I hoped to connect to my Chinese roots. Peru is home to the third-largest Chinese community outside of Asia, many from the Guangdong province (which Hong Kong used to be a part of before the British, but didn’t go back to after her 1997’s “return” to China). I could speak Cantonese in Barrio Chino and get by better than I could with Spanish. My Cantonese even proved helpful at the immigration office when my visa needed extending. This promising start and enthusiasm faded as I realized “chifas” were Chinese food meets greasy American diner with loads of Ajinomoto or MSG. At least there was garlic, ginger, and hot tea.
I’ve spent a third of my life cooking for more than one and sometimes thousands, but this somehow didn’t translate into knowing how to cook for myself. When I cooked for myself, I rushed through prep, didn’t wonder if sharper knives would enhance my experience, ate before giving thanks, and picked any herb I could identify without wondering if it needed that extra leaf to continue giving.
Lately, I often question the nationality my birth place assigned me. This, a weekly (if not daily) topic of discussion with a dear friend.
During a year in a hemisphere I had never seen before, visiting altitudes my body had never experienced, surrounded by mostly foods that don’t digest easily for this Cantonese body of mine, I studied how to cook for me. I peeled away the Western cooking methods I learned in books and in kitchens. I searched for words and traditions I had never heard of. It would be a chinkana, a tunnel from which to go into, get lost, and find my way out. I revisited memories of the kitchen with my grandmother, the way she smiled through the river-ing pillows of steam, the way she sat on low stools, the anger in her voice when she found the bowl of bird’s nest soup I hid in the back of the fridge that I lied and said I finished. I would ask my father for the brand of rice we grew up eating, hoping the internet could provide me clues on finding a local Peruvian rice with textures of familiarity. I would become overwhelmed in Gamarra by the abundance of rice varieties and shy away from using my still-not-so-great Spanish to ask questions, so…..
Super Nikkei would be my source for tofu, short grain white rices, soy-pickled vegetables, kombu, rice vinegar, tamari, and Japanese snacks my grandfather adored.
I learned how to move as steam would, if el vapor was la vapor. I found pleasure in how the knife would meet the cutting board, the sound of the knife piercing through thin skins, in sharpening my own knives. I relished in the bare feet that held me as I cooked, in being able to feel the ground, free to experience my toes. I took note of how my arm and shoulder stirred the contents of the pot, wondered if I could also stir my hips, and practiced stirring my hips (at Peruvian dance classes). I reminded my breath to travel deep into my belly, into the spaces I used to shut out feeling to. I embraced breaks as part of the process and not a description for laziness, often the experience when I made jook (粥, rice porridge). In being, I learned what type of nourishment my body preferred.
Why are Cantonese people so obsessed with soup?
Drinking soup played a central part of my experience when young and living with my parents. In Guangdong, where Cantonese people call home, we believe that drinking warm soup helps dispel heat from the body, even if when the temperature is hot and humid outside. Meals start with a bone broth of some sort of vegetable like Chinese winter or summer squash, sometimes peanuts or gogi berries.
The benefit and traditions of soup got lost inside my young soul. I thought soup wasted space. My classmates never had soup at meals unless it came in a can with alphabet pasta. I thought the liquid would restrict my ability to eat more. I thought the sound of my parents slurping soup was bad manners no thanks to Emily Post‘s influence on fitting in with the establishment.
Melissa, an elementary school classmate and science fair partner, recently reminded me of the first time she heard my father slurp soup. Her mother had to explain to her that slurping was a compliment in the Chinese culture. My parents never felt the need to explain why they slurped—they just did.
Soup bore more importance than an often, unordered appetizer on a restaurant menu. The bowl of soup served at my grandfather’s 80th birthday meal would be a topic of discussion for weeks leading up to the celebration. The smell of humid aroma would fill our home each night. Soup brought my family to the dinner table, an announcement of sorts. The way my father said, 喝湯 (“drink soup”), had its own invitation. This cultural tradition hydrates. It comforts. It warms. It strengthens. Sitting down and having soup requires the use of both hands. Having soup first gives the body time to relax so that it can prepare for the additional nutrition it is about to receive. Empty soup bowls would then be passed around the dining table to the designated rice distributor. The clicking of chopsticks grabbing at dishes would commence. Soup could always be revisited.
The Cantonese have a soup for every occasion and weather. It doesn’t surprise me that Peruvians have over 2000 variations of soup! I even found a website dedicated to Chinese soups.
I mostly enjoy simple, undocumented soups with variety of local Peruvian vegetables like olluco, mashua, and caigua. I’m also in love with all soups zapallo. Here are recipes I’ve been inspired by:
Kitchari combines my love for soup and rice porridge.
Fesenjan, a Persian walnut pomegranate stew. I replaced the pomegranate molasses with algarrobina (mesquite) syrup and carrots with caigua.
Peanuts are relatively inexpensive here, so I’ve been exploring the expanse of peanut soups. My favorites were these: African groundnut soup and Indonesian peanut soup.
To make this recipe of Locro de zapallo dairy free, I replaced the queso with tofu and dairy with coconut milk.
All time favorite sweet soups: black sesame and snow ear fungus with papaya.
It was a simpler time when we dined at home as a family. I think that’s why I was meant to come to Lima, to find that part of me that got lost when being an independent woman: soup.