Food

Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil

 Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

I was 6 or 7 the first time I ate Chinese food. It was the sort of Chinese-Canadian restaurant found in any small Canadian town. Décor reminiscent of a hotel conference room mixed with accent pieces that signal Western notions of “the orient” - painted fans, sprawling dragons, vibrant reds and golds. A menu divided between the ostensibly Chinese cuisine of combo plates, fried rice and egg rolls, each coated in a glistening sauce - soy, plum, or a bright magenta sweet and sour - and a Canadian cuisine of burgers, fries and hot sandwiches. For dinner I received a combo-plate of fried rice and sweet and sour chicken balls. For dessert, vanilla ice-cream. It arrived at the table, three round scoops in a martini-like dessert glass, with a single green mint leaf sitting on top. To the amusement of the adults, I began consuming my dessert by plucking the leaf off of the ice cream and eating it - not realizing, of course, that it was meant as a garnish. Eating leaves was not a habit of mine, the odd iceberg lettuce aside, but I was excited by the experience of difference we were consuming. The bright colours, the shiny figurines, the intricate patterns on the blue and white china; it was an ornamental abundance unlike anything I’d seen before. Perhaps I assumed that this was how Chinese people ate their desserts, with a tiny leaf on top, and I was willing to give it a try. 

 Peanut Sauce - The Maker Makes

My willingness to “give other people’s food a try” has grown enormously since that time and I’m not alone. It used to be that fine food in North America was narrowly defined as classical French cuisine. But, today, to have "sophisticated" food tastes almost requires developing a palate for a wide range of the world’s cuisines. This, what some sociologists refer to as "cultural omnivorousness," has changed my everyday cooking. Sometimes, I attempt to cook relatively authentic traditional recipes from cuisines around the world, but more often I engage in a less formal piecemeal incorporation of the flavours and ingredients of other people’s food. Chief among the additions that I have made to my culinary arsenal in recent years are noodles. When I am too tired or busy to plan and cook a meal, I’ll make noodles. They are fast, can be paired with any combination of vegetables and topped with an endless variety of sauces. But, beyond their convenience, they have become, for me, a comfort food. I don’t make them only when I am short on time and need something to eat, I’ve been known to make a bowl of noodles even when my fridge is stocked with leftovers, I make them when I am feeling sad or stressed or overwhelmed and just want to curl up on the couch with something tasty. 

 Sichuan Peppercorns - The Maker Makes

Comfort food, though, is usually defined by its status as “your food.” It is the food that you grew up eating, especially that which you ate on rare or special occasions. The familiarity and association with important moments in your life and the people you shared them with are essential to the feeling of comfort you get when you eat it. For many who grew up in a world of processed foods, this means that comfort food is not always the most interesting or flavourful or healthy or even the most food-like. Kraft dinner, hot dogs with a rainbow of condiments, kraft singles, taco kits, and McDonalds may all qualify. Fast food is particularly suited to the comfort food genre because it is, by definition, standardized. Every time you eat it, it tastes exactly the same as you remember it tasting. Comfort food doesn’t need to taste good, objectively speaking, it just needs to remind you of something good. Noodles, however, are not my food. To me, noodles are “other people’s food” - a phrasing I first encountered on Sporkful’s podcast series about food and cultural appropriation. How can other people’s food come to function as “your” comfort food? And, what are the implications of Anglo-North Americans adopting other people’s food in this way? 

 Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

These are questions that I have been thinking through a lot. To answer them, I need to listen to the voices of those “other people” to whom this food belongs. As one part of this effort, I have been binge-listening to the fantastic podcast Racist Sandwich. One thing that stands out about its interviews, is the frequency with which guests of Asian descent speak about the ways in which, as children, they were made to feel embarrassed, alienated or ashamed by their white friends reactions to their food, and the complex feelings that arise when, some time after those early experiences, white people realize that Asian foods taste good (don’t take my word for it, listen to the podcast!). The history of Western encounters with Chinese food echoes these experiences. Early 18th century European and American traders visiting China, some of the first Westerners to sample its food, approached it with disgust and a strong sense of their own culinary superiority. Like the white American school children in the stories of Racist Sandwich, they complained about the strong smells of Chinese food and the unfamiliar form it took, of many small dishes with finely chopped ingredients; a stark contrast with the giant slabs of meat and relatively subtle flavours and smells that characterize most Western European cuisines. For these early encounters, the feelings were likely mutual. But they occurred on a relatively level playing field of power and the same cannot be said about the Western encounters with Chinese food that would occur later on Western Soil. 

 Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

The history of immigration to the settler colonies of Canada and the United States, can be viewed as a succession of additions to the bottom of a racial hierarchy. Each new immigrant group taking its place at the bottom, performing the most difficult labour, inhabiting the worst living conditions, and experiencing the most discrimination and racism. And if you compare the history of North American food culture with this history of immigration, you will see that mainstream Anglo-North American culture tends to appreciate other people’s food, only as discrimination wanes for the group to whom that food belongs, as another group takes its place at the bottom, or as overt racist treatment of that group becomes less socially acceptable. It’s not a coincidence that only as an adult did I learn that sweet and sour chicken balls are not really "Chinese food". Patterns of familiarity with and appreciation of “other people’s food,” are connected in important ways to shifting forms of racial inequality.

 Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

I heard someone say recently that being an ally is a process, not an identity. Which means, I suppose, that a commitment to allyship requires becoming comfortable with a permanent state of “in process.” In some ways this is similar to performing a creative skill like writing; the messy and uncomfortable feeling of being-in-progress, of not knowing exactly how your efforts will turn out, or if you are doing it right, then doing it not-quite-right and attempting to do it better. This is how you know you’re on the right track. In a former recipe post I wrote flippantly of noodles, “where have they been all my life.” Well, former me, they were in the bowls of many, many, other people - for centuries. I didn’t invent the noodle, and if I had encountered this dish as a child in the 90s, I might have turned up my nose, like the white school children in so many stories on Racist Sandwich. I'd like to think not, but it’s not possible to say with certainty. I think the important thing when we are encountering, eating and cooking other people’s food is to engage in that mindful process of listening, thinking, and adjusting - so that we can be alert for those times when the way that we react to and consume the cultural products of others, an inevitability in a world where difference exists, might contribute to the reproduction of oppression, racism and inequality. 

Further reading (and listening):


Recipe

Ingredients 

Sichuan Chili oil:
1 cup vegetable oil
3 tsp red Sichuan peppercorns
5 tb red chili flakes
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 chives, chopped
2 star anise
1 bay leaf
1 inch slice of ginger
1 cinnamon stick
3 tsp low sodium soy sauce

Peanut Sauce: 
¼ cup peanut butter
3 tablespoons miso
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ cup + 1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
2 green onions, chopped
1 teaspoon Sichuan chili oil

Noodles & Toppings:
2 Servings Farkay (pictured), Udon or Rice Noodles
1/3 Cucumber, julienned
1/2 Bell Pepper, julienned
2 Baby bok choi, washed and sliced into strips
Handful of Peanuts, chopped
Sesame Seeds

 

 

Instructions

To make the Chili Oil: Add 2 tablespoons of the red chili flakes to a small bowl. Set aside. 

In a small pot over medium heat, add the vegetable oil, garlic, chives, star anise, bay leaf, ginger and the remaining 3 tablespoons of red chili flakes. Add the Sichuan peppercorns separately, in a way that allows them to be easily removable,* [I use a tea diffuser, placed inside the pot, you could also use something like a cheesecloth or spice bag]. Bring the oil to a simmer, stirring frequently, cook for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic begins to brown. Remove from heat and stir in the soy sauce.

Transfer the Sichuan peppercorns to the bowl with the chili flakes and pour in the oil mixture. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 2-3 hours. Remove the Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, bay leaf, ginger and cinnamon stick and store remaining ingredients in the refrigerator.

To make the peanut Sauce: combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk together until blended. 

Cook noodles according to package instructions. 

To Serve: coat the noodles in the sauce and add desired toppings. Mix together. 

*You don’t absolutely have to strain out the Sichuan peppercorns, but I find the sauce tastes gritty if they are left in, like eating dirt. If that texture doesn't bother you, grind the peppercorns in a spice grinder and add to the oil. 

Sources: Peanut Sauce adapted from Pinch of Yum; Sichuan chili oil adapted from Lady and Pups.

Cucumber Salad with Spicy Thai Dressing

It’s been a running joke that it feels like we’ve been living on a commune around here lately - at least when it comes to sharing the kitchen responsibilities. M and my sister, who lives just around the corner, have been working together on a project, and thus often spend afternoons working from home around our dining room table. One evening, since she was already here, we decided to invite her partner over and have a barbecue. The boys went out for the meat and, with an excitement arguably disproportionate to the discovery of sale meat, returned with two enormous packs of chicken drumsticks. One pack went into the freezer, one pack went onto the BBQ, and they since went back to get a few more packs before the sale ended. And so began our quest to use up all that chicken. We have had barbecue chicken probably six or seven times in the last few weeks, each time dividing the cooking and cleaning between the four of us. My sister’s partner has cooked the chicken, and I have made the sides. I’m thinking of it as the summer of chicken, or, from my perspective, the summer of sides, something I can’t say without thinking of George Costanza, in this scene, triumphantly declaring that this summer, will be his.

Coming up with a succession of sides to accompany the chicken was fun. It was an opportunity for me to improvise and experiment without having to produce an entire meal every night. And, it gave me practice cooking for other people, which is something I’m always nervous to do in fear that something might go wrong. To go with the chicken I’ve made eggplant caponata with focaccia bread, this amazing Mexican street corn salad that everyone loved, mixed roasted vegetables with feta and basil oil, and a grapefruit kale salad. Out of all of the chicken sides I’ve made, this cucumber salad was both one of my favourites, and most definitely the easiest. It's crunchy, fresh, spicy, and quick to make, especially if you have a mandolin.

The idea that I would make and recommend a salad consisting almost entirely of cucumbers is surprising. Cucumbers are one of those ingredients that I used to dislike, but eventually came around to after forcing myself to continue to try them in new ways. Foods like feta and sushi, now two of my favourite things to eat, also fall into this category of foods I've learned to love.

That there is a cultural or learned component to taste preferences [1] is something that, I think, North American food culture rarely acknowledges. Perhaps this is just one of the many outgrowths of the neoliberal need to attribute anything and everything to individual rational choice - and this choice alone. We don’t like to think that our thoughts, behaviours, or preferences could possibly be influenced by anything outside of our own conscious deliberation. Or, perhaps, more concretely, it is a function of the narrow range of flavours and textures that characterize mainstream North American cuisine. 

The belief that food preferences aren't learned seems to also characterize discussions of the related issue of “children’s food” and kids’ natural propensities towards picky and/or bland eating. While there is evidence that children have some biological preference for sweeter foods [2], this preference can be short lived [3], and the notion that children will only eat bland foods becomes difficult to sustain when it is put into cross-cultural context. Most of the world’s cuisines are far less bland, and often far spicier than the standard North American fare, and are, presumably, consumed by adults and children alike. It seems that, in many cases, we need to become familiar with a food, flavour, or texture before we can determine whether or not we like it. For instance, there is evidence that children are more likely to accept foods if they have been exposed to those flavours while in the womb, or through breast milk [4]. 

My distaste for the crunchy green cucumber, however, was perhaps not the result of a lack of exposure. Both my Grandpas proudly grew cucumbers every year in their gardens, and, to them, salted cucumber and mayo sandwiches were a big treat, but I just couldn’t get on board. No, I think that it was a textural thing. I have trouble with produce that tastes as though it consists mostly of water. Too bland? Too grainy? Too much like slushy ice? I don’t know. There is no logic to this. These are all good things, especially when you add spicy Thai flavours. Though I love cucumbers now, I still have not come around to the similarly textured melon. I’ll have to work on that

 

[1] Birch, L. L. (1999). Development of Food Preferences. Annual Review of Nutrition, 19(1), 41–62. 

[2] Mennella, J. A., Pepino, M. Y., & Reed, D. R. (2005). Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Bitter Perception and Sweet Preferences. Pediatrics, 115(2), e216–e222. 

[3] Beauchamp, G. K., & Moran, M. (1982). Dietary experience and sweet taste preference in human infants. Appetite, 3(2), 139–152. 

[4] Mennella JA, Jagnow CJ, Beauchamp GK. Prenatal and post-natal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics 107: e88, 2001. 


Ingredients

2 large cucumbers, very thinly sliced
½ orange bell pepper, finely diced
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
2 tablespoons scallions, finely chopped
2 red Thai chilies*, finely chopped
2 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon ginger, grated
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Salt & pepper, to taste

 

Instructions

In a small bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, maple syrup, and sesame oil. Add chopped cilantro, scallions, chilies, garlic, and grated ginger. Set aside.

Slice the cucumbers using a mandolin** on the 1/16th of an inch setting. In a large bowl, toss the cucumber slices and the diced bell pepper. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss to coat. Sprinkle the salad with sesame seeds, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.***

*This gives the salad a fair bit of heat. If you want it less spicy, use only one pepper and/or remove the seeds. 

**A mandolin is not absolutely necessary, but the thin slices create a nice texture. If you do not have a mandolin, slice with a knife as thinly as possible.  

*** This salad is best eaten right away. It will keep fine for a few days in the fridge, but it will quickly become watery.