What Food Means for Immigrants

April 15, 2019

I made this sukiyaki すき焼き for our dinner guests who requested Japanese food. I myself haven’t had it for more than 3 decades. It’s rarely served at Japanese restaurants here.

Serving a dish from my childhood to people who have never had it is a bit unnerving. The food you grew up with is sort of like an extension of your naked body. What if they don’t like it? It would be too late to take it back. If you grew up here eating pizza, pasta, burger, and fried chicken, you wouldn’t have that problem. You know everyone already accepts what you love.

For immigrants, revealing what we eat is very much like teenagers with imperfect bodies appearing at the pool for the first time. We imagine the critical gaze. What if they hate it but act as though they like it? What are they going to say to each other after they leave?

The food we love means so much to us that we want everyone around us to accept it, so we wouldn’t have to hide who we are. We want what we love to be socially acceptable whether it’s food, music, art, or the people we love.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t work out for everyone. Our love isn’t always socially acceptable, and it can take a few generations or more to be accepted.

In a book about Asian immigrants, I read an account of Japanese laborers at the turn of the 20th century where they made a sauce from burnt flour, sugar, salt, and water because they missed soy sauce so much. I’m sure it didn’t taste anything like soy sauce but they were able to satisfy their craving at least visually. Now soy sauce is everywhere.

Ethnic food festivals on the street function similarly to gay pride parade; the idea is to accelerate the public acceptance of unusual love.

But in the end, whether the public accepts or not, we have to be unapologetic about what we love. After all, if we ourselves cannot stand up for what we love, why should anyone else?