Orecchiette al Zhajiang
The lens in which I view my world has and will always be American. I suppose throughout my childhood, and even occasionally now, I have always associated Americana with the predominant white culture. Born and raised in a primarily white town in Northern California named Danville, I was lucky enough to have access to relics of my parents’ cultures – what I called Asian supermarkets like Ranch 99 and small restaurants with offerings that my mom deemed “almost as good as she had growing up.” My mother grew up in Shanghai, China, and my father grew up in Hong Kong. They both immigrated to the United States in the early 80s and appear to have a firm grasp on their cultural identity. Acknowledging the pre-established notions of eastern versus western cultures, I wanted to further explore the perspective from which these terms developed and why they seemed to be mapped on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum.
It wasn’t until recently when I began questioning which culture I fully identified with – I’m still not confident that I know how to discuss my culture as seamlessly as my peers seem to. I went through a phase when I identified as strictly Chinese. Then I went to China, immediately felt uncomfortable, then moved on to identifying as American. But to my younger self, if being American meant having summer barbeque block parties and eating dinner in front of the television, I definitely didn’t belong within those cultural boundaries either. For many Asian Americans – at least, the ones I’ve talked to – there’s this aggressively embodied knowledge of what it’s like to experience two very different cultures and figure out how to swim your way through them. Many of us experienced prolific academic extracurricular activities – Chinese school (for which our grandmas did our homework for us), Kumon, band and orchestra, and math camp to name a few. I think we have a societal pressure that forces us to assimilate into a single culture while failing to recognize that there’s a need to create a new culture comprised of specially cultivated customs. Perhaps we often get so caught up with trying to fit in while growing up that we do not realize how fortunate we are to be able to experience two cultures and curate the characteristics of each that we’d like to carry with us. From my Chinese cultural literacy, these are things like not wearing shoes in the house, respecting my elders, and enjoying savory breakfasts, while my more “American tastes” appreciate being able to not take myself so seriously all the time. In retrospect, I’m incredibly appreciative of having the opportunity to choose and create a culture that I feel comfortable with.
With this ideology in mind, I chose to create my artifact dish using components of my past and present taste preferences and concluded with Orecchiette al Zhajiang – a handmade and shaped pasta originating in Puglia, Italy, served with a slow-cooked pork sauce that my mother frequently cooked for me as I grew up. I became familiarized with the Italian culture and cuisine after spending a semester abroad in Florence, Italy, where I lived with a homestay family.
Every Tuesday during my semester abroad, I would stroll to class in the center of Florence, about twenty-five minutes away from my homestay location. I walked through the graffiti-tattered tunnels – the one closest to my home was also covered in succinct Italian love poems – and amidst the piazzas where all the locals gather to chat before eventually succumbing to the demands of their daily lives.
In the neighborhoods leading up to the center of Florence, I occasionally passed by an open window and the aroma of an already started soup or sauce is assaulting my nostrils. I smelled the familiar scent of a soffritto – a combination of celery, carrots, and onions – and looked at my watch. At just ten o’clock in the morning, some Italian nonne were already preparing for that night’s dinner, which did nothing but make me look forward to enjoying yet another multi-course dinner with my Italian host family.
My host father, Giuseppe, works as the CFO of a small wine company called Marchesi de Frescobaldi. Translated, his occupation just meant that dinner every night was served with delicious wine, produced at various privately-owned Tuscan wineries. He seemed like the typical “dad” character: full of distasteful yet overwhelmingly endearing jokes, possessing a slight affinity for undermining his wife’s strict rules, and of course, being served while sitting at the head of the dinner table. His wife, Anna Maria, was a full time pathologist and housewife. Every night, she would come home from work around 6:30pm and begin preparing dinner with either store-bought groceries or homegrown vegetables from their garden in a rural town just outside of Florence. Typically, we would start off with a pasta dish or soup as our first course, followed by a meat or fish dish, then finally a vegetable of some sort. Oh, and always finishing off with a bowl of fruit, which was always pronounced as “froo-eet.”
Over the three and a half months of living in this homestay, I grew to love this family as if we were related by blood. I certainly wasn’t used to having pretty much everything done for me – the housekeeper would wash and fold my laundry and clean my room every week, I would come home to a hot dinner every night, we were invited to the family’s home in the countryside for a leisurely Sunday lunch every once in a while. There were many things that felt like the norm after just a couple weeks, but the one thing that never got any less foreign was how Anna Maria never let me help her clean up after dinner. Growing up with Chinese immigrant parents, I was always taught that the kids were the ones who had to help clean up after dinner, especially as a guest in someone else’s home. Every time I would try to move my plates to the sink, Anna Maria would say in English, “No, no. Don’t worry. It’s my job, it’s my job.” People always ask me if I experienced any culture shock upon moving to Italy, and I’d more often than not refer them to that story because for me, it was truly the most shocking part of a new culture.
One night, Anna Maria invited both my roommate’s and my friends from NYU Florence to come have dinner at our house. Both Anna Maria and Giuseppe are from Puglia, a region in Southern Italy that is known for a particular shape of pasta – orecchiette – which literally translates into “little ears.” She makes them using her great grandmother’s recipe, which consists of an estimated ratio of water and semola flour, which she sources from her father’s farm in Puglia. Honestly at this point in the semester, I stopped asking for recipes because I finally accepted that it would be impossible to achieve the same standard of cooking with my American ingredients. I me
an, how could my store-bought, machine-processed flour ever compare to Signore Buccoliero’s hand-cultivated semola flour? The night before the party, Anna Maria spent two hours making the orecchiette pasta from scratch, little ear by little ear so it would be dried and ready to use the following day. It still amazes me how patient she was with making each orecchietta by hand, and making enough for fifteen people to consume. The following evening, while everyone had arrived and was enjoying a plate of her orecchiette, she silenced the room to make an announcement. “Excuse me! Excuse me, Americans! You are eating orecchiette. Orecchiette is a pasta from Puglia, the BEST REGION IN ITALY. Everyone say it with me. ORECCHIETTE. Good. Now you will never forget it.”
And so I didn’t forget. Just a couple days after arriving back in New York, I set out to recreate Anna Maria’s orecchiette with my older sister, Jen. All I knew about the pasta dough was that it was composed of water and two types of flour. I knew what ingredients I needed and how the dough was supposed to feel like when done correctly; equipped with these two pieces of information, I began experimenting – throwing different ratios of flour and water together until I reached the perfect consistency. Two bags of flour later, I finally made a dough with the same texture as I remembered working with in Anna Maria’s kitchen.
I learned to love cooking from my mother, who learned from her grandfather. As a kid, I would always eagerly help my mother prepare and chop vegetables and cook rice for dinner – I’m still convinced that I did this not only to spend time cooking but also to strive towards being the “favorite child.” Whenever I had a less than great day at school, my mother always knew to prepare a dish called zhajiang and serve it with either long noodles or on top of rice. Zhajiang is thought to be a dish from Northern China, but my mother created her own version that utilized ingredients we always kept around the house: hoisin sauce, fermented bean sauce, bean curd, and ground pork. I recently asked her to provide me with the recipe for her zhajiang, to which she replied “Pork and dry bean curd, diced, if you like add mao dou. Hoisin sauce, add little water, add spicy hot sauce.” After my orecchiette recipe guess-and-check, making this sauce seemed like an easy feat to conquer.
I approached making this dish as I would a typical Italian ragù. I started by sautéing some aromatic vegetables – onion, carrots, celery, garlic, ginger, shiitake and cremini mushrooms – until their smooth aroma sneaked its way into every crevice of my kitchen. Next, I threw in my package of ground pork and cooked it until its fat rendered and thoroughly perfumed the vegetables. And now came the guess and check portion of recreating a dish: I added spoonfuls of fermented bean paste and hoisin sauce until the sauce transferred its way into an area of familiarity. By having all my ingredients in front of me, I was able to add however much I wanted until the flavors were balanced, novel yet familiar, and most importantly, good.
I tossed my freshly boiled pasta and my Chinese ragù sauce together until each piece of pasta was generously coated and invited my two roommates to come taste my dish with me, because after all like all good things, good food is meant to be shared and communally enjoyed.
Creating this dish not only allowed me to create a meaningful recipe that emulates my newly discovered cultural identity, but also helped me pioneer a frontier of revived appreciation for American culture. Identifying as “American” means what I want it to mean – there doesn’t have to a set standard of what makes me uniquely American. After experiencing the dining culture in Italy and being familiar with that of my home in California, my perceptions of the eastern and western cultural customs have dramatically changed. Perhaps this relationship shouldn’t be linear with west on the left and crossing “American” while on its way to the east. Rather, it seemed as though the eastern and western eating cultures had more in common than the American cuisine based on efficiency and convenience. Perhaps the spectrum would be best represented as a venn diagram-esque organization, where the commonalities between cultures can be appreciated and shared rather than marked as contradicting outliers. Through my experiences in Italy, growing up in a Chinese household in California, and now studying in New York, I’ve been thirsty to gain as many perspectives as possible, stitching together the carefully cultivated characteristics of each into a self-defined representation of what it means to be American.