The Triumph of Third-Culture Cooking
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As the child of Chinese immigrants growing up in a Western country, most of my youth was spent trying to blend in. My parents immigrated to Sydney, Australia, from Guangdong Province in the late ’50s and early ’60s, on the precipice of the cultural revolution. They settled in the suburbs (a predominantly white neighborhood that is now richly multicultural), and did their best to assimilate. Each day, they sent us off to school with what they had learned to be an iconic lunch: a Vegemite sandwich.
But that sandwich was a mask for what really went down at home. My mother cooked Cantonese food constantly and fervently; her kitchen a persistent reminder of her distant homeland. In the mornings, I would find her hunched over her wok, frying rice, tossing soy sauce noodles, or ladling macaroni soup into bowls. This was our breakfast, and even though I loved all these dishes, they were also a daily reminder that I was not as Australian as I longed to be. I wondered what it would be like just to eat a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast.
We hear a lot about how food unites us, but for the children of immigrants, it can also divide us. As a child, I felt conscious about everything that made me different to the other kids at school, and food seemed to be one of the most tangible representations of my otherness. Once, I asked my dad what cheese tasted like; the next day, he brought home a pack of Kraft Singles, individually wrapped squares that were like gold to me. Soon, Kraft cheese became a staple in our daily diet. To my delight, my mother tried her hand at grilled cheese sandwiches, but with a twist—the bread was topped with cubes of char siu and finely sliced scallions, draped in melted processed cheese. I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years, but I still dream about the deliciousness and genius of that toasty sandwich.
Throughout history, immigrants have always been the most enthusiastic proponents of improvisation, adaptation, and invention in the kitchen. Looking back, I realize that my love of third-culture cooking began right in my mother’s Chinese kitchen. Even though she cooked a traditional Cantonese banquet for dinner every night, there were signs of a second culture creeping into her cooking and techniques. She would often serve red-skinned frankfurters alongside soy sauce and white pepper, or add ketchup to her sweet and sour sauce. She cooked her fresh rice noodles in the microwave and spread condensed milk lavishly on her morning toast (a habit undoubtedly learned from her years in Hong Kong, where she lived while awaiting passage to Australia).
For third-culture kids (a term coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950s to describe children who grow up in a place that is not their parents’ homeland), home is often “everywhere and nowhere at once.” Personally, I didn’t see myself as inhabiting a third culture until I started cooking professionally. When I launched my salad delivery business in Sydney 10 years ago, the flavors of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Pacific, and, of course, the many cuisines of Asia—all an essential part of modern Australian cuisine—made their way into my cooking.
I grew warrigal greens, a native Australian plant, in my community garden, and turned it into pesto for a pasta salad (that recipe is in my first book, Community). I also experimented with Asian ingredients, mostly encouraged by my mother, who often cooked alongside me. She brought me seaweed to try, suggested wood ear fungus for its crunch (and multitude of health benefits) and coached me on the brands of mung bean vermicelli that would retain their fresh texture in salads. Under her watchful eye, I started combining disparate flavors and ingredients—hoisin sauce with tahini, ginger-scallion sauce with soba noodles, brussels sprouts with lotus root. For me, these combinations felt freeing, a license to cook the foods that felt natural to me and my experience as a Chinese girl growing up in Australia.
On the plate, I finally began to understand my cultural identity.
As I write about in my new book, To Asia, With Love, the way I cook today is a reflection of my heritage, my life growing up in the West, and my adult years spent living abroad. Many of my recipes are Asian in origin, inspired by tradition with a global interpretation. When I make jook, a beloved dish from childhood, I enjoy it topped with crispy kale or a swirl of tahini. My favorite childhood sandwich inspired my buttery, cheesy Vegemite noodles, while my crowded pantry, brimming with spices from all over the world, provides inspiration in reworking classic dishes from my childhood.
Enter shawarma noodles. The recipe came about purely by happenstance: an open jar of New York Shuk’s shawarma spice tempting me as I made my mother’s Singapore noodles. Hit by its warming spices of cumin, coriander, and paprika, a sudden craving saw me impulsively shaking the shawarma onto the rice vermicelli in my wok in place of curry powder. The result was a triumph.
It is easy to categorize third-culture cooking as simply fusion, but to do so erases how deeply connected these dishes are to people, place, and time. Unshackled of geographic certainty, this feeling of rootlessness is exactly what makes third-culture food so comforting to children who grew up teetering between two or more cultures. Existing in a third culture can often feel neither here nor there, but in food we can better understand the confluence of identity—how we can be a mixture of a lot of things, how we can still exist in harmony.