The sizzling sound of pork chops on a frying pan, the smell of green onion and minced garlic, the gold and red palette of tomato scrambled eggs... these are the things that remind me of my home in Shanghai, China.
Growing up, I never really enjoyed my mother’s cooking. She is a stubborn cook who never bothers to follow any recipe. The rice was always too soggy, and there was either too much ginger in the fish or too much sesame oil in the egg.
But my mother's biggest strength in the kitchen is her ability to transform even the finest, most delicate ingredient into some ordinary Chinese dish. I remember when I was 7 years old, a family friend gave us fresh Alaskan salmon as a gift. That was the first time I have ever seen salmon, as it wasn’t widely produced in China. Full of anticipation, I looked up online recipes for how Western restaurants cook salmon, carefully memorizing the hand motion as chefs masterfully fillet the fish from its head through its belly.
When I finally finished the tutorials and went downstairs into the kitchen, my mom had already chopped the fish into big cubes, splashed soy sauce and garlic on them and steamed the salmon into a big plate of pale meat.
So when I came into college in the US, I was unutterably excited for the freedom to eat whatever I wanted and order the “American trash food” that my mother forbade me from having. For a whole month I avoided any Chinese food and indulged myself in all the foreign cuisines that I had longed for all my life.
But when the stress of school kicked in and I was staying up until 3 a.m. making instant ramen while trying to figure out how not to fail my classes, I finally started to miss the late-night food my mother used to make me. I tried to order Chinese takeout, but the meat was always too salty and the vegetables too greasy. Nothing tasted “right.” And that’s when I realized that as much as I rejected my mother’s cooking, my taste buds had still become accustomed to the food I grew up eating.
As I grew desperate for a sense of home, I found out that the best solution to homesickness is, in fact, cooking.
The first step was to go grocery shopping. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s did not have the pork chop or the Szechuan peppercorn I needed, so I ventured inside the city of Chicago. I borrowed big blue shopping bags from my friend, took the Red Line down to Argyle, and went from store to store comparing prices and finding the freshest meat and vegetables.
The first dish I decided to make was my all-time favorite comfort food: tomato scrambled egg noodles. I found egg noodles exactly the same as the ones we use back home in a Vietnamese supermarket in Argyle: thin like whiskers, soft like silk and chewy like rice cake. It only took me 15 minutes to make the entire dish.
If you want to give this a try, here's how: cook the tomatoes in a pan until they are juicy; add scrambled eggs; boil the noodles and then drain with ice water to create a chewy texture; combine the tomatoes, eggs and noodles and done!
When I held the big bowl of tomato scrambled egg noodles with my palms and curled up on a couch to eat, I felt like all my homesickness was cured. I felt so close to home, so close to my mom and so close to the inner child within me.
Ever since that dish, I haven’t stopped cooking. From simple dishes like sesame chicken to more complicated ones such as mapo tofu, my cooking skills got better every week. I started to invite friends to come over and eat together. Eating is such a social thing in Chinese culture – I remember my grandparents making a giant pot of lamb stew every week and asking me to bring some to our neighbors when I was a child. I wanted to bring that culture of food sharing to campus.
By Lunar New Year of my freshman year, I was ready for a bigger project. I decided to throw a hot pot party with my friends. Taking the Red Line down to Argyle again, I got everything I needed to make authentic Chinese hotpot: beef meatballs, rice cakes, glass noodles, lamb, pork, lettuce, bok choy, imitation crab, corn, and more.
In the spirit of celebrating Chinese culture, I wanted everyone to participate in the cooking. Some of my friends peeled the raw peanuts, some cut up the vegetables and some minced the garlic. Like my mom, I was ordering people around in the kitchen.
When we were done preparing, all 15 of us gathered around the long kitchen table and watched intently as the hot pot soup began to bubble. Everyone used chopsticks, including my non-Asian friends. We were eating from the same pot, passing around cooked meat to everyone and sharing a moment of joy.
Cooking is my way to bring a piece of home with me to college. It gives me opportunities to explore the city I’m in, make new friends and comfort me in times of hardship. Cooking in college makes me feel closer to the kindness and generosity of people in my hometown, and I hope to continue to spread the culture of food sharing on campus.