Bringing Culture Back Into the Kitchen

With a scrape of a knife against the bamboo cutting board, the gloppy remnants of what was supposed to be xiao long bao — thin, translucent flour shells with pork and vegetable steamed to perfection — slid with an unsatisfying thump to the bottom of the rubbish bin.

Then, I had myself a good, cleansing cry.

The afternoon had been spent gathering ingredients to try to make this Chinese favorite street food that I have loved all my life. To make it gluten free, soy free, dairy free, and allium free was going to take some work. Fresh minced ginger, ground unseasoned pork, boiled and finely chopped cabbage, and coconut aminos were mixed in a bowl and set aside for stuffing into the homemade dough wrappers.

As a child, I used to watch my mother roll the dough into palm-sized rounds, stuff a small amount of the meat and vegetables in the center, and then magically fold and twist it until it formed a little bellybutton on top. As it was steamed, you could add a little soup inside, and it would emerge out of the tall bamboo stack steamer as puffy baos, xiao long bao (transparent), or jiaozi (steamed dumplings).

In my recent life as a person diagnosed with celiac disease, I had never made baos gluten free, and after a couple years of settling into my new AIP and FODMAP-free diet and lifestyle, I thought I was ready to dive into what I considered advanced gluten free food.

No one told me how hard it was going to be to forego gums to hold the gluten free flours together, or just how tacky tapioca flour can be. Every recipe I could find for gluten free xiao long bao included xanthan gum, but gums are prohibited on the AIP, and my digestive system was still not ready to introduce even small amounts of it. So I left it out of the recipe and said a prayer.

Instead of yummy Chinese comfort food, the baos came out of the steamer as flattened, sticky blobs. I nibbled the edge of one of the cooked baos and found its rubbery texture entirely inedible.

After my good cry, I took some time to reflect. No one told me when I received my diagnosis that the food of my culture would be taken from me for a few years. In fact, the doctor who made the diagnosis said that celiac disease wouldn’t be hard for me to manage. As we sat in her office, she smiled and enthusiastically mentioned how there were so many available gluten-free products I could buy.

My initial thought was, “Yuck, processed food?” Did she not understand that I didn’t like cereal for breakfast, nor sandwiches for lunch? Did she fathom the loss of the food of my people until I could reintroduce foods that didn’t cause gut dysbiosis?

As a white Western medicine trained physician, she didn’t speak to this loss. She had no idea that I didn’t even taste a boxed mac and cheese with that strange orange powder until high school, and I thought it was disgusting!

Why would I care if Oreos could be made gluten free, when the foods I loved were Taiwanese-baked savory treats with pommelo fruit, and hand-pulled wheat noodles from the northern provinces of China? Breakfast wasn’t a bowl of cold, crunchy cereal; it was hot bowl of rice, soup with soy-sauced chicken, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, Chinese-style hot pickles, fermented plum, steamed xiao long bao or dumplings, and fruit with tea.

I just remember that after I dumped the baos in the bin, I had a Wayne’s World moment of shaking my fist at the sky and declaring, “Someday, you will be mine!”

Bringing Culture Back Into the Kitchen

What does it mean to bring culture back into the kitchen after a dramatic change in eating, such as the Autoimmune Protocol?

Grieve And Let Go

It begins with a pathway rather than a destination point. The beginning of my road trip back to eating the cultural foods of my ancestors was to grieve what was lost. For me, that meant letting go for the present moment, and telling myself, “See you someday.” I had to accept that my best bao would never be the same as the ones I made with my mother. Hers would always taste best, because those recipes and ingredients were intended for one another. Making them gluten free would be different, and that was going to be OK someday. For the time, it was OK to be sad and to feel alienated from my culture. It was OK to be sad that I would no longer get to assist with the making of hand-pulled noodles; I would only get to watch it from behind a window as the wheat flour filled the air. I would never again be chatting with my relatives while rolling flour dough wrappers for the steamer. The social aspect of making food together in the same kitchen would have to change. My AIP and AIP-modified versions would always be set apart.

Name All the Things

On that same road trip to regaining my cultural foods and community, it was OK to name all the loved foods and all the losses, changes, and expectations surrounding it. One of the losses that has a huge impact is the way we order food at a restaurant and the way we eat at home. A family of five typically orders a minimum of five dishes, plus one extra, such a soup or dumplings, and then shares them collectively. This is referred to as “family style” eating. There is no such thing as ordering a single plate just for yourself; in fact, my father used to call that, “American style”, even though I am an American and my parents became American citizens. The American style of eating an individual plate was seen as foreign and selfish. To this day, plating food for individual eaters is a conscious choice about food safety and health, and it runs counter to my culture.

When we eat out, I must break with that tradition and watch my family members eat those loved foods while I peck at a single dish that has been heavily altered. At home, I’ll make my own food that parallels the theme of the food being served, and order their favourites from a local restaurant for take out during the pandemic. While my mother is slurping odon noodles popularised by the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, I am nibbling on a plate of sashimi and rice noodles. In doing so, no one feels sad for me like they did when I was first diagnosed. Also, I can create these themed meals because family visits are not that frequent, and that mixed option is financially sustainable.

Start Simple to Complex

With so few foods of my culture to eat on the front end of AIP, I made the decision to reintroduce rice sooner than the protocol suggests. For most Chinese people, no meal is complete without rice. Starting simple and slowly moving to complex dishes helps to grow confidence in the kitchen and reduce disappointing failures. One of the first cultural dishes I reintroduced was fried rice with coconut aminos, cooked carrots, and chopped fennel bulb. While it still felt incomplete without a scrambled egg and peas, I could map it in my brain to my cultural food road trip. I made it from one village to the next town. I kept a journal of new recipes and made notes of what worked and what failed, how to improve flavour, and how to measure success.

Since that day I shook my fist in the air, I have made xiao long bao that held together and did not become a gummy mess. This is a complex food to make, and there is no way around using a gum; in fact, psyllium husk will also not produce an adequate wrapper in terms of the airy nature of bun or pancake. Naming this food a complex food to construct allowed me to set it aside for another part of the road trip, just like delaying travel plans until all the circumstances are just right. When I was finally able to make it, eat it, and enjoy it, those homemade xiao long baos made me cry happy tears.

Ask For Help

One of my measurements of success was to use my husband’s experience of food as a single data point. He is the son of a restauranteur, and he grew up knowing what Western foods should look and taste. When you change your diet dramatically, it’s easy to lose a reference point on certain foods. One of the most complex foods to make is AIP pizza. Since it is complex to make, I set pizza as a food further down the road trip. However, flatbreads are closer on the horizon.

One of the flatbread foods from my culture are scallion pancakes. Traditionally they are made with wheat flour, salt, shortening, and chopped green onions. I have an allergy to alliums, and shortening had to be replaced by an oil that is solid at room temperature. I reached out to the GF/DF communities through the Internet and asked other Chinese people what they used as substitutes, and along the way I came upon SE Asian people who avoid alliums entirely. As soon as I tested my tolerance of fennel bulb, I had a workable substitute for green onions. Instead of soy sauce with sesame oil for the dipping sauce, I had coconut aminos and French style hot mustard, sans chilis. But what does a gluten-free flatbread have to do with pizza?

I used flatbread as a rest stop along the way to making pizza, and found a lovely recipe for New York style pizza crust that does not contain xanthan gum. In 2019, I reached the town called Best GF Pizza Ever, and gave my discerning husband a slice. I told him, “Don’t be nice. Tell me if you would eat this because it tastes and acts like pizza, even if you didn’t know it was gluten free and AIP.” He picked it up, folded it, and took a bite.

He said, “This is the best pizza you have made yet. I give it 4 out of 5 on a scale against regular wheat-based pizza.” Again, happy tears. I was able to make my husband something close to what he used to eat without compromise, and it’s something we can share so that even his culture and familial foods are a part of our meal together.

Asking for help when you run into a food and kitchen challenge should be part of a, “Autoimmune Disease 101” course that everyone receives on the front end of diagnosis. For some reason, I come across more people who had the same experience as I did. We were encouraged to buy convenience foods that delayed gut healing. By asking for help, I was able to chat with Taiwanese immigrants in America who had encountered the same kitchen challenges, and I borrowed all of their food hacks with their blessings.

Permission to Expand on Tradition

Initially, I felt embarrassed to share my “special” food with anyone who might recognise them from the authentic food. There are obvious differences in everything from color to texture, smell, and mouthfeel. Eventually I gave myself permission to expand on traditional recipes according to my needs, and leave behind any fears that I might be panned by Uncle Roger, a YouTuber that makes fun of celebrity chefs who try to make simple dishes such as egg fried rice. Coconut aminos were never going to smell like soy sauce. Sauces made without hot chili paste and sesame oil weren’t going to have the kick and mouthfeel. Yet Japanese horseradish and wasabi, mixed fresh, could be added to foods besides sushi and sashimi. While we’re at it, who said that a sandwich had to be made from bread? As a friend once said to me, we learn the ‘rules’ first so that we know where to break them.

We have to let ourselves return to allowing our senses to guide us in the kitchen. Star anise with coconut aminos marinating chicken thighs overnight can still evoke memories of my mother making a whole chicken in a stove-top pressure cooker filled with white wine and soy sauce. Garlic spare ribs can be basted in horseradish and fennel; mu shu pork, with delicate shreds of cabbage and pork, can be coupled with a pancake that is more of a flatbread, and substitute psyllium husk (if tolerated) for xanthan gum.

Becoming the Keeper of the Food Flame

In my life, my mother has been my primary teacher of Chinese cooking. She never worked from a recipe for her traditional dishes; they were passed to her from her mother, and her grandmother to her mother.

About 20 years ago, it dawned on me that if I did not keep a record of some kind to document these foods, they would be lost. On my trips to see her when she lived with her husband in Las Vegas, NV, I would purposefully ask if she would teach me how to cook a specific food. One afternoon would be entirely dedicated to learning how to prepare dough for making steamed buns; another would be focused on the art of frying a fish in a hot wok.

Two years ago, we all noticed that my mother could no longer cook on her own. Her children have become the keepers of the Chinese food flame. All her secrets on fermenting daikon and creating the perfect sheen on flash-fried vegetables stopped flowing.

When we get together and have a meal, it is I who is feeding her, selecting the balances of nutrition and flavour, the basics of Chinese cooking, and balances of modified AIP to promote nutrient density for her and prevent inflammation for me.

And when my sister’s children come for a socially distanced meal, we maintain the traditions of always having rice available, gluten-free options within the Chinese food served, and seasonal favourites, such as gluten-free noodles for the Chinese New Year, symbolising long life, and mandarin oranges, representing good luck. There is hot pot, which involves cooking foods in hot broth at the table, and there is a separate pot of broth for me.

Without expectation nor demand, I wish upon the next generation in our family to do as I did with my mother, and release all the food secrets and traditions to the future keepers of the food flame.

Along with yasui qian (“suppressing ghost money”), the children are wished another year of health and prosperity. While Amazon gift cards and digital deposits have replaced stocking stuffers, it’s the food of our people that keep our warm memories as a family alive today.

About Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Registered Nurse in the State of Washington. She maintains a private practice by delivering online counseling, with a subspecialty in helping those with Food Allergies, Autoimmune Disease and Chronic Illness. While volunteering for Public Health in the COVID-19 response, Imei has worked in the Isolation and Quarantine centers, COVID-19 testing, Debriefing Groups, and the current COVID-19 vaccination. She is an ultrarunner and Ironman, an avid hiker, and lives with her husband and cat in Redmond, Washington. Connect with her at Seattle Direct Counseling, My Allergy Advocate, and Instagram.

3 comments

  • Cathy says

    As an American of Armenian descent, I could really relate to this article. As a child, my mother and I would bake Baklava for every holiday; we made sure to keep Lavash on the dinner table; we would bake Cheoreg every Easter; and Katah was also a regularly baked treat. All dishes that centered around wheat flour, nuts and butter. I’ve given up eating these dishes in favor of my health, and I didn’t let my mind wander to how much I missed these important parts of my culture and heritage. However, recently, I participated in a virtual walking tour of Yerevan, Armenia. As the tour guide took us down the streets via Zoom, my imagination could smell the breads being baked traditional style and being sold by street vendors. It really struck me that my digestive system, and immune system would not be able to tolerate any of these dishes, and it hit me how much I missed them. I’ve recently begun entertaining ways I could possibly recreate a version of some of these foods. I’ve been successful in reintroducing nuts, Ghee seems to be fine for me too. Maybe I can figure out some combination of Cassava and Tiger Nut flours to recreate the bread doughs. In any case, I really appreciated this article.

    • Angie Alt says

      Cathy, thanks for sharing your story. We’re so glad you liked this article.

  • FPlus says

    Thank you so much for this article! It articulated so well some of the thoughts and feelings I have in the process of feeding myself and my family when our food traditions are partly out of reach. I know I feel this way again when I realize a food is again (or newly) causing me issues, or that some food from memory isn’t available to me right now.
    I like the concept of compromising and using the system for your own health, rather than feeling like every rule and guideline must be followed “just because”.
    Thank you!

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