuff in. We installed a ventilation system.… That was the room where we did all the smelly stuff, all the smoky stuff, all the stinky stuff." He has found that this struggle to find an adequate space continues today. "That, for me, was the first sort of [wake-up] call to see that the environment that we're moving into wasn't set up for the way that we lived our lives and the way that we cooked," he said. 

Even in a place like Vancouver, which is known for its diverse food scene, this remains an issue. Amanda Leong, a 22-year-old UBC student, said it takes more effort to cook traditional Chinese food. "It's so much easier to make white people food because everything is always there," she said. "Everything you need is super accessible, right? But with more Asian flavours, you have to go to, like, a T&T [Supermarket] for that, you can't just go to a [Real Canadian] Superstore, you can't go to a Walmart, you can't go to a Loblaws. You have to go to a T&T. You have to go to Chinatown for some things." 

Much has been written about the complicated relationship with food that can begin for children of immigrants in elementary school — the "lunch box moment" — when what you eat for lunch can make cultural differences incredibly clear. Most recently, food writers as well as members of the immigrant diaspora have expressed ire over the constant focus on these stories. It is true the immigrant experience is not a monolith, nor should it be discussed as such, and yet this does not invalidate these real events. Lunch box moments effectively encourage assimilation at a young age and have impacted the way in which kids of immigrants identify with their culture. 

"Food is such a sensory experience, right? So as soon as you take the food out of your lunch box, there's a smell," said Chua. "I remember incidents where I would kind of take the food out and ... [the first thing] that people might say is, like, 'Oh, that smells weird' or 'That smells gross.' 'Like, what is that?' At which point, my natural inclination is not to say, 'Well, with this dish, let me introduce it to you. This is part of my culture.' No, my first impulse was to say, 'Oh, OK. Maybe you're right and maybe I should be eating something really boring and non-problematic."

"I wanted to be more westernized," said Alger Liang. A visual arts student at UBC minoring in Asian Canadian and Asian migration studies, and a second-generation Canadian, he'd choose peanut butter sandwiches over his mother's dumplings when he was growing up — a deliberate act with some unintended consequences. "I kind of like was alienating myself from my culture and I didn't know it," he said. "And I was doing that through food."

This pressure to assimilate can force children from minority backgrounds to create two different identities from an early age: one who has all the signs of having blended into a primarily white culture and one who protectively holds onto their roots. Danni Olusanya, a 22-year-old history student at UBC — whose parents immigrated from Nigeria to the U.K., where she was born, and then Canada — explains how distancing yourself from your traditional foods can be an individual protective measure, but also a way to protect your culture as a whole. "There is a certain way that people talk about African foods and African things — even if they didn't realize. It's like this mix of, like, curiosity and mild disgust," she said. "There's always been a big part of me that's wanted to keep that private and keep anything that's even remotely cultural or ties back to home ... away so that other people can't just ruin that for me."

Along with the pressures associated with assimilation, Olusanya noted the impact the gendered nature of learning to cook has had on her knowledge of Nigerian food. 

"I think one of the things that's holding me back is the fact that I am a woman," she said. "There's these ideas that women are supposed to cook and clean. And so for a lot of my life, I didn't want to do this. [I wanted to] be as far away from that for as long as possible."  

The pressure patriarchy creates when it comes to passing down traditional knowledge about food is both well recognized by research and felt by many women. "It reproduces a kind of patriarchal idea about women's role in families," Oleschuk said. "And then this kind of reflects this cultural expectation that mothers should cook with their kids at home, which then … fosters this sense of anxiety around this process and leads to a lot of 'mom guilt.'" 

There can also be an element of protection in why mothers hesitate to include their children in the cooking process. "If you understand that they're trying to protect their kids from the kind of arduous responsibility and labour that they saw themselves having to do from a young age, you can appreciate why they might be doing that now and how racism and sexism kind of informed their experiences" Elliott said. 

As we grow older, we become more concretely aware of these obstacles, and many of us find ourselves returning to the kitchen and to our food with a renewed sense of purpose. "I'm older and I'm definitely more secure in my identity," Olusanya said. "It feels like I've lost out on a lot of things that could have been passed down to me. And so now I'm, like, trying to catch up with all of that."

For Liang, moving out prompted this return. "This is the first time that I really think about how to do this as part of my life, and I like how my culture takes form through food" he said. 

But also, as we get older, access to familial resources can become increasingly difficult: we may move out, our family members age, relationships can change, all creating distance from our homes. And back to the struggle I'm facing. Even if you do have great teachers in-house, that doesn't mean you'll be an A student. "I feel like it's so organic," Liang said. "They don't even need measuring tools. They just kind of put it in the pan, and it's all so intuitive. I wish I could embody that. But for me, it's like I have to revisit it … navigating different sources to get to resources, information that [is] so natural to my family."

Lacking this seemingly intuitive knowledge can leave young adult second- and third-generation Canadians like me with a more uphill path to cooking our food than our parents had — maybe not dissimilar to trying to learn our mother-tongue language too late. 

So when you do decide to learn or recreate your cultural dishes with greater success, how do you start? Most of those I spoke with gave primacy to learning directly from their families, worried that online sources or others would be less authentic or void of history. "I'd definitely go to [an] online source," said Liang. "But I would make sure that the person is reflective of the culture and the food that they make or vouched for." 

It can be difficult for children of immigrants to find these respectful sources and even harder to find ones that reflect regional differences and the diversity of their origins. Food media has traditionally been a white space wherein the erasure of history and cultural context have been criticized.

"Representation in food media is incredibly important," Oleschuk said. "We're just really starting to have those conversations and hopefully change the landscape of who's represented and what types of dishes are represented and what sorts of identities are possible and who can see themselves within the online food landscape." As the landscape improves, descendants of immigrants and the broader diasporic community will hopefully have access to a much more varied array of sources they can engage with.

"I think that getting it from the source and the unique way my grandparents would do it would be more interesting to me than another family's way of doing it," said Nathan Leong, a third-generation Canadian whose grandparents immigrated to Canada in the 1930s. Describing how the pressure to assimilate led his family to relinquish Chinese customs and food at home, he feels an urgency to learn as much as he can to keep his culture alive. "I would like to be able to pass it on ... generation to generation even though I didn't grow up with a strong influence of culture," he said.

The relationship kids of immigrants have with food will always be different than that of their parents. My ammama had to learn to cook because she was responsible for running a family. For me and other second- and third-generation Canadians learning how to really cook the food of our culture, our approach sometimes comes later, and the path to learning is circuitous. It can look like a complex journey back to our culture after a period of journeying away. 

Neha Tadepalli is a graduate student at Columbia University studying human rights and lots of human wrongs. She likes exploring the intersections between the personal and the political in both her writing and her studies. You can find her on Twitter @neha_tadepalli.

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