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How 10 People Cook the Foods They Grew Up With After Immigrating to the United States

Self logo Self 1/4/2019 Ilaf Esuf
a pizza sitting on top of a wooden table © Courtesy of Ilaf Esuf

I often find myself staring at the tortillas stacked on my cutting board, longing for the clamor of Sri Lankan kottu restaurants where the cooks' cleavers clang on metal stovetops like drums. My American kitchen has never been as tumultuous, but I still try to recreate those Sri Lankan flavors I grew up with, even if it means changing the recipe.

Kottu roti, a staple Sri Lankan street food is a mix of sautéed roti, eggs, shredded vegetables, meats, curry, and spices. And while most of those ingredients do line the shelves of my local grocery store, finding roti is a battle.

As a working adult, I never have time to make roti from scratch or to make the pilgrimage to the nearest Indian mart that sells it frozen. It’s much more convenient to grab a bag of tortillas from down the street instead, so I compromise. In fact, it’s my go-to potluck dish. I use my simple kitchen knife to shred the tortillas, accepting that it will absorb the curry in minutes, making the dish soggier than it’s meant to be, and toss everything into a pan. Even with this substitution, I never have leftovers.

When I get to cook for friends, it’s a show-and-tell of the Sri Lankan foods I grew up with. But because I live in the U.S., this requires culinary creativity and blessings from the Trader Joe’s gods. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and that includes in immigrant kitchens. I was curious about how other folks who grew up outside the U.S. or have parents who did, fuse their cultural dishes with the ingredients that are actually available to them, so I chatted with 10 folks and asked them to tell me how they cook in the U.S.

Anjile An on Mongolian glaze, New York, NY, age 23

a plate of food © Courtesy of Anjile An

“What people think Mongolian food is, it’s not,” Anjile An says mid-chuckle. “You know how there’s Mongolian BBQ, or that guy that sautés your veggies for you on that giant wok—that’s not Mongolian food. And neither is Mongolian food spicy a lot of times.”

“Mongolian food is centered around a lot of the traditions of being nomadic and being herders. So there’s a lot of lamb in Mongolian cuisine and a lot of dairy,” says An, whose parents moved from Mongolia to Vancouver when she was 3 years old. An now lives in New York. “The best way to capture that is with a Mongolian breakfast: you have salty milk tea and in the milk tea, you put Mongolian cheese, and lamb, and all sorts of bread and you soak it into your salty milk tea and that’s breakfast. It’s kind of like a communal meal.”

When An’s parents first moved to Vancouver, they couldn’t find the Mongolian cheese they’d always used for breakfast. Instead, they visited the closest Indian market to buy paneer, a fresh, non-melting cheese that’s common in India.

“The man who sold my parents paneer has watched me grow up and he’s a part of our extended family now because he’s supplied all the paneer for all the Mongolian expats in Vancouver.”

Upon moving, An’s parents were exposed to a lot of different foods that weren’t available in Mongolia.

“My parents had never eaten salmon until they got to Vancouver because salmon is an ocean fish and inner Mongolia is very far from the ocean. You end up eating river fish instead.”

But after seeing how much easier it was to buy ocean fish, An’s mom started blending Mongolian recipes with their newfound ingredients, a practice she also taught An, who now cooks the same salmon recipe whenever she’s homesick in New York.

“My mom has this really good glaze. It’s soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic, and toasted peppercorn, and you let it reduce on the stove. This glaze is something we would make for pork or beef, but my mom just started doing it with this weird pink fish that she saw at the Canadian grocery store. It tasted pretty good, so here we are.”

Whenever An visits her family in Mongolia, she would still eat the same dish with pork, as it’s originally cooked, but both recipes resemble her roots.

“The dish with pork is what reminds me more of home, like the old country home. So when I eat it with pork it reminds me of when I’m back in inner Mongolia with the family we have there. But the one with salmon reminds me of my parents specifically,” she shared. “It reminds me that my parents do this with salmon because they had moved away.”

Margarita Sadoma on Russian vareniki, Sacramento, CA, age 52

Margarita Sadoma was frustrated by the difference between the Estonian cottage cheese she grew up with and the American cottage cheese she found after moving to here at the age of 25. “I didn’t like what was in the stores, and I thought maybe I could do my own,” she says.

The cottage cheese Sadoma found in Sacramento’s grocery stores had a watery, curdled consistency while the cheese she grew up with was often thicker and refined. This cottage cheese Sadoma grew up on was typically eaten with bread, used in dough to change the texture, or used in vareniki, a Russian dumpling of sorts. But the lack of this cottage cheese drove Sadoma to the internet, where she learned to make her own.

“I pour one liter of milk, put a couple tablespoons of sour cream, put it on the stove so the active ingredients in the milk will slowly ferment overnight and become a yogurt consistency. Then I turn on the heat for about 20 minutes and it becomes more like a liquid. And then, I put it in a cheese cloth so that I can separate the solid from the liquid. The solid part is the cottage cheese,” she says.

Sadoma would use this cheese to stuff the vareniki and serve the dumpling with sugar for a dessert. It’s a food she grew up with that her kids are now quite fond of; it’s a part of her culture she doesn’t want to lose.

“On my mom’s side, there are some relatives who came to Canada in 1929 and we were separated for many years since we were still in Russia. So when we came here in 1991 (almost 60 years later), we met with them,” she shared. “It was very interesting that even though they didn’t know any Russian (they were born here and were my mom’s age), they were cooking the same food. They would say the foods in Russian,” she says with a laugh. “Even though they didn’t know the language, they knew the names of the food.”

Jason Chen on Chinese vegetarian cauliflower stir fry, Chicago, IL, age 24

a plate full of food © Courtesy of Jason Chen

Jia chang cai dishes are Chinese home cooked dishes, specific to each household (and consequently region). “Often times, you can’t even put jia chang cai on the menu because they’re just something your mom made up, or it’s something your family eats, but it’s not something you can find on a Wikpedia page,” Jason Chen shared.

Chen’s family, who’s from Beijing, has very different jia chang cai than someone from, for example, the far northern parts of China, meaning Chen has to learn these recipes directly from his family if he wants to continue making them in Chicago, where he now resides.

Chen grew up in Los Angeles eating his mom’s cauliflower stir fry, a jia chang cai dish he often makes at home using cauliflower, tomatoes, ginger, and tempeh (rather than pork). “It’s literally something I’ve never heard of anyone eating. It’s just something my mom makes. It’s a mystery to me where she got this recipe. But that reminds me of home.”

Though his mom traditionally uses pork, Chen uses a meat substitute that fits his vegetarian diet.

“I’ve been cooking vegetarian since I came back to the States (after spending a year as an education consultant in Beijing), so I’ve been replacing the pork with tofu or meat substitutes like tempeh.” Substituting a plant-based protein for meat isn’t really an Asian thing, Chen says. He thinks of veganism and vegetarianism as uniquely American, or at least, non-Chinese. According to Chen, Chinese culture emphasizes a sense of community, so opting for a diet that others have to accommodate might be thought of as a burden. Chinese culture also has a collection of rich myths tied to each food that are historically significant.

For example, Mao Zedong’s favorite pork dish is now simply referred to as Mao’s pork and Su Dong Po (a renaissance man, a poet, a statesman, and a food critic) loved a pork dish that is now known as Dongpo pork. These common Chinese dishes are rooted in histories that are still passed down to present generations. And according to Chen, being vegetarian in China would mean losing parts of this rich culture since he’d be disassociated from those foods.

“If I lived in China, I’d choose to not be vegetarian because it would be heartbreaking for me, honestly, to not take part in my culture in that way,” Chen shared. “These stories and traditions make me proud to be Chinese.”

According to Chen, since Chinese food has such a cultural and historical significance, it’s not realistic to expect vegetarian substitutions in Chinese recipes. It’s not a common practice in China. However, Chen is determined to maintain his vegetarianism and stay connected to his Chinese roots while he lives in Chicago, where there are more options for vegetarian substitutions.

“(Chinese food) is what I’m used to from home. It’s what makes me feel full, not just in a physical way, but a mental way. Even if it just looks like what my mom made back at home, it’s comforting.”

Laila Djawadi on Afghan aushak, Brentwood, CA, age 50

“Not only do I cook Afghan food because it’s what my husband and I grew up with, but it’s also a way for us to introduce our culture to our kids,” Laila Djawadi shares. Though she moved to America at the age of 18, Djawadi continues to make Afghan food whenever possible, always eager to bring a piece of her Afghan home to her American kitchen and remind her children of their roots.

“I remember I asked my son to fill aushak with me once, and it’s the best memory I have,” Djawadi shares. Aushak, the dish Djawadi so fondly made with her son, is a luxurious appetizer often served at parties. It’s an Afghan dumpling of sorts that is stuffed with a vegetable Djawadi struggles to find.

“They call the vegetable gandana. The taste is somewhere in between chives and leeks. Sometimes we get chives from Asian stores or leeks from American grocery stores and use that to stuff the aushak. But gandana is a little spicier.”

Djawadi has also tried using green onions instead of leeks or chives, which still isn’t the best substitute.

“Gandana tastes close to green onions, but doesn’t have the white part of the onion. It is 99% green and only the tip is white. Sometimes I use green onions, but it doesn’t work as well because the green onions have more water and you have to squeeze the water out before stuffing the dumpling. When you do that with green onions, it becomes slimy and you lose the quantity of the onion, so you end up using a lot more of it.”

According to Djawadi, many Afghan families have tried growing gandana, but the Bay Area’s weather doesn’t cater to the plant. Even if she were to drive hours away to Sacramento, where the weather is a little more agreeable for growing gandana, it’s often extremely expensive.

“The aushak tastes okay with the leeks or green onion, but we always wish we had gandana,” she shares.

To make aushak, Djawadi cuts about six stacks of green onions into very small pieces, mixes it with spices and oil, stuffs the dough (similar to the dough used to make egg rolls), and puts it on a steamer. If she were to use gandana, she'd need a smaller quantity since it is less watery and has more green to it.

After steaming the dumpling, Djawadi makes a ground beef sauce and a yogurt sauce with garlic that she puts on top of the dumplings. Sometimes she’ll add some browned garlic and hot sauce on top for a finishing touch.

“Making aushak is very delicate. I was so proud that my son helped me, especially because guys in our country refuse to cook and refuse to help ladies with cooking. My son helped make the process really quick. For years, I’ll remember that he made it with me. And now he can teach someone else how to make it.”

Calvin Lee on Korean kimchi fried rice, San Francisco, CA, age 23

a piece of cake on a plate © Courtesy of Calvin Lee

“You can find kimchi at the grocery store, but don’t do it to yourself.” It’s just not the real thing, Calvin Lee says. “It doesn’t have flavor, and it’s not fermented at all. It’s cabbage dipped in hot water.”

Lee grew up in Los Angeles, making kimchi with his mom, who immigrated to the United States while she was in high school. “It’s a huge process that my mom used to do over a few days,” he shared. “And she would put it in a kimchi refrigerator to ferment it which is how it gets its flavor.”

Kimchi was traditionally buried in stone pots underground, so that the vegetables would ferment at a certain temperature. The kimchi refrigerators were later made to mimic this fermenting process. However, you’d still have to dry the cabbage out in the sun before storing it in the fridge, a luxury Lee doesn’t have in his backyard-less apartment in San Francisco.

Although his local grocery is just a few minutes away, Lee doesn’t trust the “Asian fusion” foods they stock there. Instead, Lee drives 25 minutes to the nearest Korean market in Daly City to buy all of his ingredients.

Lee usually makes kimchi fried rice on a lazy day since it’s a “raid-the-pantry-dish.” “You make kimchi fried rice with leftover rice because if you use freshly cooked rice, it’s too moist. If you refrigerate the rice first, it’s a little dried out and it fries better,” he shared. “And usually kimchi fried rice is made with spam because it’s a war time food and Korea was occupied in the war for so long so spam is a huge thing in Korea. It’s a U.S. army ration food that found its way into our diet.”

Spam might be the only ingredient Lee would get at the local grocery store. And despite these hurdles and compromises, he refuses to let go of the cuisine he grew up making with his mom.

“The most time I’ve spent with my mom growing up, is when I was in the kitchen with her. She worked a lot, but when she was home, she would cook for us, and it reminds me of when I was a kid,” he shared. “I would go and help her in the kitchen, help make dinner, and that’s how I watched and learned, and grew to love cooking.”

Melissa Atienza on Filipino sinigang, American Canyon, CA, age 32

a bowl of soup on a white plate © Courtesy of Melissa Atienza

“We usually have (sinigang) when there are typhoons and it’s cold.” Melissa Atienza says while reminiscing about her home in Quezon City, in the Philippines. She moved to America at the age of 23 and has been living in American Canyon for a majority of her time here. “We’d be at home, classes would be suspended,” she continues. “We’d eat this dish and we’d be happy because you were at home, playing.”

Sinigang is a Filipino soup, often served with rice, and makes a perfect meal for cold weather. It uses kamias, a fruit native to Southeast Asia, that rarely exists in the Asian markets Atienza frequents, and it’s a fruit she definitely can’t find in nearby American grocery stores.

“When I was young, we had a kamias tree so I would always go in our backyard, get the fruit and eat it. It was my favorite fruit. Sinigang is supposed to taste super sour with the kamias,” Atienza explains.

Rather than using kamias, Atienza cooks the dish with lime or lemon to give it a sour punch. And while it’s not the same, cooking sinigang still heals her homesick heart. “My mom made it often when we were in the Philippines,” she says. “I think that’s the most common dish in most households. I remember I would drown my rice with the soup. It’s so sour. And the more sour it is, the more I like it.”

Despite these substitutions, Atienza continues to cook Filipino food to keep her stomach full and preserve her roots.

“Sandwiches and salads aren’t real meals to me,” she explained. “But when I have rice and some sort of meat, I feel like that’s a full meal. That’s the food my ancestors ate and maybe that’s the reason I am the way I am right now: because of the food we’ve been eating as Filipinos.”

Priscilla Codjoe on Ghanaian banku, Rolla, MO, age 27

Priscilla Codjoe hasn’t been back to Western Ghana since she moved to Missouri five years ago. Her homesickness took a toll on her palette, and drove her to create all of the recipes she spent her childhood observing.

“I wasn’t really taught how to cook anything,” she shares. “Growing up, I was always in the kitchen with my mom. I can’t really tell when I learned to cook because I just made everything when I needed to cook 13 or 14 years later.”

One of the dishes Codjoe tried to recreate was banku, a doughy carbohydrate typically eaten with sauce and fish.

While the ingredients for the sauce (pepper, tomatoes, onions, and salt) and the fish itself may be easy to find, making the banku (the main component of the dish) is a complicated feat.

“In Ghana, you mix water with fermented corn and the cassava. Then you add salt and put it in a coal pot above charcoal. This is the indigenous way of cooking banku. We have a wooden stirrer and metal bands on the pot because you have to stir it until it becomes thick — a consistency between mashed potatoes and tamales,” she shares. “You don’t have the metal bands here, so you have to hold it yourself and watch for the change in color to see if it’s cooked.”

As Codjoe described, banku is traditionally made of fermented corn and cassava—two ingredients she struggles to find in Missouri. Instead, Codjoe follows her friend’s recipe that uses cornmeal in place of fermented corn, which unfortunately lacks in taste and texture.

“Somebody showed me how to do it here, if not, I don’t think I would’ve even thought of that,” she shares. I buy powdered cornmeal and try to ferment it, but it’s not as starchy as banku,” she shares. “You have to mix the corn with water and leave a little film of water on top and let it sit for two or three days before you put it on the fire. There’s also no cassava powder here, I could get that in the African stores (about 2 hours away), but I can’t get it where I am.”

Even the African stores hours away don’t always have all of the ingredients Codjoe needs.

“I’m from Ghana, but we have different cultures within Ghana. I’m from the central region of Ghana, but live in the Western part. We are called Effutu. Because there are so many cultures, you can’t find all of the ingredients you need in the African stores. There are still foods that I can’t find here, and don’t know how to make because it’s outside of my ethnic group,” she adds.

Yet, despite these hurdles, Codjoe’s stomach that cherishes Ghanaian food requires her to experiment and replicate recipes from home. Now, she’ll make banku whenever the craving hits.

“When I don’t have the option, I eat American food, but African food is always better,” she laughs. “Americans don’t use enough spices, it’s either too much salt or too much sugar. With African food, I crave it. The cravings can get very strong and you can fed up with every other food and just want that so you go out of your way and do it.”

Karen Ruane on Armenian pilaf, San Francisco, CA, age 50-something

a close up of a glass bowl © Courtesy of Karen Ruane

While boxes of pilaf may may be a common find in her San Franciscan grocery stores, Karen Ruane grew up cooking a unique Armenian recipe passed down through generations—all the way from her grandmother who first immigrated to the Bay Area.

“(My mom) would heat the rice and vermicelli in butter and boil the chicken broth so that when it’s time to add the broth to the rice, it makes a really loud searing noise. That searing noise is supposedly what makes a good batch of pilaf,” she says.

The vermicelli Ruane refers to is known as sipa in the Middle Eastern markets where she shops. Should she run out, Ruane uses angel hair pasta from her local grocery store instead since it’s much closer to her house.

“If I run out of (the vermicelli) it’s a production to have to go get it,” she says with a sigh. “I try not to run out of it because even the finest angel hair pasta or capellini is still much thicker than the vermicelli.” Ruane also notes the sipa is curled and already broken up in the package whereas the angel hair pasta is straight and comes in long pieces.

“(The angel hair pasta) works,” she says hesitantly. “But it doesn’t taste as nutty when you brown it.” She says it makes for a less flavorful finish.

Ruane’s mom used drive all the way from San Francisco to Fresno for her Armenian supplies. Rather than making the same four-hour trek, Ruane picks out Armenian ingredients from Middle Eastern markets. But there are still some foods, like soujouk (an Armenian sausage) that she orders from Ohanyan’s (another Armenian deli) to be packaged and shipped up to her with ice. Though these hurdles are frustrating, Ruane’s mom’s flavor-filled recipes make the challenge worth it.

“In my mom’s era, recipes were like money. My mom would literally put the best recipes under lock and key. But it’s not just a heritage that I want my kids to have,” Ruane shared. “I love what it tastes like. Yes, I like the historical significance that it was a recipe that my grandmother taught my mom who taught me, but it tastes really really good; it’s delicious.”

Judith Salazar on Peruvian pollada, Newman, CA, age 52

Judith Salazar moved to the United States at 22, after she had already grown accustomed to, and genuinely loved, her native Peruvian food.

“It’s part of my culture. That’s how I grew up. All my life, I knew Peruvian food and it’s hard to change into a different culture,” Salazar shares. “Even though I was young when I moved and didn’t know how to cook, I still knew how Peruvian ingredients worked.”

Salazar only learned to cook after moving to Newman, California. Spoon in one hand, and phone in the other, she would call home often to get insider tips on Peruvian recipes—most of which used two specific peppers: aji panca and aji amarillo. It’s these spices and the peppers Salazar struggled to find upon moving.

“The nearest Peruvian store or restaurant is all the way in San Francisco or San Jose [90 minutes to two hours away]. We don’t have a large Peruvian community here in Newman, maybe only two or three families,” she shares. “My Peruvian cooking is a little mixed now with Mexican and American foods since I don’t have all of the ingredients, so you have to combine it together.”

Achiote, a red seed used in Mexican food, provides the same color as aji panca, though it lacks in flavor. Salazar often uses this substitution while making marinades for dishes like pollada—a traditional Peruvian grilled chicken.

To make her marinade, Salazar uses garlic, salt, pepper, achiote in place of aji panca, a little bit of soy sauce, and a drop of lemon. She lets the meat marinate overnight before throwing it onto the grill, or baking it in the oven.

Salazar also discovered that California peppers could be used in place of aji amarillo, the other common Peruvian pepper. And similar to achiote, the California pepper provides the right color, but has less of a punch than the aji amarillo. She uses this substitution for common Peruvian dishes like aji de gallina, a Peruvian chicken stew.

“I try to bring the peppers from home if I visit Peru because there’s nothing like it. I have friends who tried to grow the pepper, but it doesn’t grow here in California,” Salazar shares. “No matter rich or poor, everyone uses aji panca and aji amarillo. It’s the flavor of our food.”

Kevin Bulli on Jamaican jerk chicken, Houston, TX

a bowl of food cooking on a stove © Courtesy of Kevin Bulli

When Kevin Bulli moved to America 18 years ago, at the age of 22, there were rarely any Jamaican restaurants or stores near him. He sees them opening up more now, but, according to Bulli, they’re just not authentic.

“I can tell that the ingredients they use aren’t traditional. For example, they use a store bought, powdered marinade for their jerk chicken, but typically back home, you would use natural ingredients that you’d cut up and put into it. It makes a big difference,” Bulli shares.

“I don’t make my jerk chicken dry with a store-bought rub. I make it with a sauce that uses real, diced vegetables, like the traditional way,” he continues. “First, I like to marinate the meat overnight. And then I use salt, paprika, black pepper. I buy green pepper, red pepper, habanero peppers, tomatoes, onions, cut all of that up and marinate it with the meat. Then I’ll take the meat out, take everything off of it, fry the meat separately, and when the meat is almost finished, I’ll add the tomatoes, and everything in again, and let it cook for a little while.”

Though many of the ingredients for the jerk chicken may sound basic, Bulli stresses the importance of spice levels.

“For me, traditionally, the food has to be spicy, but not too spicy,” he shares.

And according to Bulli, the trick is Scotch bonnet peppers, a pepper that’s hard to find in Houston.

“If I can’t find Scotch bonnet peppers, I would use habanero peppers or something else. But Scotch bonnet peppers are something I can easily find at home in Jamaica.”

Bulli saves his jerk chicken recipe for special events and the occasional Sunday treat as an homage to the leisurely Sundays he cherished in Jamaica.

“Back home, Sunday is one of the few days where my family would actually have a sit down meal in Jamaica so I make it as a memory of that,” Bulli shares. “Typically, Sundays would also be a day we went to the beach. We would drive to the country (a 2-3 hour drive) and there’s a place we would stop at called Faith Ben. They sold a variety of Jamaican food and we’d make sure to get Jerk chicken from there,” Bulli reminisced.

In Jamaica, jerk chicken was often a dish served in food shacks rather than at the home.

“They’d have jerk chicken in barbeque pits, you call them jerk pans. That’s where you’d go,” Bulli added.

But even though jerk chicken was rarely served in a Jamaican home, to Bulli, it was a symbol of his culture and family. The longing to recreate this feeling drove him to experiment and replicate the dish all the way in Houston. And it only took him five attempts to nail down this recipe—one he’s already started teaching his eight year-old son.

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