Are there stories behind the food you cook? Perhaps when you prepare a dish, or maybe even when you order a meal from a restaurant, do you find yourself reminiscing over the times in the past when you’ve had the same meal? I’m not really sure that happens every time, but I do believe food and cooking tie into a lot of our memories from life.
I watch Food Network Star in the summer with my friend Keith, and we always make fun of the judges who insist the contestants tell a story relating to the dish they prepare; oftentimes, the “food memory” comes across as total BS because they think the judges want to hear a sob story about how a person made this dish with her grandmother, and this was how she first learned to cook. (Really, the show most times is an utter train wreck, but that’s the joy we find in watching and rolling our eyes with every contrived episode.)
I had an episode of the show playing when I started making my Orange Sesame Chicken dish, and it definitely made me wonder if there are any stories behind what I’m making. The dish itself is a variation of a recipe I found somewhere online because I’ve always liked the Orange Chicken they serve at PF Chang’s, but it always seems too dry. As I began cooking, though, grating my orange and squeezing the juice into the pot, I thought about the first time I had Asian food. It was actually the first ethnic food I’d ever eaten. My mom had always been a finicky eater, so we typically had the modern American fare at home. She was never really willing to try anything or experiment with food, but I think that was mostly because she honestly didn’t know how to cook very much. Growing up, the only homemade dishes I can recall her making were barbecue chicken or cubed steak with mashed potatoes (my mom’s best dish, by far) and macaroni and cheese. (I’m gonna totally ignore the fact that my mom’s idea of mac & cheese was out of the Kraft box here). She could also make a decent homemade spaghetti sauce, but she’d gotten the recipe from my dad’s mother.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was completely different from my mom. She loved to try new foods and was an amazing cook. She loved to bake, and most of my earliest memories of her involve her in the kitchen. When I was a kid and she made cornbread, she would sit me on the counter, wash my hands in the kitchen sink and put all of the ingredients for the cornbread in a large bowl that she sat beside me so I could mix it up…with my hands! I thought it was the most awesome thing ever to get to play in the food at the same time I was fixing it. (Is that a Southern use of the verb ‘to fix’?)
As I got older, I don’t remember cooking with her like that. My grandfather died when I was 6, and I think after that, she cooked less and less. I do remember, though, when I was in 10th grade, I had to do a project for my Geography class on Greece, and students got extra points if they brought in food that originated from the country, so I talked to my grandmother about making baklava. We spent a Saturday afternoon preparing everything together, and even though neither of us had ever made baklava before, it turned out really good. She was always great with sweets, though–especially cakes and breads–so I knew it would be a success. She died when I was 18, and this memory is one of the most vivid ones I still have of her, even today.
After the baklava, I don’t remember her cooking all that much except for sweet dishes. When I visited her (which was almost every weekend) we would almost always go out to eat. That’s how I experienced Asian food for the first time. She took me with her neighbor to the Dragon Den. I think I may have been 12 or 13 at the time, so you can imagine how exciting & cool I thought a place named Dragon Den had to be on the inside. Well, sadly enough, Dragon Den had no dragons except for one artsy one that hung on the wall above a very cool waterfall. I think my disappointment continued from there because I really didn’t know what to order, having never been to a Chinese restaurant before, so I got the same thing as my grandmother. Big mistake! How was I supposed to know she was having an all-vegetable dish. When I left, I said I’d never have Chinese food again.
But I did, of course. When I got my first job (working in a government office as a file clerk to put myself through college), I went with the office Lunch Bunch–back to Dragon Den, no less. This time, I had a better idea of what to order–something fried with sauce. I am from the South, after all. The sweet & sour chicken was amazing, and after that I was sold on Chinese food. In fact, Asian & Ethiopian foods are probably my favorites. I could probably eat them every day and not feel I was missing out on very much.
So, I suppose some foods do have a memory (of sorts) attached to them. And guess what? Mine even included a story about my grandmother, the first time I made something with her, and the passion we shared for cooking, just maybe not the way the silly judges of Food Network Star might have wanted it laid out for them. But I do think my grandmother would have tried my Orange Sesame Chicken. She would have probably wanted more vegetables in it, though.
Orange Sesame Chicken Recipe
For the sauce:
- 1 1/2 c. water
- zest and juice of one medium/large orange (some pulp if you want)
- 1/4 c. white vinegar
- 1/3 c. rice vinegar
- 2 1/2 Tbl soy sauce (I prefer the lite)
- 1 c. brown sugar (packed if you want sweeter, loose if not)
- 1 tsp. ginger (fresh minced or ground)
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 2 Tbl. chopped green onion (optional but it definitely adds color)
- 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes (1/4 if you don’t want it very spicy)
- 1 lb of boneless, skinless chicken (breast or tenders) cut up into bite-sized pieces
- 3 Tbl. cornstarch
- 2 Tbl. water
- 1 cup flour
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper