Queen’s Eats: Culinary connections to my culture

Four foods that foster my relationship to family and culture

Food is a great way to connect with your culture.
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Cultural identity as a second-generation Canadian is difficult to navigate.

I was born in the Greater Toronto Area to a Filipino mother and an Indonesian father, and when I was one year old, we moved from our diverse neighborhood in Vaughan to a predominantly white farming town about an hour and a half away.

Being raised from then on in a largely white town, I was usually the only Asian kid in my class. However, despite being a minority, I didn’t have to fight to fit in. I spoke the same language, watched the same TV shows, and knew the same games as all of my peers. I was so entrenched in white Canadian culture that I had a tenuous connection with my parents’ cultures.

They never put pressure on me or my siblings to preserve their cultures. In fact, my sister was fluent in Tagalog as a toddler, but my parents thought a second language would make it harder for her to learn English. As a result, they only spoke English at home with my sister and, subsequently, with my brother and me.

English being my first and only language was a barrier at family reunions. I would sit and listen to conversations in Tagalog, and wait for an aunt or uncle to throw me a question in English about school.

Coming to Queen’s and meeting Asian students with strong senses of their cultures affirmed that I was disconnected from my own.

Though I’m still learning what being Asian-Canadian means to me, I’ve always had a reliable connection to my cultural heritage: food.

This small selection of Filipino and Indonesian dishes are embodiments of my parents and their respective cultures. This is how I’ve literally digested my heritage for the past 21 years.

Lumpia

My mom would prepare these Filipino spring rolls on her days off, fry them up, and leave the whole platter on the kitchen counter alongside a dish of vinegar and garlic.

Throughout the day, we would snack on the crunchy rolls—filled with ground pork and vegetables—and have them alongside rice and fish for dinner. The next day, their shells would soften with grease, and I would eat them cold for breakfast.

Gado Gado

My dad wasn’t the best cook, especially compared to my mom. He burned the pancakes, insisted on adding whole lemon peel to spaghetti sauce, and added too much curry powder to the Singapore noodles.

That being said, he nailed most of the Indonesian food he put on the table. Gudo Gudo is a warm vegetable salad served with peanut sauce, and my dad’s version consisted of boiled potatoes, steamed green beans, and fresh bean sprouts.

It was something my dad made for my Indonesian relatives as well. I remember when my cousin came for dinner and was excited to see the familiar dish. I associate Gudo Gudo with my dad, but to her, it was something my aunt and grandmother made when she was little.

Palabok

This bright orange rice noodle dish has a salty, umami flavour from the pork and shrimp sauce, and is topped with hardboiled eggs, crumbled pork rinds, green onion, and a squeeze of lemon. The combination sounds wild, but is a surprising balance of soft and crunchy, savoury and fresh. The perfect palabok is not complete without all four of these eclectic toppings.

My job making palabok was slicing the boiled eggs using our fancy egg slicer. This is probably my favourite Filipino dish as an adult, and every time my mom makes a big batch at home, it’s all I eat for the whole weekend.

Nasi Goreng

My dad’s go-to weeknight dinner was a quick and easy fried rice with eggs. He would blacken onions and garlic in a screaming hot pan, and add in scrambled eggs to make an omelette. In the same pan, he would fry rice with dark soy sauce and whatever leftover meat we had in the fridge.

To make it a true Indonesian Nasi Goreng, fresh cucumbers on the side are a must. I prefer sunny-side-up eggs with my fried rice these days, but I still include some cucumber slices for a taste of childhood, and as an homage to my dad.

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As an adult, I’m attempting to cook my childhood favourites and even learn new Filipino and Indonesian recipes. Asking my mom for cooking advice has also become a way to connect culturally to family. I may not speak either language, but food is truly universal.

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