Some of my earliest memories involved spending lots of time in my grandparents’ kitchen, observing them prepare food from their culture. Back then, it wasn’t food from their culture — it was soul food. It was food that nourished our family and brought loved ones together.
When I think about food, and its important role it plays, it is not just for sustenance, but there is also a social aspect to food. Food is present in all our celebrations as well as in times of mourning. In the Philippines, whenever we visited family members’ houses, we’d have to eat at each house we stopped at. Refusal to eat was unaccepted. It was considered rude to not accept food — almost as though it was an insult.
Copious amounts of food is also prepared when a loved one dies. Extended family, distant relatives, close family friends and neighbours come over and one would think it were a feast or a fiesta with all the food for the week-long wake and then the funeral.
If you’ve ever been invited to a Filipino dinner or party, you will note the crazy amount of food…and everyone taking photos of all the food! This practice has existed far before Instagram was created! My siblings, cousins and I always asked our parents why they were constantly taking photos of all the food! Now, with the advent of Instagram, I get it. People love documenting beautiful food. It evokes memories and food appreciation is something most of us can relate to.
I often think of what has shaped the type of cook and eater I am today. There is no doubt that my food habits are largely influenced by my upbringing and family. At the same time, it has also been influenced by the environment in which I grew up.
Though I was born to immigrant parents (Dad being Chinese from Trinidad and Tobago and Mom being Filipina), I was born and raised the suburbs of Montreal. The food my cohorts were raised on consisted of some Quebecois dishes (poutine and tourtiere, for example) and a variety of foods like burgers, Shepherd’s Pie, pasta, etc.
When I was growing up, the West Island was a mixture of francophones, anglophones, and some Asians (in our neighbourhood those Asians were mostly my family!), and Europeans. No wonder the food I grew up with had such a variety of influences.
If, like me, you are interested in how cuisine evolves with the movement of people around the planet, I think you will be interested in the new TVO series, The Food Chain.
The Food Chain
The Food Chain is a multi-platform series of documentaries and current affairs which sets out to examine what we are eating, where it comes from and how it appears on our plate within political, social and economical contexts.
I am deeply curious about all things food and agriculture related because a) I’m a foodie and b) I’m also part of a farming family. I married a beef farmer and together we own and operate a 750 acre farm. I am interested in the political, social and economical aspects of food.
The first show in the series is a 10-part show called Girl Eat World, hosted by Kamini Pather (winner of MasterChef South Africa Season 2). The show premiered on October 26th 2015 at 9pm. Inquisitive about how food is changing the way people think about themselves and their city? This 10-part travelogue will also be available for streaming online and can be viewed here: tvo.org/thefoodchain.
Girl Eat World
The premise of the show is an interesting one. Kamini’s mission is “to discover how food is changing the way people think about themselves and their city”. In Girl Eats World, Kamini endeavours to learn about the history, culture and ethnic diversity of cities all over the world through their food. I really loved that in order to get the inside scoop on food in the cities represented in the series, Kamini turns to local food bloggers. It really makes sense! How best does one get an insider’s view? Kamini and the food bloggers visit places off-the-beaten-track, markets, trendy restaurants and even some up-and-coming eateries — and, all in effort to uncover the current food scene in each city and reflect on the culinary history in those respective cities.
My food memories from my childhood are full of of a variety of fragrant spices and an eclectic array of multi-national cuisine. We ate everything from Greek, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Caribbean, French, Lebanese, Italian to Filipino food. I remember my father would return from his many work trips (work took him on international travel on a regular basis) and Dad would recreate dishes he tried in Paris or Argentina. My Dad is an adventurous cook and always excited to recreate dishes he has tried. I remember one trip to Paris, Dad was excited to have us try escargot and les cuisses de grenouille. We were young and couldn’t really get the image out of our heads, but we tried them, and they were just as good as Dad said they were. I love that Dad is always so excited to recreate international dishes and share them with us. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, because I am that way now, and so is my six year old daughter.
I was very lucky to grow up in Montreal, where all kinds of cuisine imaginable can be accessed. Thanks to Montreal’s large population of immigrants from all over the world, ingredients could be found easily and all kinds of restaurants imaginable are available. I am thankful to my parents for giving us the opportunity to travel and see the world.
I think it’s because of my love of food and travel that when I was single and in my twenties, I would hop on a plane and go to Bali for authentic Nasi Goreng, or fly to Singapore for some spicy Singapore noodles and a Singapore Sling!
One of the Girl Eat World episodes I was really excited about was the one on Tokyo. After I finished university, I worked as a supply teacher in Ontario, but had really itchy feet and wanted to see the world. I had traveled extensively with my family and wanted to explore the world myself. I ended up living and working overseas as an English teacher and my journeys took me to Japan.
Prior to traveling to Japan and working and living there for two years, I honestly did not expect all the culinary delights I would experience while there. I naively believed that Japanese food was simply raw fish, California rolls and Chicken Teriyaki. Was I ever in for a big surprise!
I was surprised at all the different dishes Japan had. I quickly became a fan of everything from Omurice, Agedashi tofu, Japanese curry (Nasu curry because I was vegetarian most of my adult life), yaki soba, and even dishes served at traditional izakayas and ryokans.
I was also introduced to Okonomiyaki by my Japanese friends and students. There was a tiny Okonomiyaki shop a stone’s throw from the school I taught at. I also learned that there were two styles of Okonomiyaki, depending on which area you lived in. Kansai style and Hiroshima style. The Okonomiyaki I was most familiar with was the one from the region I lived in — Hiroshima.
Just seeing familiar spots of Tokyo in that episode made me a bit nostalgic and reminded me of what I appreciated about the culture…and its food! I was also reminded of how despite the futuristic look and feel of Tokyo, there is still a connection to the natural world. One of the most surprising things I saw in this episode was the urban honey farm amidst the grandeur of high-rise Ginza. Tamiko Suzuki-Sakuma was an excellent guide.
In the episodes of Girl Eat World that I’ve watched, I started thinking about how the way I ate and cooked when I was growing up has shaped the cook as well as the kind of eater I am today. The program kept bringing me back to my roots and really made me think about my parents and my grandparents. Not only was I living in an anglophone part of French Canada, but I came from a family who was just putting down roots in Canada. My grandparents on my maternal side lived through World War II, escaped from Japanese soldiers, and then went on to eventually live a life of privilege, as both my grandmother and grandfather held important titles in the workforce. They could afford to have hired help to clean, cook, and care for the children.
Moving to Canada played a huge part in shaping the way my family eats today. Growing up in Montreal, my peers ate lots of pasta, hamburgers, hot dogs, and a variety of other kinds of food. I remember being in elementary school and feeling a bit embarrassed that we ate rice at most of our meals and when we had big celebrations with a lechon (roasted whole pig on a spit…in our backyard!), I wanted to cringe. I remember not wanting to invite friends over when we were having fish, because it would be either fried or grilled, whole. Back then, my friends had never eaten fish with its head on. Now, as an adult, I appreciate and am fiercely proud of my culture’s food. Now, people seem more adventurous in trying food from different countries too.
I started to think about growing up observing my grandparents and parents in the kitchen, watching my aunts and my mom at the kitchen table in an assembly line-fashion, rolling lumpia or assembling skewers of Filipino BBQ. Food and the appreciation of food, and how to grow, prepare and cook our food, starts at home. It’s about engaging all our senses, knowing where our food comes from, and teaching children lessons from different generations. Our food is definitely a mix of different influences.
When I think of how our food culture and the way food is looked at have changed over the generations. I never really considered how much of a role food played in the way we think about ourselves and our culture. Now, my family grows most of our food. Much of our fruit and vegetables are grown on our farm, we grow grains (for our animals and also for ourselves), our fish is caught fresh from the lakes on the Island (my Dad is an excellent fisherman!), our eggs are from our hens on our farm, and what we do not grow on our farm, I try to purchase from local farmers and support local as much as I can. This said, I also shop at our grocery store for ingredients that cannot be produced locally. I really am more mindful about food now than when I was younger.
What was your experience growing up? Who or what do you think shaped the way you cook and eat today?
TVO’s The Food Chain airs Mondays at 9pm from October 26th to November 23rd and will also be available for streaming at tvo.org/thefoodchain.
Disclosure: I received compensation in exchange for promoting TVO’s The Food Chain however, as always, all thoughts and opinions expressed on this blog are honest and my own.