The Children of Immigrants Find New Meaning in the 'Survival Food' of Their Parents
“At the time, I couldn’t understand my mother’s incredulity that a simple meal she ate to survive could be a source of unburdened pleasure for her own children.”
Saturday mornings in my childhood home consisted of the loud sounds of Hindi soap operas, the smell of incense wafting through each room after my grandma’s morning prayer and the sure promise of my favorite breakfast—a simple meal of seasoned white toast and chai. You could see my grandma peering at the TV from the kitchen while toasting pieces of Wonder Bread on a tawa, dabbing vegetable oil and salt on each side. Dipping those pieces of toast in small ceramic bowls filled with steaming chai brought me indescribable joy. This meal was a welcome weekend ritual, distinguishing Saturdays from the weekday “American” breakfasts of Froot Loops, chocolate Pop Tarts and Eggo waffles. My mother would watch my sister and I eat the chai-speckled toast and say, with amusement, “Did you know I used to eat this meal as a child because it was so filling and cheap, not by choice?”
At the time, I couldn’t understand my mother’s incredulity that a simple meal she ate to survive could be a source of unburdened pleasure for her own children. But foods have a way of traversing the diaspora, shifting in meaning even among the same family. As many of these foods become repackaged as luxury “Third World” delicacies, it’s even more important to reflect on the personal histories many people of color have with these household staples, all of which took on new meanings—and flavors—in America.
Here, six second- and third-generation immigrants share the stories behind their favorite nostalgic dishes that were once rooted in survival eating habits.
“One of my favorite meals is ‘cook up;’ I consider it West Indian comfort food. Cook up is only one of the many names for the dish, another one being ‘straights.’ Basically, it's rice and beans plus whatever you have in your kitchen, so the recipe varies from place to place. My mom uses plantains, coconut milk, kidney beans, cassava (sometimes) and salted beef. But she's also done salt fish, and my aunt uses different beans that make the whole thing red. My mom told me it was food that low-income folks would eat, and I didn't believe her because of how many ingredients she put in it. That and the fact that I didn't know anyone else who ate the dish, so it felt special to me. (She said the same thing about dhal and rice, but that's much more believable to me.) When my mom asks us what she should make for birthdays, holidays or any 'special' occasion, cook up is always on that list.” —Shaz
“Whenever I make my way over to Jackson Heights, Queens, I always think of buying Colombian goods and things my mom would make for me when I lived at home. Growing up, it would always be a treat whenever my mom made arepas with huevos pericos (eggs with scallions and plum tomatoes.) This is considered a typical Colombian breakfast dish, usually accompanied with hot chocolate. As a kid when I visited family in Pereira, Colombia for the summer, my aunt would make arepas at home and sell them locally as a source of income—neighbors would buy them by the dozen. Arepas are generally cheap and easy to make. They’re just boiled white corn, ground and shaped into flat, round patties then toasted over fire. Toppings vary from white cheese to huevos pericos to refried rice and beans. Not too long ago, I bought the kitchenware necessary to make these kinds of foods, including a chocolatera (hot chocolate pitcher), molinillo (wooden whisk used to dissolve chocolate bars and froth milk) and a parrilla (grill) specifically made for arepas. Making this type of food now as a young adult reminds me of my childhood, family and Colombian heritage.” —Bryan
“Khichuri is a rice and red lentil (often porridge-y) dish that is a pretty quintessential Bengali comfort food. Growing up, we would have it on rainy weekend days with eggs and delicious achar (chutney.) My mouth is watering thinking about it. Talking to a few Indian friends made me realize they viewed it as a not-that-special food you eat when you're sick, which surprised me. I always thought it was a meal reserved for special weekend mornings. Looking back, though, I think I’ve seen khichuri often served when feeding the homeless, as it’s a cheap and filling meal.
The dish is made with the two basic ingredients in every Bengali kitchen—rice and lentils. Here’s an example of how important these foods are in Bengali cuisine: When people talk of food prices rising, they sometimes say that ‘chal dal’ (rice lentil) prices are going up. Khichuri can be made with different types of lentils, but red is the most common. For me, khichuri has become a simple, go-to dish to make when I feel like having some comfort food. I sometimes say it’s our staple version of rice and beans.” —Anonymous
“Balut, fertilized duck egg, is generally incubated for 14 to 18 days before being boiled for consumption. At about 14 days of incubation, the embryo floats on top of the egg white and yolk. It is considered one of the most iconic and ‘exotic’ delicacies of the Philippines.
I remember eating balut for breakfast as a kid all the time and loving it. It was easy for my mom to prepare since it was essentially just boiling hot water, same as you would for hard-boiled eggs. To me, it was like an upgraded egg—why eat normal eggs if you could have balut instead? I loved that there was a special way to eat it. It was like a three-course meal, working from the top of the egg down. First, you cracked a small hole at the top to expose what I considered the appetizer, the ‘soup’—the best part, in my opinion. Second, you peel a little more of the egg, about halfway, to reveal the main course, the duck fetus. This is the part that turns people off, but as a kid, it didn't bother me at all. Third was the most ‘normal’ part, pretty much the same as a hard-boiled egg—the egg white and yolk. The only side dish needed with balut is a bit of salt; the dish is simple, cheap and delicious. I think you can still get balut around here for a little more than $1 each. In the Philippines, it's about 15 Philippine pesos (PHP) or about 30 cents here. When I was in the Philippines last January, I remember hearing the vendors at night yelling "Balut! Balut!" in the streets, but growing up, I always considered it a breakfast food. I remember watching an episode of Fear Factor where one of the challenges was to eat balut, and I thought to myself that is the easiest challenge ever. Luckily, it is not sold as an appropriated luxury. Outside of the Filipino community, it is reserved only for the most ‘adventurous’ of eaters.” —J.C.
“The poorness my parents felt was twofold: 1) Both my parents grew up in a poor part of Bangladesh, and 2) After immigrating to the U.S., we had an income that was labeled as ‘below the poverty line.’ What always struck me as odd was how often my parents referenced eating ‘well’ in Bangladesh and eating like trash in the States. My ignorance led me to believe the quality of the food had to be better in America. Thus, when my parents introduced certain foods into my diet, I assumed they were some ‘delicacy’ brought from the motherland. As a child, I didn't realize some of their favorite meals stemmed from having access to organic ingredients at low cost (or no cost if they grew certain vegetables) in Bangladesh.
The first example that comes to mind is bhorta. The concept of bhorta is taking steamed or roasted vegetables, like potatoes or eggplants, mashing it up with salt, mustard oil, onions, cilantro and serving it with rice. This simple mash, in potato form, is what Americans would consider mashed potatoes. It was such a simple dish that my mom prepared, required very few new ingredients (we always had plenty of mustard oil) and was nutritious. Growing up, I hated bhortas. I felt the consistency was odd, and it never looked visually appealing to me. I assumed bhorta to have a bunch of weird ingredients and required way more effort to make. I felt like it was a delicacy. Little did I know that my parents’ love for bhorta stemmed from its ease, its affordability and from their nostalgia for Bangladesh. Now, I think they are actually quite delicious. Eating eggplant bhorta with bhaat will always bring me back to our first run-down apartment in the States, where my parents showed their love through a full plate of food and tried their best to help me forget about our immigrant struggles!” —Iffat
“Jewnigiri” and Onigiri
“This story is a uniquely Asian-American one. I am often overwhelmed by the thought of a pre-Loving v. Virginia America, one in which my parents' love and marriage would have been criminal and one in which this dish could never have existed and been passed down to me and my sister. My mom was raised Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist country, Burma, and my dad grew up Jewish in a mixed race neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Religion itself was never very present in my house, except around Christmas and Hanukah when we celebrated with both a menorah and a decorated pine tree. But one treat my mom invented is also my favorite food memory—when we were little, my mom used to take fresh jasmine rice, mix it with gefilte fish and roll it into a ball.
Neither expensive nor difficult to make, this act of love is one both my sister and I remember with deep affection. Today, my sister, mother and I all make rice balls for my two nieces, ages one and four. There's something about eating with your hands that crosses all cultural boundaries and makes a shareable snack into an act of service, a gesture of unconditional love that transcends time, age and place. In my family, the “Jewnigiri” (okay, I just made that up!) was such a cherished tradition that when my brother-in-law proposed to my sister, he made her a multicultural buffet-style feast that included my mom's recipe for gefilte fish rice balls. That's when we knew he was going to be a seamless part of our family.
Recently, I've noticed that onigiri is being packaged and sold widely. Both in East Asia and in diverse Asian-American communities, onigiri has never been a trendy or luxury staple. My ‘second family’—made up of my best friend and her older sisters—and I recently grabbed some cheap onigiri from the Japanese corner store in New York and took it to the beach. It was the perfect pocket-sized snack and though it comes from a truly unique family tradition unlike any other, it always reminds me of childhood. As my Taiwanese-Japanese American business partner, Eric Shu-Pao Wang, aptly noted, ‘Onigiri tastes like your mother's hands. That's what makes it good.’” —Simone