Last week I had a humbling and wonderful cooking experience that taught me three important lessons that I wanted to share with you. We had the great treat of welcoming an international student, Jing, into our home for part of her Spring Break. It was wonderful to provide a comfortable (I hope!) home for someone who is so far away from her own and also to have the opportunity to share about our cultures. The best part, for me at least, was the fact that she loves to cook and was eager to teach me how to make some of her favorite comfort foods from her childhood in China. So on Monday we made a field trip to the Chinese grocery store, stocked up on ingredients, and then came home to cook!
For Jing, one of the biggest sources of culture shock when she moved here was meal times when one main dish with perhaps a vegetable side was served. You see, in China there are usually many dishes all served family style. So when we were deciding what to cook together in order to make a traditional Chinese meal, she wanted to make sure that there would be many dishes on the table. In the end we made five dishes: winter melon soup, dumplings, pork and green peppers, eggs and tomatoes, and, of course, rice.
It was so much fun to see the differences and similarities in the ways that we cooked. One of the things I noticed right off the bat was that vegetables were included every step of the way! They were an integrated and integral part of the every dish, rather than something you serve on the side or sneak in to avoid complaints. Another was that the play on sweet and savory was much more central. For instance, sugar was added to the eggs and tomatoes dish, along with soy sauce and sesame oil, which made it simultaneously sweet and savory!
The ultimate joy for me, though, was watching both of my boys engage in the cooking and eating. They were so excited to try all of the different dishes and talk about their favorites. We had a wonderful meal, sharing these new and different flavors, and it served as a great reminder for me that sharing food can serve as such a wonderful introduction to other cultures.
In reflecting back on the experience of cooking with new (to me) ingredients and different (to me) techniques, I realized that there were three lessons that I took away from the experience about what made the cooking, even if it was different, fun and interesting, rather than stressful or overwhelming. These lessons, I believe, serve as good reminders for me but may also help to encourage those of you who are little more reluctant to spread your cooking wings to do so:
1. Perfection is not the goal, good food is. As we were assembling the dumplings I noticed that mine were not nearly as pretty as Jing’s were. For a moment I felt embarrassed but then I realized that I was new to this and needed to give myself a break! Once I let go of that need for perfection, I was able to enjoy the process much more fully (plus, in the end, even the ugly ones tasted delicious!). People tell me all the time that cooking is stressful for them and I often find that their expectations are too high—they want everything to look like a cookbook photograph and taste like it came from a high-end restaurant. Talk about stressful! Instead, just accept that even if it isn’t perfect, chances are it will still taste good and you can work to improve your technique next time. In other words, it is a process.
2. Letting go of assumptions is good. When I saw Jing put sugar into the eggs, I was flabbergasted, but I let go of my assumptions about the place of sugar in a savory egg dish and went along for the ride. The end result? Flavorful, delicious eggs I would eat again in a heartbeat! In reflecting on that moment, I realized that what I was doing was putting my own expectations on the food. I see this at cooking demonstrations all the time—as I am cooking the food people will often say things like, “I don’t eat X” or “I would never put those two ingredients together.” And almost every time, if the person tries the food, they are pleasantly surprised. We all tend to get stuck in our ideas about food. If we can relax from that, even just a little bit, we have the opportunity to open up whole new worlds of possibility on our plate!
3. Trying something new is fun! I try new recipes almost every week. It is actually a running joke with my husband that we rarely get to eat something twice. But the truth is, even while the recipes may change, I tend to gravitate towards flavor combinations and cuisines that I am already familiar with and have not experimented as much with cuisines from whole regions of the world, even though I thoroughly enjoy the food when someone else cooks it. If I am being honest, this is because I feel a bit intimidated, but this experience reminded me that pushing myself outside of my comfort zone is not only fun and exciting, it also encourages my kids to experience new flavors and foods and witness me growing, too!
As I move forward I hope that this experience will stay with me so that I can better understand the worries some feel around cooking and also push myself to take chances in the kitchen I might not have otherwise taken. Oh, and I’ll definitely be making the dishes Jing taught me again!