Much of what my grandmother cooked shaped how I am today as a full-time food writer and recipe developer, but not in the way these narratives usually play out. My earliest food memories don’t include helping grandma in the kitchen, nor do I have a recipe of hers that I cherish.
My grandma excelled in Chinese cooking, having lived most of her life in Hong Kong before we immigrated to Toronto in the late ‘80s. But me being a second-generation kid growing up in much less culturally diverse Toronto in the early ‘90s resulted in my tastebuds gravitating towards pizza and fries. I remember wincing at her steamed pickled cabbage and minced pork, taro stew, and braised pig’s trotters with shiitake and wood ear mushrooms. As a result, grandma attempted (or rather, improvised) Westernized cooking to get my bratty, five-year-old self to eat something, anything. She reheated cans of alphabet soup and frozen Pizza Pops for lunch. Vegetables were boiled to a sad slop. Spaghetti was more or less literal ketchup on a mountain of gloopy pasta. She was trying her best, but I still wasn’t eating (minus the reheated junk food).
It wasn’t until a decade after she passed away that I took an interest in cooking. Fuelled by nightmarish memories of the overcooked spaghetti and grey vegetables, I learned proper seasoning and cooking from scratch, and tried to continue my grandma’s mission to cook vegetables and pasta properly to get the whole family eating. In a twisted way, she made me a better cook because of her shortcomings.
By no means was grandma a bad cook: I forced her hand by being a spoiled, picky eater who didn’t appreciate the food she truly loved to cook. What I wouldn’t give today to give her dishes another try, now that I’m more mature and proud of my Chinese background, and grateful for the culinary diversity within Toronto. Describing her food now makes my mouth water rather than cringe, but most of her recipes have left with her.
My grandmother is my food hero, both for inadvertently pushing me to be better in the kitchen and making me embrace my heritage. I just wish she knew that.
Karon Liu is a food writer at the Toronto Star.