Food brings out something primal in us, a synesthesia of sentimental feelings and visceral senses that we try to put into words, but too often have to rely on labels. It’s impossible for my parents to perfectly convey the way Lanzhou-style beef noodle soup makes them nostalgic for their college days studying in that province, where hungry young university students bright-eyed with newfound independence crowded into local beef noodle soup shops because it was $1 for a bowl of hand-pulled noodles with a few slices of meat, but noodle refills were free. They can only drag me and my brother around Chinatown until they find a restaurant serving beef noodle soup they proclaim “authentic.”
My boyfriend Gabriel, a second-generation Texas Mexican who grew up in a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood with his grandparents, also speaks of his favorite Mexican dishes in generalized terms like “authentic,” “family,” and “community.” He describes how crispy and succulent chicharrones are through flashbacks of his grandfather waking up at 6 a.m. on Sundays and sweating for hours in the backyard shed. He can’t remember what spices went into the tamales, but he recalls women in his family forming assembly lines to roll, wrap, and steam the masa on holidays.
What makes a taquito different from an egg roll? Is a tamale just a zongzi with masa? What’s the difference between an empanada and a fried dumpling?
We are unable to separate food from feeling, feeling from authenticity, and authenticity from our own experiences. But, we can dissect the commonalities of certain experiences shared among cultures, and the cuisines they spawned, to try and pinpoint why we feel that way. As a first-generation Chinese American who has lived and traveled extensively in China and Mexico, and who resides with a Mexican American partner, I probably eat some form of Chinese or Mexican food on any given day. Natural comparisons start to spring up: What makes a taquito different from an egg roll? Is a tamale just a zongzi with masa? What’s the difference between an empanada and a fried dumpling?
A culture’s cuisine is the cumulative way it approaches not just how to feed people, but how people get fed. In this sense, the natural and political landscape, along with the way a culture approaches family, is essentialized in its cuisine. When comparing the cuisines of two large, diverse countries with long histories of large-scale civilization like China and Mexico, it’s easier, and perhaps better, to answer the reverse: Why do Chinese and Mexican cuisines utilize many similar cooking techniques, and why does everything revolve around family?
What a culture eats is a roadmap of how people have survived in its natural and political landscape—the slow but consistent shifting patchwork of ingredients and techniques that evolve to meet the taste, nutritional, and lifestyle demands of that particular culture. Native ingredients and techniques honed through thousands of years intertwine, combine, and adopt those brought through colonization and immigration. Consider the flour tortilla widely popular through Northern Mexico, which likely originated with the wave of Spanish Jews that immigrated to Mexico in the 1500s. Compare this to the use of chiles in Sichuanese cuisine; Mexico is the motherland of all chiles, but since they were imported into China in the 1700s and popularized in the 1800s, Sichuanese cuisine has become synonymous with spicy food, with the numbing addition of native szechuan peppercorns to balance the heat.
They had to handle the nutritional demands of dense populations on a bigger scale than the scattered city-states in Western Europe, and have had much longer to figure out what is most delicious.
Mexican and Chinese food spring from thousands of years of large-scale agriculture and complex civilizations—compare the Olmec city of La Vento, which in 800-500 B.C. had a population of 18,000 in the city center alone with 350,000 living nearby, to London’s population at barely 10,000 in 800 A.C.—which meant they had to handle the nutritional demands of dense populations on a bigger scale than the scattered city-states in Western Europe, and have had much longer to figure out what is most delicious.
Cooking techniques like braising, stewing, broiling, and steaming, as well as the use of complex spices and marinades, were developed to transform tougher cuts of meat and offal into mouth-watering menudo, flavorful braised pig’s trotters, tender oxtail stew. Different types of proteins are also celebrated: Insects like fried grasshoppers and grubs are popular across Mexico and China (I prefer Oaxaca’s spicy garlic chapulines but my dad also used to catch grasshoppers during harvest season in China and fry them as a kid) and various fungi like wood ear fungus in China or huitlacoche (corn fungus) offer delicious bites of extra nutrition.
Chinese American chef Ralph Hsiao, who grew up in predominantly Mexican and Chinese American communities in L.A.’s Torrance and South Bay areas, and owns the Koreatown cafe Open Market with Filipino American chef Andrew Marco, notes the shared resourcefulness of Mexican and Chinese cuisines in stretching meats and vegetables.
“When you look at Chinese restaurants, Mexican restaurants, all day they’re just stewing, cooking down, braising, making soups…Like in birria, stewing the meat down, having a taco, but also serving the soup. My mom makes soup for dinner every night so that we can have soup but also be able to eat the chicken,” says Hsiao, who considers a “fan tuan” (rice ball) “like a rice burrito.”
Using sauces and stocks to enrich starchy fillers—like how my parents could fill up on several bowls of noodles with a single bowl of savory beef broth in college—is common to both cultures, along with fermentation and pickling.
“Pickles play a huge part in both cultures, to help bring acidity and balance, and also to counteract the heavier flavors in braising,” says Hsiao.
Ultimately, part of the reason why the countries with (arguably) the richest food cultures are all communal cultures is because food isn’t just a way to get people around a table, it’s a way for people to get along.
The second, more indelible, part of Mexican and Chinese cuisine is its communal nature. Both cultures embrace generational living and extended family versus the Western nuclear family. Ultimately, part of the reason why the countries with (arguably) the richest food cultures are all communal cultures is because food isn’t just a way to get people around a table, it’s a way for people to get along. Food and family go hand-in-hand in every culture, but when you have multiple generations living together, and who often rely on a family and community support network, there is a stronger need for a sacred communion where petty grievances are put aside and white flags are raised for a few hours.
“Everything that we talk about at the table stays within the group,” says my partner Gabriel, recalling memories of hectic family gatherings with adults drinking beer in the yard, people cooking in the kitchen, and kids running amok sneaking snacks.
On holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, Baptisms, or any other excuse to get together, like an uncle’s birthday or the priest giving a particularly good sermon that Sunday or a cousin got someone pregnant or another cousin got proposed to, there were too many people to fit around his small dinner table. This is true of Chinese gatherings both in China and in the United States as well, where many immigrants who only have their nuclear families close at hand will invite their extended network of friends, bond together by shared language and appreciation for the dish they’ll literally bring to the table. At his family gatherings, like mine and Hsiao’s, children and adults ebbed and flowed around each other, starting with the first stop in the kitchen and then hanging out with similar-aged cousins and friends in the living room and then running outside to sneak a beer and then back in the kitchen again to grab seconds and receive affectionate appraisal from the feast’s (generally) female overlords.
“There’s a lot of physical movement that is actually going on within the house. We’re all very separated for a bit, just through that eating process because we can’t all fit, but then we eat again,” says Gabriel.
If the dinner table is a parlay point for the community to meet, then cooking as a labor of love in communal cultures acts as the diplomat.
Thus, the cliche rings true—we are united around the dinner table, even if there’s no physical table. If the dinner table is a parlay point for the community to meet, then cooking as a labor of love in communal cultures acts as the diplomat. Of course, this isn’t special to Mexican or Chinese communities. I suspect this is why people in general, and those who grew up in extended families or communal cultures especially, seem to remember family dishes with glossy nostalgia—somebody, usually a grandparent or mother, has to sacrifice hours or even days preparing the food everybody enjoys. Sometimes everyone pitches in, assembly-line style, to make dumplings or wrap tamales. And no matter what else is going on between you and your family, or with the outside world, you know when you’re eating that somebody cares enough about you to make sure your belly is full and satisfied.
Published on April 18, 2023