“What is your favourite food?” my best friend once asked.
“Probably sushi or American diner food,” my 8 year old self answered.
“Oh, I thought it would be Chinese cuisine since you are Asian,” she replied, with a disappointed look on her face.
I was confused for a moment as to why she said that. Was my favourite cuisine supposed to be Chinese? Was I disrespecting my own culture by not choosing that as my answer? You can tell I had a lot of follow up questions brewing in my head right at that moment. But instead of all the possible things I could’ve said, I just shrugged my shoulders. Mainly because I didn’t know how to articulate my words so she would understand why what she said was presumptuous.
I stopped having my packed lunches which were filled with an abundance of “Asian” goodies including: Pandan cake, a Yakult and a big bag of spicy Cal-bee crisps. Purely because I didn’t feel “worthy” to be proud of my Asian heritage. In primary school, I was the only South East Asian student in my year. People would question as to why I was eating a “green sandwich” (which was really just a pandan cake). Nevertheless I always scoffed down my food as quickly as possible to avoid being stared at.
When suddenly in the more recent years, “Asian” cuisine had become trendy. Crispy seaweed, Pocky and Boba were all the rage. My friends started coming up to me in the playground asking for a packet of fortune cookies or “Chinese New Year” sweets. I just wished I hadn’t chosen to suppress the “Vietnamese-Chinese-Malaysian” part of my identity at an early age. I guess constantly being surrounded by people who ate pasta and sandwiches for lunch, whilst I was eating noodles with chopsticks made me feel like an outsider to society.
Growing up I ate a lot of amazing food. I was incredibly fortunate to have my two grandparents cook dinner for me every night. I tried a range of dishes from sweet and sour pork to “char siu” ribs. However the best dish they ever cooked for me, was their famous Malaysian chicken curry.
Juicy chicken breast and roasted fluffy potatoes coated in a thick layer of curry sauce that was made from fresh chillies and a blend of exotic herbs and spices. Mint, coriander, lime juice and coconut milk went hand in hand to create the perfect textures for an authentic curry sauce. To ensure that the flavours of the sauce were coming through, my grandma would regularly scoop a tiny amount of curry on her spoon and taste it. I reminded her to change spoons when tasting more than once, to avoid contamination of course.
When I decided that my favourite dish cooked by my grandparents was the Malaysian chicken curry, it became a tradition. For my birthday dinner, I would consume my body weight in rice, chicken curry, potatoes and brown bread. As I started telling stories to my friends about my grandad’s Malaysian chicken curry, they all started to request a sample of the dish. So one day, I brought it in at lunch for my friends to try and they all found it delicious. For a second. Until their tongues were burnt off from the scorching heat of the meal. A big part of the Asian culture is “spicy” food so I guess from an early age, my taste buds were used to the stings and tingling sensations that lived in my tongue. From that day onwards, I never brought my grandad’s Malaysian curry to school again. To avoid being told off by parents for attempted murder of their child’s ability to taste.
At the end of the year, our school hosted an annual “Prom on the Pitch” which was a summer night filled with carnival stalls, popcorn and candy floss machines, and bouncy castles. The families of students attending were required to bring a dish as a contribution to the refreshments eaten by teachers and parents. So the only dish our family could come up with was the one and only “Malaysian chicken curry”. When I was at school, my grandparents were at home, busy prepping the food and curry pastes ready for service in the evening.
So as I arrived on the green fields, we set up our gazebo tent and the food. My mother filled a bowl with piping hot Basmati rice and my grandmother used her golden ladle to pour the curry sauce, potatoes and chicken breast on top. (Note as this was a special occasion, my grandfather had decided to spruce things up a bit by adding tofu and lemongrass to the dish.) The tofu was plump and juicy, where curry absorbed into its circular pockets. As I served the dish to my teachers, their eyes stretched wide. Their foreheads perspired and their cheeks started to blush. According to my observations, the curry was a little too hot for their liking. Nevertheless my teachers praised the dish and expressed gratitude towards my grandparents. The headmaster even said it was the best dish he had tasted all night!
So I guess if my best friend were to ask me the same question again now, I would choose a different answer. I would say “My favourite food is my grandad’s Malaysian chicken curry. It’s my favourite, because I hold a very dear memory to this dish: Prom on the Pitch.”
Don’t ever feel pressured by someone else to tell you what you like to eat. If you’re Asian and you like to eat pizza, that’s cool. If you’re European and you like to eat ramen, that’s cool too. The beauty in sharing our traditions with each other is that we get to try different things and experience other cultures outside from our own. By doing this, we make the world a kinder and more accepting place for everyone.