Opinion: Preserving Culture Through Our Parents’ Cuisines

A child of immigrants writes about the importance of promoting cultural identity through food

Opinion: Preserving Culture Through Our Parents’ Cuisines

Inside the hawker centers in Singapore, I roamed around curious about which cuisine I wanted to taste while studying abroad. “Thai? Vietnamese? Indian? Chinese?” It reminded me of the array of food trucks back home in Texas where I would not only need to carefully choose a cuisine, but also a specific meal to eat. The familiar situation struck me in a foreign country so far away from home, but also gave me comfort in witnessing the global value of food. Growing up as a Vietnamese-American child of immigrants, food was our family’s unifying force, but it had to meet our limited budget.

Interestingly, Singaporean hawker centers offer a cheaper and delicious option for meals when people are too busy to cook. However, this hawker culture is declining as older generations age and younger generations are looking to work in high-skilled jobs. Singapore’s increasing cost of living due to the influx of high-skilled workers has been a concern for residents. Many people in developed countries experience the challenge of finding time or energy to cook for themselves while earning a living. Texas is no exception.

Texas is the second-most diverse state in the U.S., with a large Hispanic/Latino and Asian population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 40.2% of Texas’ population is of Hispanic/Latino origin. Since Texas is diverse, it is important to preserve these cultures by learning recipes from family members, friends, or strangers. There is a rising risk of the loss of authentic foods in major cities, such as Austin, considerably due to the emphasis on high-skilled labor.

Our careers do not determine who we are as humans; it is the identity we give ourselves, and culture is a part of it.

There is the race to achieve a high-skilled job to make a comfortable living, which I am currently facing as a college student. My immigrant parents tried their best to support me academically by cooking my meals until I moved out for college. They believed that as long as I could just focus on my studies, I would not need to care about how there was food on the table. Since I did not learn to cook Vietnamese recipes before living on my own, I cooked quick ready-made meals. While I studied and worked hard to achieve my dream high-skilled job, I sacrificed my health and craved my family’s bamboo rice porridge or braised pork with quail egg. I felt ashamed for not learning about cooking recipes in and outside of my culture.

I discussed with my friends of various backgrounds the importance of preserving culture. My friends who are also children of immigrants acknowledged the cost of working a high-skilled job. It also led them to be less willing to cook the traditional meals they grew up eating. Generally, many Americans are resorting to buying ready-made or packaged foods, many of which are processed, containing high concentrations of salt and artificial ingredients.

I understand some people are unable to have the financial means or time to cook. Yet by preserving traditional recipes, it can help people actively be aware of their diets. Cooking also helps farmers, especially local Texas farmers, because the local fresh ingredients purchased can be used for different recipes. There are no rules in cooking since it depends on the cook’s preferences and available resources. There is no shame in cooking a meal using substitutes to adapt to the environment.

Anyone can cook authentic meals by learning from cookbooks, searching online recipes and tutorials, using alternative ingredients, and participating in virtual or in-person cooking classes. One of the best ways to learn is to taste the food firsthand and engage with those who prepared the dishes, asking questions such as: “What ingredients did you use? How can I find them? Can you teach me or provide me with your recipe?” The more questions asked, the longer these stories will live on. This is what food is – storytelling – and the way to continue it is to seek after it.

I encourage anyone reading this op-ed to learn new recipes of their own or new cultures. To keep a diverse society, combating the harsh consequences of development can be as minuscule as cooking for ourselves. Our careers do not determine who we are as humans; it is the identity we give ourselves, and culture is a part of it. Preserving the stories and flavors of authentic food helps us do so.

Trishta Nguyen is pursuing her bachelor’s degrees in both economics and international relations at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy or applied economics. Recently, she studied abroad in Singapore and was intrigued by the similarities it shared with the U.S. In her free time, she enjoys learning Mandarin Chinese, cooking new recipes, and hiking Austin’s nature trails.

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