The challenges of being single, male, living in the city, with a very busy schedule, and a love for food (both preparing and especially consuming it) – what a dilemma. I joked with my parents that in this age of gender equality, there’s no guarantee that the girl I fall in love with will know, or want to learn how to cook, and so if I didn’t want to stave, and if I wanted to eat the foods I know and love (e.g. mom’s cooking), I would have to learn to cook for myself, and probably eventually my family.
I am Taiwanese-American (parents from Taiwan, I was born in the United States), and I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen. When my parents called to tell us they were on their way home, it was my job to wash the rice and set it to cook. Once they got home, it was my cue to head to the kitchen, peel carrots, cut veggies, and stir the pots and pans. There are few ingredients I avoid, except, like Mike, okra. The only time I’ve ever liked okra, was when it was made by one of my friends, Grace who made a traditional Kwanzaa dish for a Christmas / Holiday potluck.
In the beginning …
As a poor college student (as I’d imagine many others were too) figuring out how to stretch my funds and my ingredients, while transforming them into something more desirable (e.g. making chicken taste like beef) became important. There were definitely many occasions where dinner consisted of 3-4 cups of white rice and nothing more. If there were leftovers, dinner the next night would be a treat – rice fried in a little olive oil, with salt and pepper. Post graduation, I discovered my passion for baking which spoke to my inclination for measurements, and precision. The anticipation and unveiling of the final product, be it success or failure, was also fun and interesting. Tweaking and playing with proportions and substitutes, while taboo in baking, helped me learn and appreciate the role each ingredient played in a recipe. Oh the myriad of things you can do with the same 5 ingredients just by changing the proportions was fascinating! I didn’t have much of a sweet tooth though, so I sought to develop more personally practical cooking skills, though my friends lamented the end of their supply of baked goods.
In Practice …
I had to adapt to my living situation and break certain norms that I grew up with as a child. Questions that became important to me included:
- How to do you incorporate variety in your cooking without keeping a stocked fridge?
- How do you cook for one?
- What are some shortcuts, adaptations, or improvisations you can make to recipes when necessary?
- How do you cook more efficiently and effectively, to reduce waste and costs?
My method of learning to cook is also largely self-taught and is much more research based so it starts as theory, and transitions to practice. It starts with a goal, and I work my way back from there to understand what it takes to reach that goal, planning and modifying as necessary. Sometimes it takes me back to a familiar place, sometimes it takes me to a new place, sometimes I have an idea of ways to do it better. As I research methods and techniques, and why they’ve come to be, I’m reminded of the quote:
“Custom without truth is but ancient error repeated.” – House of Commons records, 1641
In Passion …
I love food not just simply for what it is, but also for what it can do. The act of sharing food, and even more so, the feeding of others is so basic and primal in the way it speaks towards our human needs for survival, and yet is such a refined act of building communities, trust, and relationships. If you think about catching up with a friend or building relationships, the most familiar way to do so is by breaking bread. It serves as such an important medium for communication and cultural exchange, and brings joy in the way it touches people almost without fail, to anyone taking part.
These days, I spend much of my time cooking at a soup kitchen where I get to make a mess, help those in need, and let others clean up behind me. I’ve been blessed with plenty, and it gives me joy to share what I have and to touch those around me.
In that spirit, I’ve picked up a few things along the way so I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned and hopefully you’ll find them interesting and entertaining too!