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- 24 Jul 2013 -

Language

If I have to name the one constant in my life, it’s food. It didn’t mean much to me until my mother passed away when I was 10 years old. My dad started taking my brother and I to the supermarket for our weekly grocery shopping. It was the highlight of my week. My eyes were opened and I was intrigued by the fact that food can be stand-alone and it can also be an ingredient. I was enthralled by the different types of food on offer that came from so many countries, many of which names I could not pronounce. Why did all the pasta come from Italy? Is spaghetti a pasta? Is pasti plural for pasta and what is anti-pasta? Is it or is it not pasta??

I remembered feeling incomplete… as if a part of me was missing due to my very uneducated palate. My father was a doctor who firmly believed that instilling strong dietary discipline in his kids at a young age would put them in good stead with healthy food habits for life. That meant no sugar. Can you believe I had never tasted candy until I was 10? I remembered my first culinary challenge was when my Girl Scout leader tasked me to make brownies for our visit to the home for the elderly one Thursday afternoon. I found a recipe, followed it to a tee, but did not know whether the finished product tasted the way it should. I recall praying before bed that night for success with my little science experiment; lo and behold it was a huge hit with the elders!

Ever since that triumph, I looked forward to baking duty for Girl Scout community service every Thursday afternoon. I started digging up my late mom’s cookbooks and reading the recipes ferociously. It took a long time for me to choose a recipe let alone making the dish. Growing up in an ethnic Chinese family with English as my second language, I did not understand why my mom’s English cookbooks were all by American publishers. There was a completely different measurement and temperature system?! I asked my dad to buy me a dictionary so I could learn English whilst learning how to bake. I reminded him to get a Webster vs. the Oxford dictionary so I could decipher those “weird American terms” like cups and Fahrenheit. What in the world was “buttermilk”? Did the “Americans” leave out a space in between the two words or was it shorthand for mixing butter and milk?? I was so intrigued; it opened up a completely different world for me. The more recipes I read and the more photos I saw, the more I wanted to learn English. My aim was to read a recipe and follow it without the Webster dictionary on hand.

As I read every word in the recipe and made the food, I had visions of myself dishing out the goodies, the smiles and gratitude on the faces of folks taking their first bite. My signature dish was apple pie and my chocolate chip cookies were a roaring success amongst my neighbors.  

Oh I almost forgot… there was Halloween, I remembered it as one of those funny American holidays that I could not figure out ‘cause I still had to go to school (so why was it a holiday?) and, to boot, it had to do with food! I was encouraged to dress up with other kids and drop by different households to get free candy... how in the world did this tradition come about? There was no Wikipedia back in those days and the Webster dictionary did not have the definition for the word Halloween. Living in Hong Kong in a high-rise apartment block with 31 floors and two flats per floor meant I could knock myself out with sugars. I remembered thinking to myself I really want to put my culinary skills to test by soliciting raw honest feedback from complete strangers. I spent the week before making batches of my mini chocolate chip cookies, and carefully wrapping five of them in a paper bag. My cunning plan was in return for free candy, the kids would have to take my cookies home to share with their family, and each family had to fill out a feedback form I prepared beforehand and put it through my postbox.  

I remember the feedback forms kept coming in throughout the first two weeks of November. Everyday I would run home from the school bus, just dying to check the mailbox to read the verdicts. I had to use my Webster dictionary quite a bit, but it was so worth it. I learnt a lot of English words. I didn’t know words could be so powerful, beautiful and evocative of strong emotions. I finally knew what tears of joy meant.

As I felt the hot tears streaming down my face, I realized I had uncovered a way to transcend my feelings to another human being without words.
 

Food is my Language of Love.  

XX

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