Cooking up connections: Cultural foods nourish bonds among AAPI communities

An array of steamy, mouthwatering dishes is placed on the table as joyous chatter fills the room, ranging from lighthearted banter to serious debate. In many Asian American Pacific Islander communities, cooking allows individuals to connect with their loved ones.

In South Asian cultures, food is integrated into the celebration of many festivals, including Diwali. Sophomore Aarya Bhushan sees cooking during Diwali as a time to bond with her mother. “During Diwali, my mom and I always make Indian sweets together, and we always have a fun time in the kitchen,” she said.

Similarly, English teacher Terence Kitada, who is Japanese American, remembers how his family would relax and enjoy Japanese  cuisine together. “When I was a little kid, my dad would always grill chicken teriyaki (during) the summers,” he said. “Making food with my family is a nice break. Everybody’s so busy all the time, if you could just concentrate on making something together, it brings people together.” Kitada recounted how food also fostered more intimate connections with individual family members outside of larger gatherings. When he was younger, Kitada and his sister would regularly go to a Japanese restaurant together, which provided them with a time to build their relationship. “We’d always go after school and just eat comfort food (while) talking to each other,” he said.

Nostalgic moments around food also appear in Chinese teacher Yanan Vrudny’s childhood. She and her extended family would gather at her grandparents’ house to make “jiaozi,” or dumplings, together. “You have uncles and cousins who you may have never met for years,” Vrudny said. “You realize that making dumplings is not only making food, but it’s making connections to relatives and hearing their stories from all the generations. You can’t learn all these from the textbook.”

Children of immigrants may find it difficult to learn about their cultural customs. According to Vrudny, however, food provides an opportunity for them to connect with their heritage. “I once heard that food is history — the way it’s prepared, the ingredients that are used and other factors are all chosen by our ancestors,” she said. “By cherishing the food, it’s like eating a piece of history with some twists of our own.”

Similarly, when Kitada was teaching in Japan, he and his students learned about Japanese cultural values through the experience of harvesting rice. “You eat (rice) every day, but a lot of work goes into it,” he said. “In Japan, you’re not excused to go to recess until you’ve eaten every grain of rice in the bowl. (There is) the idea to not waste food because somebody made that for you.”

Sharing food among different groups in the AAPI community also kindles intercultural dialogue. Vrudny explained that although chopsticks are used in multiple countries — China, Japan and Korea, to name a few — they are designed differently based on the specific foods and customs each individual culture has. Having conversations among different AAPI cultures regarding food practices can create bonds between communities. “(This) can build connections when people may have nothing to talk about,” Vrudny said.

Food is also significant in religious practices. In Hinduism, food called “prasada” is offered to God and consumed by devotees as a way to give thanks. “There’s the aspect of sacrificing for God,” Bhushan said. “But it’s also bringing us closer to our culture and heritage.”

Despite the positive connotations of food in AAPI communities, many experience discrimination due to their cultural foods. AAPI foods have been considered “exotic” or “strange” in some school lunchrooms, which can cause AAPI individuals, such as sophomore Jessie Han, to feel uncomfortable with sharing their cuisines. “In the past, I was self-conscious about the food I brought to school, mostly because I was scared that others would act negatively towards it,” she said. “But if I could time travel, I would encourage them to be curious and try some. If they like it, that’s amazing — if not, then that’s totally fine as well.”

Kitada discussed this type of discrimination in his Visual Storytelling class while reading “American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel in which the Chinese American protagonist experiences bullying because of his lunch. “When students in my class reflect on the text, I consistently hear people mentioning that they went through the same thing when they were younger,” Kitada said. “It’s sad that students are discouraged from eating cuisine from their own culture due to harassment from classmates.

As an integral part of AAPI culture and community, food celebrates a sense of belonging and what it means to be AAPI. “Food not only is for eating,” Vrudny said. “It is more important how we use it as a tool to connect people to the knowledge, the ingredients and the world.”