My name. On the front cover of a book!
I'm so pleased I can finally reveal my work has been published in Voracious
, a collection of newly commissioned essays that celebrates "The Best New Australian Food Writing"
It's one matter to have my words published in a book with my byline, but to be included with noted food writers like Gay Bilson, Jill Dupleix, Matthew Evans, Helen Greenwood, Alan Saunders, Joanna Savill and Pauline Nguyen was stupefying to say the least.
is the first of its kind in Australia, focusing on food and food issues with the aim of generating discussion. I chose to write a personal story about growing up as a first generation Australian, in an essay titled ABC
The official book launch will be this Saturda
y during the Sydney Writers Festival
, although it's already available for sale in Australia bookshops (RRP $29.95 published by Hardie Grant
). The international launch date is September 1, 2011 - it's already listed for pre-orders at The Book Depository
I've included my contribution below and would love to hear your thoughts about the piece, or your experiences of growing up in Australia or in another country. The launch details are at the end of this post - I won't be a part of the on-stage proceedings but I will be there!
by Helen Yee
From a young age, we were taught that food was precious. There was no question of leaving anything in your bowl. No indulgences were allowed for preference or exclusion: food was money, food was precious, food was time, and wasting anything was not an option.
‘Do you know how long it took to grow that grain of rice?’ our mother would lecture. ‘Do you know that in China when farmers would transport the rice to market, the poor people in the village would follow behind and pick up the single grains that had fallen on the ground? Do you know how lucky you are?’ she’d scold, widening her eyes for emphasis as we sighed and kept eating.
My grandma would say to my brother, ‘Every grain of rice left in your bowl will be a pockmark on the face of your future wife.’ My brother would giggle but eat his bowl clean.
I felt an awkward sense of alienation growing up – not quite Australian, not quite Chinese. I looked Chinese but I could barely speak the language. I spoke with an Aussie accent, but I didn't look ‘Australian’ . I didn't want to be different. I wanted to be Aussie, like all the popular kids at school. I longed for sun-kissed blonde hair, not boring jet-black, and freckles weren't blemishes but badges of true-blue honour I desperately wanted.
And yet most of my childhood was what you could call typically Australian. On weekends, my brother and I rode our bikes with all the neighbourhood kids, circling the block until dusk settled and the cicadas started chirping. We spent long hot summers at the local council pool; we'd climb out wet and dripping, warming our bodies on the sunbaked concrete, its rough surface sticking to our swimmers. We played cricket on the road, pulling the metal garbage bin – our wicket – back to the curb whenever a car approached. We spent what little pocket money we received at the corner shop, loading up on Redskins, Milkos and Cobbers.
Our parents packed us sandwiches for lunch, but these weren't schoolyard regulars of peanut butter or ham and cheese. Instead Dad gave us fillings of char siu, sweet barbecued pork, or Chinese-style omelette studded with ham and peas. We washed it down with sips of warm water from our drink bottles, tinged with the tongue-clinging taste of plastic.
One morning at pre-school we were to share with the class what we’d eaten for breakfast. ‘ A meat pie!’ I’d announced in triumph, but my teacher laughed and chided me for telling fibs. After school she had a quiet word with my mother about my unbridled creativity. My mother merely frowned and said, ‘Oh no, it's true. It was cold this morning so I made a hot breakfast by putting some meat pies under the griller.’ And she took my hand and led me to the car to go home.
As kids, there was no penny-dropping moment when we realised that beef came from cows and pork from pigs. We grew up seeing the bronzed roast ducks hanging by their necks in the Chinese barbecue shop. We pressed our noses against the window displaying roasted quails, pigs' intestines and orange-tinted squid, and watched in awe as the butcher cracked the breastbone of a soy sauce chicken, lifting his cleaver high in the air between each ear-splintering chop.
Meat came from animals, and it was drummed into us that we should always eat and appreciate the entire beast from head to tail. Fish was eaten whole: steamed and served with a splash of soy and a sizzle of ginger and shallots. Mum would usually end up with the abandoned fish head, but we soon realised the best part of the fish was actually in the cheek. Chicken necks went into soup, pork liver was stir-fried with onions, and a steamer basket of chicken feet was a yum cha favourite.
Yum cha was always a treat as a kid. Our parents never went out to fancy restaurants on their own. Good food was eaten together, as a family, and on irregular Sundays we'd catch the train into the city, spilling out at Central Station and following the throng of people to Chinatown.
I loved the merry chaos of it: the glorious din of chopsticks, chatter and trolley waiters calling their wares. Mum was in charge of ordering tea, usually bo-lei (pu-erh), which is believed to help digestion. Trolleys would weave between groups, avoiding the gaggle of kids underfoot. Within minutes, our table would be covered in bamboo baskets releasing plumes of steam.
The most important thing to order at yum cha was har gao, or prawn dumplings. Often the yum cha trolley would be depleted within five tables of the kitchen. Desperate diners would get up and approach the trolley with docket in hand; others would place an order with the floor manager, ensuring guaranteed delivery in the next batch.
The har gao were worth hunting, little purses of pleated dumplings holding fat chunks of cooked prawn and slivers of bamboo shoots. The dumpling skin was so thin it was almost translucent, but strong enough so it wouldn't break when picked up with chopsticks.
Every family has its own set of must-order dishes at yum cha, preferences built in from childhood and passed on from generation to generation. Our family would always order pai gwut, pork ribs steamed with black beans, garlic and soy, which should be tender and deliciously fatty. We'd dig into gow choi gau, steamed dumplings filled with prawns and flat garlic chives, and har cheong fun, silky sheets of rice noodle wrapped around plump prawns and splashed with sweet soy.
There were patty cases holding wu gok, egg-shaped dumplings filled with taro, pork mince and mushrooms, covered in a fuzzy netting of deep-fried pastry. My sister wanted jin cheung fun, rice noodle rolls fried until crispy, then smothered with a mixture of hoi sin and peanut sauce, scallions and toasted sesame seeds. Mum liked lo bak go, squares of pan-fried radish cake. My favourite was always ham sui gok, hollow golden footballs of deep-fried rice flour hiding a spoonful of seasoned pork mince. The shell was the best bit, its crisp surface giving way to a layer of sticky, stretchy and glutinous rice flour.
Occasionally we'd order ju hoong or steamed pig's blood jelly, a pile of ominous-looking, rust-coloured cubes that would splinter as soon as you tried to pick them up with chopsticks. The blood had a heavy, slightly metallic taste, offset in part by the accompanying tangle of wilted garlic chives. Mum would insist we eat at least a cube or two: ‘It's good for you.’
And of course there were chicken feet to savour, poetically named fung jao, or phoenix claw. We bit apart each joint of the claw, savouring the plump and gelatinous skin, succulent with soy, garlic, chilli and fermented black bean. It was a worthwhile exercise in patience, sucking each bone clean and depositing the remnants in a neat little pile on the side of our plates.
Some of my favourite memories of childhood were the weekends when Grandma would come to visit. Often we'd spend the entire day making dumplings, aprons tied around our waists and spots of flour in our hair. She didn’t speak much English, and I didn't speak much Chinese, but it was a happy and comfortable silence as we worked side by side.
Grandma would make the dumpling dough from scratch using glutinous rice flour. With a small length of wooden dowel, she'd roll out small lumps of dough into perfect circles, folding them over pork mince mixture and pleating them closed to make gai loong, savoury crescent-shaped dumplings. Other days she would take a small ball of dough and use her thumbs to create a deep well in its centre. She’d place a small teaspoon of sweetened black bean paste inside the cavity, pinching it closed, and then roll the ball in sesame seeds to create the dessert dumpling jin doi.
After several hours of production, we'd have trays and trays piled on the table and around the kitchen, each bearing an army of dumplings ready to be cooked. When the last scrap of dough was used, Grandma would heat up our wok so the pool of oil started to shimmer, and deep-fry the dumplings in batches until their skins turned golden.
The gai loong dumplings had a heavy starchiness to them, the skins crispy, sticky and glutinous, holding a mouthful of piping hot pork mince within. The jin doi would puff up into giant soccer balls, a hollow orb of sesame-crusted dough except for a rattle of sweet black-bean paste in the middle.
It wasn't until I left home that I realised I was more Australian than I realised. On a working holiday in the UK, alone and 16,000 kilometres from home, I found myself drawn to fellow Aussies – backpackers who shared the same sense of self-deprecating humour, believed that hard work could get you anywhere, and said ‘you bloody bastard’ with genuine affection, a phrase my English work colleagues failed to appreciate. I realised my vocabulary was peppered with Australian colloquialisms when I had to explain to new-found English mates that ‘servo’ meant petrol station, a ‘sanger’ was a sandwich, and a ‘bludger’ was someone who was lazy.
Food was a tangible reminder of home, and soon I was hunting down jars of Vegemite, boxes of Barbecue Shapes and packets of Burger Rings and Twisties at the shop for ex-pat Aussies. I baked lamingtons and Anzac biscuits, and at Christmas I made a traditional pavlova, even though it was below zero and snowing outside. I carried around a shaker of chicken salt in my backpack, a defiant stance against the soggy chips drowned in vinegar otherwise on offer. My family sent me care packages from home: a bounty of Tim Tams, Minties, Violet Crumbles and cans of pumpkin soup.
And yet in moments of homesickness, Chinatown offered the most comfort, a swarm of barely understandable Cantonese that was bewildering yet familiar. I could have been in Sydney, surrounded by clucking Chinese grandmothers, carefully examining each vegetable before deciding which one to buy. I stopped by the Chinese barbecue shops, dawdled at the fishmongers and loitered in the bakeries, stocking up on gai mei bao cocktail buns, soft glazed buns filled with a rich paste of butter, sugar and desiccated coconut.
I emailed home, suddenly desperate for Mum's recipe for steamed fish with ginger and green shallots. My mother was bemused but, I suspect, also pleased.
We had a wok but no steamer in our London flat, so we ended up snapping bamboo skewers to create a rack for our plate of fish to sit above the simmering water. The bream was steamed until just cooked, and then, following my mother’s instructions, was doused with smoking hot oil containing strips of crispy ginger.
There was a satisfying hiss as the oil hit the bream, the kitchen engulfed with the smell of fish and ginger as the oil-shocked skin took on a lustrous sheen. A gentle splash of soy and a generous sprinkle of shallots completed the dish. We ate the entire fish that evening, scooping spoonfuls of the sweet soy sauce at the bottom of the plate to soak into our bowls of fluffy white rice.
My grandparents have both passed away now, and the dishes they used to cook for us have already started to become a blur. Whenever we stopped in for a visit, my grandma would always ask, ‘Have you eaten?’ , the Chinese host’s equivalent of ‘Are you thirsty?’ and then she would reappear with sweets like haw flakes, walnut and date pastilles or White Rabbit milk lollies.
Some Sundays we'd stay for lunch, an assortment of dishes that hailed from their village of Toisan, Guangdong, in China’s south. There was always soup, a clear broth that usually held soft wedges of sweet simmered dong gwa, winter melon, grown in Grandma’s backyard, and sometimes a plate of dun dan, egg custard steamed with dried shrimp, or home-grown foo gwa, bitter melon cooked with beef. Whenever we had chicken, Grandma would take the most prized piece – the leg – and place it in my brother’s bowl.
When we were sick, Grandma would make us juk, or congee, a thick rice porridge swollen with cooked, dried oysters, beancurd skin, pork mince and slivers of green shallot, which was a meal in itself.
Before we could eat, we had to pay our respects to our elders, courteously asking them each in turn to ‘please eat’ , descending in order of seniority. Only when all the adults had commenced eating could the youngest generation touch their chopsticks.
The Chinese don’t have a lot of desserts, but my grandma and I shared a sweet tooth. I was always ready to eat a slice of her mah lai go, a fluffy cloud of steamed eggy sponge cake, or to savour a bowl of ji ma wu, a thick slurry of soup as black as mud, made from rice, sugar and black sesame seeds that Grandma would pound by hand. The soup would stain your tongue an odd shade of grey, but I loved its sweet and smoky nuttiness, and the way it would ooze languidly off the spoon.
Today I don’t know how to make half the dishes from my childhood, many of them consigned to distant memory. Google has helped me recreate some, but they never taste quite the same as when Grandma used to make them. Has a little part of my family history died, and should I have done more to prevent it?
What does it mean to be an ABC, an Australian-born Chinese? And how do I reconcile my heritage with the nationality on my passport? When shopkeepers speak to me in Chinese and I can only smile weakly in reply, why do I feel like an imposter, and why do I feel so guilty about it?
I survey the dinners I cook now: time-friendly dishes of pasta, steaks, lamb chops and salad. I wonder whether I’ ll cook traditional Chinese fare for my children, or if we'll only end up eating it in a restaurant.
Voracious will be launched during the Sydney Writers Festival:
Date: Saturday 21 May 2011
Time: 4.30pm - 5.30pm
Venue: WatersEdge, Pier 1, 11 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Cost: Free, no bookings
On a housekeeping note, there were some issues with Blogger late last week which resulted in commenting and viewing errors, particularly on the Freebie Friday
post. Blogger has since fixed these errors, so please do enter for your chance to win a $100 gourmet food hamper