Finding Culture in Family Recipes

Written by Alisha Morales. Follow her at @alisharawr.

It’s evening and, like many other families across the globe, my relatives and I are busy preparing a delicious home-cooked meal. I look across the kitchen and see three generations of my family working together—washing, cutting, and mixing the necessary ingredients for one of my favorite dishes, sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish that consists of sliced meat (usually kobe beef), vegetables (such as spinach, shitake mushrooms, tofu), shirataki noodles, and a sweet broth. I cherish times like these, not just because I get to chow down on some yummy food, but also because, in these moments, I grow closer to my family and my Asian culture.

When thinking about culture, you can’t separate food from the mix. Through food—traditions are passed down, love is expressed, and families spend quality time together, so it’s no surprise that food is considered an important part of our cultural identities. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are centered around times spent in the kitchen; from cutting up fish cakes for a pot of oden, to kneading masa for tamales, whenever my family is cooking there are sure to be good times and happy people with full stomachs.

Cooking at home.

Cooking at home.

For me, cooking with my family is more than just a duty or a pastime. As a mixed-race Japanese/Mexican American who hasn’t become fluent in Japanese nor visited my Asian ancestral homeland I often feel detached from my Asian identity; so I have endeavored to find different ways to connect and understand part of the culture that makes up who I am.

Many millennials with similar backgrounds like myself are born in America and grew up speaking English as their native language, so we hold onto our culture through food. It is often one of our earliest introductions to our roots, a way of coming into our cultural identities. Although food is not the only way I try to stay culturally connected to my Asian identity, it is often the most accessible.  Throughout the years I have gained a lot from cooking with my relatives. From understanding the inner workings of sushi (which is harder to make than it looks) to learning secret family recipes from my elders, taking the time to prepare Japanese meals has helped me feel closer to my family and my cultural heritage.

Alisha and her family.

Alisha and her family.

The preservation of culture through food can be observed in the traditions used in Japanese cooking, even in simple tasks such as the art of making soup base. Over the years I have learned that in Japanese cuisine, dashi, a simple broth, is a fundamental ingredient and arguably the heart of many Japanese dishes. Though there are several types of dashi, the most common version is made from a combination of kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried tuna). Coincidentally, dashi is one of the key ingredients used when making the soup base for sukiyaki. Though many may not understand its significance, you can most certainly taste it. Whenever you raise a bowl of Japanese soup to your lips and slurp the broth, you’re most likely tasting umami, one of the five basic tastes, which roughly translated in Japanese means “pleasant savory taste.” Without dashi, many dishes would lack their depth and richness, which, in my opinion, is what makes Japanese cuisine mouthwateringly delicious.

Though some may consider those in my generation (the Millennials or Gen Y) as less passionate or interested in preserving our cultural heritage, I would beg to differ. Though it is true that many young millennials like me are disconnected from the experiences that generations before us have lived I’d argue that we are ardently searching for avenues which will help us to better understand and learn about the cultural heritage of our ancestors. So, to whom it may concern, I encourage you to get to know more about your roots; whether it’s sitting down to have a conversation with your relatives or attempting to make a home-made cultural dish, I hope that, like me, you’ll come away with a new, deeper understanding of your sense of self and cultural identities.  

Recipe for Sukiyaki (variation from book Japanese Family-Style Recipes by Hiroko Urakami):

Broth:

  1-½ cups dashi broth

  3-4 tablespoons sugar

  5 tablespoons soy sauce

  3 tablespoons mirin

  2 tablespoons sake

 

1-½ thinly sliced beef

2 bundles of shirataki

1 package firm tofu

1 bunch spinach

steamed rice

Combine broth ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and set aside. Arrange the beef, shirataki, tofu, and spinach on a large platter. Heat a cast-iron pot set on a portable gas or electric burner (use an electric fry pan, if you don't have either one) at the dinner table. Pour in broth and heat to around 375 degrees. When the broth is hot, combine ingredients in the pot and let them cook for a few minutes or until done to your liking. Serve diners as food is ready and continue cooking until all of the ingredients are used. Add more broth as needed. Serve with steamed rice (optional).