Food for thought: What does the food you eat tell you about where you come from?

Confucius (551 BC–479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher, politician and cook. The philosophy of Confucius, also known as Confucianism, emphasised personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity.

Confucius, a great epicurean, once said: “ Food is the first Happiness.” – Also the title to my mum’s first book.

My mum, Elizabeth Chong AM, has passed on her food philosophy to me.

Our food culture is strong: it is not just what we eat, but how we eat it.  It’s about how and who we share it with. It is definitely not about recipes, well not only about recipes, it’s about understanding and respecting every single ingredient that has gone into a dish. It’s about valuing not only the ingredient for it’s flavour and it’s texture, but understanding it’s relationship to the other ingredients in the dish. What is its place and purpose? We acknowledge the people who have grown it, who have sold it, who have cooked it and who you will share it with – You could say that food is the perfect medium by which we connect to the world around us.

My family have been here in Australia since 1857. Over the past 160 year and seven generations, we have assimilated and adapted and become Australian. Or perhaps more accurately Australian Chinese or Chinese Australian.

Over time, traditions have changed. Growing up my family used to gather every weekend to be together and of course eat together. And that meant cooking Chinese food and only Chinese food. Our family was anywhere between 20-40 people sharing a meal. We always ate together; babies, kids, parents and grandparents.

Today, we are living in different parts of the country; in the bush, by the sea and in the city. Some of us live in single person dwellings, or in small apartments and we are small in number. We have family who are vegan and gluten free. Still, the need for family food gatherings continues for each and every one of us. I am pleased to see that the younger generation has inherited this need too. We love being together and we love the anticipation of planning and waiting for the food we will share.

Whilst so much of our ideology around food has changed, there are many traditions that have remained. There are dishes that have been passed through the generations, completely unchanged. Dishes like steamed egg curd, or rice with salted fish, ingredients like dried shrimp, preserved turnip and fermented bean curd. These dishes were made thousands of years ago by my ancestors back in rural China, and today, I still cook them just as my ancestors did. I grow fresh vegies, just as my ancestors did, I prepare my food lovingly and share it just as my ancestors did.

So what has changed? I go online and cook recipes from around the world. I love Ottolenghi and spag bol, I often cook for one. I have a sweet tooth and love to bake cakes. I make sourdough and rice on alternate days. Today, I drink tea: English breakfast and Pu Erh.

I often go online and cook  recipes from other cultures, that have stood the test of time. Every now and then I get creative in making new dishes, whilst respecting the culture that I am learning from.

One recipe that has not changed much over the years is the spring onion pancake – An authentic Chinese recipe that dates back about 1000 years. I’m sure you will enjoy it just as much as my ancestors did all those years ago…

I will leave you with a question to consider – what is your favourite dish from your own food culture? Has it changed or stayed the same over time?

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