Tuesday, November 2, 2010
When I was younger, I went to a private school for a few years. My parents thought I'd have a better education, but I feel that it may have retarded me socially, having had no contact with boys the first four years of my scholastic life. We belonged to the lesser-known "Not Poor But Not Rich" income bracket, which was mystifying and mind-boggling to those of my peers who had everything: maids, nannies, drivers, cooks (but rarely actual parents.)
At one of my birthday parties, held in our lovely, cozy home that had been purchased for a song, gutted and entirely rebuilt by my father and grandfather, one of my little classmates entered the house, looked around with an imperious air and said "But where is the rest of your house?" My parents forever after joked about the location of the 'east wing.'
Besides God and money, the school was incredibly proud of its diversity, and liked celebrating its multiculturalism. One day, we were told we'd be having an "International Cuisine" lunch, where everyone was to bring a food item or dish that was native to their cultural heritage. I was in something of a quandary; like many born and raised Canadians, I was just 'white,' not really any one ethnicity more than another.
Something of a European mongrel, I had more countries in my blood than the United Nations. My father's side of the family had Irish and Scottish ancestry, but that was about 5 or 6 generations ago. And my mother was something of an ethnic mystery to me. Born in Romania to Hungarian parents, she actually grew up in Israel and identified herself as Israeli, until she came to Canada. Then she was a Canadian, and if you asked her about her unusual accent, you'd be treated with a rather cold stare. "I am from here," she would say. "I am Canadian."
For a fourth-grader, this was a bit too complex a cultural minefield to navigate. I was Canadian. But what food is particularly Canadian? Back bacon? Maple syrup? I didn't know.
And so I brought Shredded Wheat cereal. Yes. I did.
Because the wheat was grown in Canada, it said so on the box, and you surely cannot fault a fourth-grader for being so literal. So amidst the samosas and spring rolls and shock-value haggis lay my wax papered packet of Shredded Wheat, totally unpalatable without the softening effect of hot water, the creamy coolness of milk and the sweetening effect of a 1/2 inch of brown sugar on top.
Years later, I am still stymied by what constitutes our national cuisine. I find myself cooking meals that are Mediterranean or Southeast Asian-inspired, but perhaps with my clumsy Canadian touch to them - not too spicy, not too exotic, ever so slightly inauthentic. Like this Vietnamese-style soup I made/modified and have virtually no decent photographs of. I found the recipe in Fine Cooking a few months ago and clipped it out for future use. It was so ridiculously tasty, you must try and make it for yourself.
As far as cultural identity goes, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe it boils down to where you were born. Maybe it's where your parents were born, or their parents before them. But given the lives my mother and father lived across the world from each other during the war; dramatic, colourful, often tragic lives that eventually intersected here, in Toronto, Ontario, where they started their family and found love and great happiness, maybe where you're from is the wrong question.
Maybe it's all about where you end up.
Coconut Noodle Soup, From Fine Cooking Magazine May Issue (?) 2010, adapted by me.
2 14 oz cans coconut milk
1 tbsp red curry paste
6 cups lower-salt chicken broth
3 stalks lemongrass, lightly smashed
8 1/4 inch slices of fresh ginger
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
2 cups oyster mushrooms (you can use any mushrooms; I used oyster and cremini) trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
1 cup chopped tomato
1 cup baby corn (optional but delicious)
Vermicelli noodles, soaked in room temperature water for 30-60 minutes in a large pot.
*The original recipe calls for tea-smoked shrimp and instructs you on the whole process; I think you can find it on their website if you're interested.
1. In a 4 quart pot, simmer 1/2 cup coconut milk over medium heat, stirring often till it reduces by half and thickens, about 1-2 minutes. Whisk in the curry paste until dissolved, about 1 minute. Add the remaining coconut milk, chicken broth, lemongrass and ginger. Raise the heat to medium high, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
2. Strain out the lemongrass stalks and ginger pieces. Stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and a bit of salt. Season to taste. Add the mushrooms, tomato and baby corn, and cook for another 10 minutes, till the mushrooms have softened.
3. To assemble, bring the soaked vermicelli noodles to a boil for a couple of minutes, then drain well. Add noodles to bowls first, then pour soup over top, and garnish with fresh cilantro.