Tag Archives: Third Culture Kids

And Finally, For the Youngest Stirling—Spaghetti Bolognese.

Jennifer, Jenny or Jen Ju (as in the popular Taiwanese bubble tea) is the baby in our little army. Ask Jenny where she was born, and she will excitedly tell you the true story of how she popped out on the foyer of my family’s Taiwanese apartment. She may be 12, but in my mind she’s still a tiny three-year-old sneaking into my room at 6 a.m., dragging her favorite book and hoping for story-time.

Adventurous and curious about food, Jenny is the kid that chefs and food lovers wish for. Jenny always claims the seat next to me when we go out for dinner, not because I’m such pleasant company, but because—as she once explained—I always order the most interesting food.  My husband is convinced that she is actually mine. I swear she’s not.

Read more…

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Sibling #7 Claims the Family Favorite: Beef Fried Noodles

Oliver, or sibling number seven, was my first “baby”. His wasn’t the first live birth I saw, (that distinction belongs to Elaine—sibling #6 for those keeping track at home) but one’s level of awareness is far more acute at twelve than it is at ten. Oliver wasn’t weaned yet when mom found out that she was pregnant with #8, so Oli was booted from mom’s bed & came to stay with me in my Harry Potter-esque room under the stairs. I would wake up every couple of hours to give him a bottle, sing lullabies, and rock him back to sleep in the 2sq. feet of available standing room.

By the time Oliver was a toddler the kitchen was my well-established domain. He would often patter in, stare up at me with his big brown eyes and beg for lumps of brown sugar (the closest thing we had to candy). I could never refuse. I’d sneak him into the pantry where the massive 50lb. sacks of dark brown sugar were stored & together we’d dig out a few choice lumps. Back in the kitchen I’d set him on the countertop & listen to him giggle as he sucked on one and played with the others in his chubby little hands. Once or twice I even slipped him a taste of whatever wine I was cooking with. He’d pucker his little face, smack his lips and ask for more. Don’t judge. I was fourteen.

I’d like to think that our kitchen escapades had something to do with Oli’s current love of food and comfort around the stove, but the more likely driving force is his veracious appetite. Like most male 18-year olds Oliver eats like an unbridled horse after a race.

My sisters (my usual accomplices in the kitchen) & I figured out early that fried noodles are a perfect meal to whip up when you’re short on time & surrounded by ravenous teenagers. It’s a “kitchen-sink” type dish—as in “throw in everything but”. Honestly we could pull everything out of our fridge, cut it up uniformly, boil some noodles, throw together a good sauce & 15min later the hoards would be chowing down on a delicious meal.

Occasionally, if Oli’s hungry enough, he’ll pause from figuring out his current favorite song on the piano or texting his multiple lady friends & cook up his own wicked version of fried noodles… sometimes, if you’re lucky, he’ll even share.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
8 oz. spaghetti *Cooks note I
½ lb. skirt steak
Salt
Black pepper
5 shiitake mushrooms
2 carrots
2 celery ribs
2 handfuls of Chinese greens (bok choy, tat soi, Chinese broccoli)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled & minced
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. oyster sauce
¼ tsp. sugar
1½ tsp. sesame oil
½ tsp. chili garlic sauce (optional)
2 scallions, thinly sliced

  • Place a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Season generously with salt.
  • Slice the beef, against the grain, into thin strips. *Cooks note II. Season with ½ tsp. salt and freshly ground black pepper. Set aside while you prep the other ingredients
  • Slice the mushroom caps. Julienne (thin long sticks) the carrots and celery. Slice the Chinese greens lengthwise.
  • Heat a skillet and 2 tsp. of neutral oil over high heat. When the oil is lightly smoking throw in the carrots, celery & a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Remove.
  • Add the shiitake caps to the pan. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook for 1 min. Remove.
  • Add 2 tsp. neutral oil to the pan. Immediately add the minced garlic and ginger. As soon as it becomes fragrant (you don’t want any color) add the beef to the pan. Let the beef sear gently for a few seconds before adding 1 tsp. soy sauce, 1 tsp. oyster sauce, ¼ tsp. sugar & 1tsp. sesame oil to the skillet (and the chili garlic sauce if desired). Turn the heat to high & cook for 30 seconds. Remove & set aside until the noodles are finished cooking
  • Once the water comes to a boil add the noodles. Cook until al dente. Drain.
  • Return the skillet to stove. Turn the heat to medium-high. Add whatever Chinese greens you’ve chosen plus a splash of chicken stock or water. Cook for 30 seconds-1minute, stirring frequently. Add the cooked carrots, celery, shiitakes & beef. Stir. Add the remaining 1 tsp. of soy sauce and 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Add the noodles. Stir-fry over medium-high heat. (If the noodles begin to stick to the skillet add a little chicken stock or water)
  • Cook stirring frequently for 2-3 minutes. Finish with a final drizzle of sesame oil. Divide between two plates. Top with sliced scallions (and Sriracha for those who want extra heat)

Cooks Note I: The recipe calls for spaghetti because that’s most likely the type of noodles everyone has on hand. Sometimes I’ll use an Asian egg noodles or rice noodles but most of the time I just use good ol’ spaghetti.

Cooks Note II: Look closely at the beef, with skirt steak it should be fairly apparent which way the fibers are running… lay the steak down so the fibers are running horizontally, slice vertically. You are now cutting against the grain!

It’s Rebooted Beef Stew for Sibling #6

Elaine is sibling number six. She’s tall, curvy & blessed with a wicked set of pipes. She is also generous, smart and kind. I once witnessed a very large frozen mango daiquiri slip off a serving tray and come cascading down her hair and white blouse. She squealed in shock, and then laughed it off to calm the panicked waitress. I can guarantee you that would NOT have been my reaction.

Elaine reminded me that not all comfort food starts out as a childhood favorite.

“One that I remember is Dad’s stew…I remember haaaaating the boiled carrots and huge chunks of potatoes. But of course every time I eat it now I’m transported to when I was 10 and we’d all be sitting at the dinner table laughing about this “crazy western food” dad made for us. Thankfully the stews have gotten better around here. I’m sure dad got the point and incorporated a little Asian flare. I love meaty stews to this day.” 

Now, if you follow this blog you know that my dad’s scrambled eggs have always been spectacular, but I have to agree with Elaine. As kids his stews were a challenge to choke down. You see, in an effort to keep us all healthy our dad would never peel the potatoes or carrots. And so while they were chock-a-block full with all their natural nutrients, they also tasted like bitter dirt. As for the beef, we would dutifully chew the lumps of flesh. Then when our dad wasn’t looking, we’d coyly spit the remaining mass of gristle into a napkin and quickly stuff it under the rim of our plate. I don’t think my dad cooked with wine; perhaps he used stock. However, more than likely the meat and vegetables were vigorously boiled in water with little added flavoring.

Our poor Canadian papa was probably just trying to introduce his own childhood favorite to his rambunctious brood. Unfortunately, our Asian palates were not amused. Thankfully, as Elaine pointed out, over the years the stews have improved—the cuts of beef got better and peeling the vegetables became an acceptable part of the process—and now this very Western dish is a family favorite.

I thought it only appropriate to serve dad’s stew with the Stirling family silver, a lovely gift from my nana on my wedding day. You wouldn’t guess from looking at me that I’m part Scottish but that family crest is my proof!

Serves 2

Ingredients:
1 lb. beef (chuck, boneless ribs, etc.)
Salt & Pepper
1 cup red wine
1 cup tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned is perfectly acceptable)
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. butter
2 tsp. neutral oil
1 leek, white part only quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 sprigs of thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
1 tsp. celery salt
1 Tbs. flour
2 cups beef stock
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1” thick disks
8-10 cremini (baby bella) mushrooms, wiped clean & stems trimmed
Japanese pickled onions (optional)
Parsley (optional)

  • Heat a skillet over high heat. Drizzle with neutral oil. Cut the beef into 2” x 2” cubes. Salt and pepper generously. When the skillet is lightly smoking add the cubes of beef. Sear each piece on all sides.
  • Once all the beef is seared deglaze the pan by adding a cup of red wine. Turn heat down to medium and simmer until the wine has reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes & 1 teaspoon of sugar, simmer another 5 minutes.
  • Meanwhile heat 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 tsp. of neutral oil over medium-high heat in a pot. When the butter has melted add the sliced leeks and ½ tsp. of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until leeks become soft. Add the minced garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Cook another 3 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of flour. Cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of beef stock. Stirring well to incorporate.
  • Add the beef, wine and tomato mixture. Cover but leave the lid cocked a tad to allow some steam to escape.
  • 1½ hrs in, add the carrots (if you like things extra complicated but more perfect, boil the carrots separately with a little salt and sugar, add them at the end). 15 minutes later, add the mushroom caps. Simmer gently for a total of 2 hours or until the beef is tender.
  • Serve over creamy mashed potatoes. Top with Japanese pickled onions* and minced parsley.

Cook’s Note:
* In Japan curry is eaten with sweet pickled radishes and onions. Here the tiny onions add a great textural contrast and their sweetness pairs perfectly with this stew. My advice: do NOT use Western-style pickled cocktail onions. Maybe it’s my Asian bias but I found the resulting flavor far too sour.

The Palettes of TCKs: Sibling #4 Requests Chicken Wings

Sibling number four is my very beautiful sister Janai. In addition to the usual identity crises associated with TCKs Janai has had the added complication of having a foreign name. In Chinese her name (pronounced jen-ai or ren-ai) means “true love” but unfortunately, in Japanese ja-nai means “am not” or “is not”. Thus Janai spent many years of her life reluctantly being called by her second name, Clare. Guess what my darling husband jokingly said to her when they met in Taiwan? “Clare? That’s a fat girl’s name.” Thank you John Hughes and The Breakfast Club!

However the shy girl grew up into a sassy lady who often renders men speechless when she extends a manicured hand and introduces herself, often repeating her exotic name several times for the bumbling gentlemen that can’t seem to get it right.

Janai sent me the following response to my comfort food inquiry, “Remember how we used to bake all those chicken wings?? Made our own marinade with soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, and any spice we could find? That’s what I crave…basic yet delicious…it’s what I remember as ‘home’.”

Ah, I remember those chicken wings well. They were the frequent stars of our dinner table because wings were cheap and the sauce was composed of just about every spice in the cupboard, and every condiment in the refrigerator door.

We’ve been making chicken wings in my family for years, but my relationship with them wasn’t always amicable. In Japan we would cook the wings in a skillet on the stove since we only had a very small oven (most Asian kitchens aren’t outfitted with large ovens; toaster ovens are usually used for baking at home instead). Just about everything in our kitchen was stainless steel and our cooking utensils were metal, which was great for cleaning. But when the pilot light in the stove shorted (and it did, ALL THE TIME), you got a free lesson in electrostatics. Question: What happens when you happen to touch the stove with metal tongs while your other hand is resting on the metal counter? Answer: The electrical currents have a play date in your body! To this day my body tenses in preparation for a jolt whenever I smell soy sauce and sugar caramelizing.

But we left that house, and eventually Japan. Somewhere along the way we found ourselves in a bigger kitchen, and we transferred the wings from the skillet to the oven. Nowadays I bake the wings first with just a little salt, pepper, lime juice and oil, (you could add other spices like Chinese five spice or chili powder) and then glaze the wings with the sauce right before I throw them under the broiler. With this method the meat is nicely seasoned and the sweet-salty sauce gets deliciously charred and sticky under the intense broiler heat.

Hopefully your kitchen is in compliance with safety codes, so making these simple Asian wings won’t leave you permanently traumatized.

Ingredients:
1 lb. chicken wings
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ tsp. lime juice
1 Tbs. neutral oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, minced
1 half medium sized onion, diced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 Tbs. ketchup
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. Sriracha

  • Mix the first 5 ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside to allow the chicken to marinate and temper (come up to room temperature)
  • Preheat the oven to 400°. When oven reaches desired temperature place the chicken wings on a sheet pan and into the oven for 10 minutes
  • While the wings are baking sweat the onions, garlic and ginger in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  • Combine the soy sauce, water, ketchup, mustard, sugar and Sriracha together in a bowl. Mix well.
  • Once the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes) add the liquid mixture to the saucepan. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Strain. Pour the strained liquid into a large bowl.
  • Add the semi cooked chicken wings to the sauce and toss to coat. Return the chicken wings to the sheet pan and place them under the broiler (turned to high) for a couple of minutes. Remove and flip the wings. Return to the broiler and sear the other side of the wings (1-2 minutes).
  • Remove when you have the color and caramelization you want.

Can be served as is….

Or with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro…

Cilantro and extra Sriracha…

Or with a dusting of shiso furikake—shiso, the popular Japanese herb (also called beefsteak plant), flavored rice seasoning… salty, tart and slightly floral.

TCKs: Sibling #3 Requests Mochi with Butter and Sugar

Staring out of the car window at the rolling green knolls, tall aluminum silos and herds of happily grazing animals on my way from Milwaukee to Green Lake, I seriously debated pulling up to one of the picturesque farms and asking if they’d be willing to let me milk one of their fat cows. And when I saw a woman walking to her mailbox with a lamb by her side I knew Wisconsin would be the place to live out my fetch-a-pail-of-milk-with-a-bonnet-on-my-head fantasy.

Damn, that would’ve made a good blog entry.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t drag myself out of bed for a 5am milking after lying around on my friend’s dock, swimming in the lake and stuffing my face with fried cheese curds. Luckily for me my toast-and-milk-loving brother saved my lazy ass with the following text. “Holy shit, I just remembered my comfort food… mochi with butter and sugar… that shit is bananas.” (Yes, that’s really how my 28 year-old brother talks).

If you’ve never had mochi before, a brief explanation might be in order. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made by pounding glutinous rice till it forms one sticky mass. After this, it is divided and shaped into squares or little mounds, and eaten savory or sweet.

As kids we used to join our neighbors for mochitsuki, mochi pounding, a ritual that is part of the Japanese New Year celebration. It was riveting to watch the process. Two volunteers, one pounding the rice with a heavy wooden mallet, the other quickly folding and flipping the hot mass lying inside a mortar between mallet strikes. As you can imagine, timing is everything. I was always relieved by the absence of accidents. But my two brothers, who had been so excited for the possibility of seeing a hand caught under the mallet, were continuously disappointed by the lack of gore. Once the mochi was ready we’d line up for a serving of that warm, slightly sweet, stretchy goodness.

Personally, I love mochi nice and Asian, with seaweed and soy sauce. But—in genuine TCK confused fashion—my younger brother prefers his with a pat of butter and sprinkling of sugar.

I could use this space to talk about the long painstaking process behind mochi. I could tell you how to soak and steam the mochi rice. Pound, shape and dust the pieces with rice flour. But why risk pancaking a finger with a wooden hammer when there are perfectly made rice cakes sold in stores? Look for mochi at your local Asian grocery store (I purchased mine at Hana the Japanese grocery store on U St. in Northwest Washington, DC) and simply follow the cooking directions on the back of the packaging. I simply throw them in the toaster till the exterior is shatteringly crisp and the inside is warm and gooey. Mochi is good no matter what you decide to top it with. Soy sauce, seaweed, red beans, white miso, sesame paste… or even butter and sugar.

Shrimp & Pork Fried Rice

I knew I’d get at least one request for fried rice when I emailed my siblings asking about their favorite childhood dishes. Sure enough, the following reply came from my older brother, “I would say a proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice is a staple comfort food for me. It’s simple but always takes me back to childhood food”.

Disclaimer: I am a HUGE snob when it comes to fried rice, as is my older brother, which is why I understood when he prefaced his choice with the word “proper”. But what is proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice? For starters, Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice. I’m not looking to veer off into touchy foreign policy issues here. It’s not an invitation to begin debating Japanese history textbook revisionism or who really owns the Senkaku islands…  This is just a simple statement; good Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice.

I am willing however, to argue over what goes inside said fried rice. Perhaps it’s best to start with what should NOT be included. There shouldn’t be any chunks of softened pineapple dominating the dish with its sweetness. No bean sprouts poking out like tadpoles from a mound of rice. And no bright green broccoli florets with their promise of nutrition. As for the protein component this is not the time to start defrosting those questionable items in the back on the freezer. The rice shouldn’t be yellow from curry powder, or red from ketchup. And it should definitely not be brown from thickened soy sauce.

For me the best fried rice is flavored with both shrimp and pork; the rice is still white rather than stained brown from soy sauce, and the vegetables are uniformly cut and cooked.

The first really great fried rice I remember eating with my older brother was at the Seagull Hotel in Shanghai when he was six and I was four. We had just travelled with our parents, two-year-old brother and one-month old baby sister by ship, from Japan to China (that’s right, I said SHIP). At the hotel my brother and I would alternate between ordering the fried rice and fried noodles. I’m sure we ordered other dishes as well, but none stuck in my memory like those two big starchy plates of food.

Nowadays our massive family has a system for ordering when we go out for Chinese food (imagine the mayhem without one). Two or three of us will scan the menu and call off suggestions for the others to reject or accept, while another sibling furiously scribbles the orders on a scrap of paper. Fried rice with its salty nuggets of ham, just-cooked pink shrimp, and delicately scrabbled eggs always gets a round of head-nods and an enthusiastic “definitely” from the whole family. I’m hoping that the version below gets the same unanimous stamp of approval.

Ingredients:
Neutral oil for cooking
½ cup diced onion
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/3 cup diced celery 
5 shiitake caps, diced
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1/3 cup cooked peas
¾ cup diced ham or Canadian bacon
10 small or 5 large (cut into 3rds) peeled and deveined shrimp
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups cooked white rice *cook’s note I*
1 tsp. chicken bouillon *cook’s note II*
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ cup sliced scallion
2 tsp. sesame oil

*As with all Chinese food timing and speed are the keys to success. Make sure you have everything prepped and ready to go before you turn on the stove.

 
  • Heat a wok or large skillet and 1 Tbsp. of oil over med-high heat. Once wisps of smoke begin to appear add the diced onion. Cook for 1 min. Add the garlic, ginger and ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
  • Add the diced carrots. Cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the celery and diced shiitake caps. Add 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Cook for 1 min. Add the peas, stirring through. Remove and set aside.
  • In the now empty wok/skillet heat 2 tsp. of oil. Add the diced Canadian bacon or ham (I prefer Canadian bacon for its fat content). Fry quickly over high heat until lightly brown and fat begins to render. Remove. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add the shrimp to the pork fat. Add ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, or until shrimp are pink and no longer translucent. Remove shrimp, leaving any remaining fat behind.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and add the lightly beaten eggs to the center of the hot wok/skillet. Cook as you would scrambled eggs for 15 seconds, add the rice to the pan. Mix well with the partially cooked eggs. Sprinkle in 1 tsp. chicken bouillon, ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. ground white pepper. Continue stir-frying for 1 minute.
  • Add the cooked vegetables, pork and shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients. Add the scallions and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
  • Remove from heat and serve.

Cook’s note I: To get the best results the rice needs to be cold. Freshly steamed rice is too sticky to fry properly. Use leftover rice or cook it early in the day and let it cool for a while in the refrigerator.

Cook’s note II: In an effort to develop a recipe as close to the version my older brother remembers from his childhood I’ve used chicken bouillon. I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone that this is an ingredient frequently used for seasoning in Chinese food. It received a bad rap for a while due to its MSG content, but these days it’s pretty easy to find a MSG-free version.

Examining the Mixed Up Minds and Palates of Third Culture Kids

In her book According to My Passport, I’m Coming Home author Kay Branaman Eakin describes a Third Culture Kid as, “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”

Educators and psychologist who study Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have found that, among other things (really I’m only sharing the good stuff), they have a lower divorce rate, communicate well, and tend to be more welcoming and understanding of other cultures. TCKs are more likely to earn a college degree in their 20s, and many go on to earn advanced degrees. However, after graduation it is unlikely that they will enter the same career field of their parents (which tends to be missionary, military, or government).

My siblings and I are all TCKs. We have a Canadian father and a Filipina mother. Two of us were born in the Philippines, one in Macau, five in Japan and two in Taiwan. I’m the only one who speaks Japanese, but two of my brothers can understand a bit. Four of us girls can flip to Chinese if we ever want to gossip about you in front of you. But our youngest sister is the only one who can say anything in Tagalog that isn’t a cuss word.  Only the oldest two (my older brother and I) have ever lived in the Philippines. Interestingly, we are also the only two who have never lived in Canada.

The 3rd culture we’ve created is a mix of Japanese and Chinese culture, with a sprinkling of Canadian-ness here and there. In other words we remove our shoes when we enter the house but there aren’t tiny slippers designated solely for the bathroom (I am not exaggerating here, Japanese really do have a set of slippers used just inside the bathroom). We can’t spend two nights together without pulling out the karaoke machine and belting out cheesy 90s ballads, our song choice reflecting the slightly dated Americanized pop culture we were surrounded by while growing up in Asia. In the late 80s-early 90s the most popular English songs sung in Japanese karaoke bars were the hits of the 70s sibling duo The Carpenters. So the song choices could be worse. Although perhaps I’d prefer my 11-year-old sister know the lyrics to Touch Me When We’re Dancing rather than enthusiastically sing along to the salacious I’ll Make Love to You by Boyz II Men.

As for sports there’s really no debate—here Canadian-ness shifts from a mere sprinkling to a heavy dousing—hockey is king. When hockey season is at its peak my family living room is filled with shouts, squeals, nerves, tears, jubilation and disappointment on par with the backstage of a Baby Beauty Pageant. While my brothers dabble with other sports, true worship takes place at the altars of Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr and Markus Naslund.

Perhaps one day I will pay a shrink thousands of dollars to dig around in my TCK head. No doubt he/she will tell me how my childhood is to blame for my taste in music, my incessant need to de-clutter my apartment and why I struggle to select cheese at Western grocery stores—seriously why does there have to be 150 different types? But that is not now, and definitely not here.

Here, I will focus my linguistically and culturally confused brain on doing a little experiment involving TCKs and food. Specifically, if nostalgia plays a key role in a person’s perception of what constitutes as “comfort food” then did growing up in various countries influence each of my siblings’ tastes differently?

When I feel ill, all I can think about is a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Sibling #4 craves Chinese congee. While sibling #3 told me that his idea of comfort food is buttered toast dipped in milk. (I shudder to think how many loaves he’s consumed trying to ease the pain of his beloved Canucks losing the Stanley Cup Final last week.)

I have asked each of my siblings what they crave when they are sad, sick, or just looking for something that reminds them of “home”. Over the coming weeks, I will share their answers on this blog, as well as a recipe for each dish. I fully expect to be cooking up a lot of Taiwanese street food, but I’m also ready for a possible poutine or tuna casserole from the more Canadian among us.

As for the toast and milk request from my younger brother—maybe I’ll write a post on how to milk a cow… ‘cause that’s a hell of a lot more interesting then a piece on how to turn on a toaster.

Why I Love to Cook

I can’t remember the first time exactly. Rather than one instance, the memory is more likely a combination of several—a quiet house, the mellow morning sun glowing from behind Japanese paper doors, the clean woodsy smell of the soft bamboo mat flooring. As a child I would silently slip out of my warm bed, taking care not to wake any of my sleeping siblings. Tiptoeing down the narrow hallway, I’d make my way towards the kitchen. The light clanking of metal and the tic, tic, tic of the stove pilot light would tell me that my dad was putting the kettle on for his morning cup of coffee.

With ten children, my family can be accurately described as shockingly large. Our house was always filled with friends, visitors, sleepovers, and play dates. Naturally two things were in short supply and in constant demand—a peaceful room and the undivided attention of our parents. Maybe that’s why cooking became so important to me; it was a moment in which my dad or mom focused on me. Was I holding the knife safely? Cutting the vegetables the right size? Rinsing the rice correctly? The kitchen before everyone else rose for the day became my place to find parental attention and complete calm.

It was here that I learned to make my very first dish: scrambled eggs, a dish with the ability to be utterly pedestrian, or worthy of a place on the menu of a 5-star restaurant.

As a kid I remember the horror of showing up to my friends’ breakfast table, and seeing a pile of something that vaguely resembled food. A rubbery, overcooked grayish green mass where bits of whites and yolks could still be differentiated in the pile. A papery burnt film shuddering atop an oozing undercooked section. I recall being mystified as to how someone could both burn and undercook eggs at the same time.

Maybe it’s the adoration of a little girl towards her father, but I still believe my father’s scrambled eggs were perfection. He moved slowly, methodically through the steps. He would crack the eggs into a large bowl. Then slide the bowl over, allowing me to whip the eggs. He preferred to use a fork, but sometimes the volume of eggs would be too much for my little wrist and he would hand me a whisk. He showed me how the addition of a little milk would make the eggs creamy and fluffy, and the importance of salting them before cooking so that they didn’t taste of salt but rather fresh, rich eggs. A careful constant stirring over medium heat resulted in the fluffiest, most savory plate of eggs this little girl had ever tasted.

We would probably only have thirty minutes in that quiet kitchen—me intensely stirring the eggs, while my dad sipped his coffee and buttered slices of whole wheat toast to accompany them. By the time everything was ready, the house would be coming alive with the sounds of people eager for breakfast.

Last week at the 5-star restaurant where I now work, I learned how to make the ultimate upscale version of my childhood breakfast food. A few professional secrets elevate this simple dish—extra egg yolks are added to enrich the flavor, crème fraiche replaces milk and the eggs are cooked slowly in a saucepot, stirred constantly with a small whisk and finished with a round spatula. Of course, cooking them in truffle butter and garnishing with a generous shaving of white truffles from Italy doesn’t hurt. When it comes to the table the pungent earthy aroma of the truffles envelopes you and for a few blissful moments you are lost in the luscious, savory, buttery eggs. Simplicity elevated.

However, for me no amount of truffles, caviar, or smoked salmon will ever elevate anyone’s scrambled eggs over my dad’s. The simple joy of spending time with him, cooking in our tiny Japanese kitchen while the rest of the house slept. Quiet moments like this didn’t occur very often, making the times that they did all the more memorable.

If I close my eyes I can still feel the warm morning sun coming in the small window above the kitchen sink. A little girl is standing at the stove, dad close by—wisps of steam disappearing off the top of his mug, filling the room with the robust and faintly sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee. For her, this is the best moment of her day and the most perfect plate of food she will ever eat.

When I tell people that I have started a new career in the food world the common reaction is a head tilt and an inquisitive “why?” Why? Simple—it makes me smile. Sometimes the quiet, simple moments in life resonate the loudest and the longest.