Ashes to Ashes: Living to eat

There’s a question in Chinese that goes, “Do you eat to live or do you live to eat?”

My answer, without a doubt, will always be that I live to eat. There are few things that get me more excited than thinking about what I’m going to have for my next meal. If you’ve followed my previous columns, you’ll know my kitchen skills are subpar at best, which means my recent thoughts of food have also been intertwined with a longing for home — the place where there’s always soup on the stove and cooked rice in a pot.

Home has occupied a lot of space in my mind recently. Especially in light of the pandemic, I’ve never wanted more than to get in my car and start that 24-hour drive back to San Francisco. But when I think of the city where I grew up, the first images to pop into my mind are not of the Golden Gate Bridge or Lombard Street. Instead, it’s my mom’s mushroom, potato and chicken dish or Shanghainese dumplings.

To me, food is home. It’s also an expression of love. When I pick up the phone to chat with relatives, their first question is almost always “have you eaten?” followed by “what did you eat?” — it’s how we say, “Hello, how are you?”

When I talk about visiting, conversations are rarely about things I’ll do or places I’ll visit, but rather are centered on meals I’ll get to eat and dishes my mom intends to make for me. My first winter break home from college, my mom made a schedule to make sure I got to eat all of my favorite dishes at least once before returning to school. She would ask me every day as dinner time neared what I wanted to have. You’ll never meet a Chinese mother who doesn’t boast about how much her children love her cooking.

Food also permeates the Chinese language and culture. All of our major traditions center around food. The entire point of holidays like the Lunar New Year and Autumn Festival is to create an opportunity to sit at a table together with your family for a meal. You eat fish for prosperity, and you never cut your noodles, otherwise you’ll end up cutting your good luck. If you want to do well on a test, have your mom cook scallion pancakes — it’ll make you smarter.

There’s a plethora of Chinese idioms that involve food — it truly is our reference point for almost everything. I won’t list them all, but a couple of my favorites include “chi ya dan,” whose literal translation means to eat a duck’s egg and means to do poorly on a test, and “chi cu,” which translates to eating vinegar, and is used to describe jealousy (so if you want to describe someone as jealous in Chinese, you say they’re eating vinegar, which, if jealousy were a flavor, I wouldn’t be surprised if it tasted like vinegar.)

Last week, when chatting with a friend, I realized I have never lived without a rice cooker. One of the first things I bought while preparing to leave for college was a small but durable rice cooker from Macy’s. I made sure to pack it when I prepared to move to Iowa. I’ll probably be using this rice cooker for the rest of my life, if it holds out for that long.

It’s kind of a shame I’m as terrible and untalented as I am in the kitchen. Sometimes I worry my mother and grandmother’s cooking will end with me, but then I remember my sister is a master baker and chef. I’ve started asking my family members to put their recipes down on paper. Hopefully, even if I can’t make them, someone else down the line will.