The culinary arts demands both creativity and technical skill. It is a paradoxical talent: it can be shared openly, yet it provides great intimacy. Layers upon layers of flavors add depth to food, just as cooking adds layers to one’s character.Cooking is a cornerstone of my life. In Chinese culture, food is representative of cherished traditions. In my family, it is a rite of passage. Each member of my family is taught how to cook at a young age and each is expected to continue doing so after adolescence. Much of my childhood was spent sitting beside the stove as my grandfather julienned peppers and onions while he shared many of the stories of his childhood. There is a certain pride that comes with a finished product, however there is more than what sits on the plate. Learning to cook transcends the preparation of food: it is learning to be autonomous, learning to adapt, learning to share.
My rite of passage was a beautifully simple Cambodian classic; consisting of ground beef, fish sauce, garlic, and spicy chilli peppers garnished with cilantro served with cucumber. It was a late afternoon and the meal was to be served to distant relatives. I prepped the dish and the aroma of garlic permeated the room, however my grandfather left the stove unattended. Fearing that it would burn I took over myself and without hesitation I finished it. The euphoria of the moment left me sweaty and parched. I left the kitchen only to return to hear the crunch of a cucumber and advice from my grandfather that resonated with me “It needs more sauce.”
I challenged myself to perfect the dish, using every opportunity to find the dish’s ideal balance of sweet, spicy, and savory. Failed trials only led to more attempts. I researched different cooking perspectives, diverse cooking types, heat variants, various ratios of ingredients. Soon I began cooking different dishes in an attempt to improve my culinary skills in general. It challenged me to make substitutions, think beyond what the recipe called for, and spurred me to use my ingenuity to consistently improve my food. I find satisfaction in being able to capture the essence of food, the fond memories and the raw emotions that accompany eating.
The skills needed for cooking spill over into other aspects of my life. The accuracy necessary for baking is reflected in the preciseness of my school work. The persistence needed to perfect a complex dish is evident in my relentless strives for self-improvement. Cooking requires vulnerability; the ability to disregard the possibility of failure and rejection and share all of myself in a single meal, a single bite, a single moment. For without that risk, there is no chance for my food, or for myself.
It has been said that “culture is taught at the knees.” The values of the individual...