Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.— Molly Wizenberg, A Homemade Life
My earliest food memory is the rainbow-colored nian gao from my grandfather.
Like many Chinese grandpas in downtown Yangon, he likes to go on a walk in the mornings. On his way back, he buys me these brightly colored, multi-layered Chinese rice cakes from a neighborhood street vendor in Chinatown, which is where I have spent a good portion of my childhood.
With a little linguistic twists and turns, the Chinese characters that make up the words “nian” and “gao” signify a more prosperous year or a better future outlook. This summarizes how my grandpa treats me: he calls me by my Chinese name “Precious Child” and after his morning walks, he hands me over “prosperity” disguised in the form of rice cakes.
On Lunar New Year celebrations, birthdays and family get-togethers, our dining table usually becomes a vibrant assembly of the many variants of nian gao and fruits. Tables set in red cloth and porcelain soup bowls accommodate the many extended family members gathered at my grandparents’ former apartment on Shwedagon Pagoda road. One dish after another comes out of the kitchen, and I have been taught that the trick is to eat a little from each entree so that I will still be able to taste the twelfth dish.
On such occasions, my father always likes to joke that as a descendant of Chinese immigrants in Burma, I never learn to speak Mandarin but I excel at eating Chinese food. Born and raised in Burma, I have “lost” (or never acquired) my family’s Chinese traits, other than eating like a Chinese. The rice cakes from my grandpa remind me daily that I am Chinese, even if I may have made only one week’s trip to China.
Then, when I came to Davidson College, I happened to take a first year writing seminar titled “Food as Symbol and Spectacle” with Dr. Gibson. This is only because I did not get into my first choice, the “Prince Charming” class. I was of course skeptical. Why do I bother reading about madeleines when there was a Saffron Revolution unfolding? Marcel Proust was just an elitist who simply had too much time to ponder about something trivial when there were more serious matters at hand to attend to.
On the final day of the class, however, we re-read the same chapter from Remembrance of Things Past and I couldn’t help but wonder at what an eloquent, articulate writer Proust was. In retrospect, I was doing exactly what I should have been doing: read about Proust’s madeleines even when I might have been anxious about unsettling changes. Now I know that food is not just a retreat, even if it conjures up nostalgic memories. Cooking is more than an escape from the day-to-day life. The kitchen is not my hide-out.
On the contrary, food is a confrontation with the reality. A reminder of who I really am. Especially when I am uncertain at this juncture in life, in a foreign country faraway from my roots, as I have always been. Thrilled and excited that life is happening to me, but not at all sure of how I can go about doing anything that I have envisioned. However, whenever I cook, I think about home. I think about mom, dad and my little brother and the fifty-five million Burmese people with fifty-five million problems, which, as grandiose as it sounds, make me feel a sense of duty. I need to act.
So this is what French madeleine and Chinese nian gao have in common.
Read the chapter on madelein by Marcel Proust here.