A few years ago, I bought a book of Hunanese recipes to make a dish for my parents over Christmas break. It was admittedly manipulative, a calculated attempt to encourage an emotional intimacy that language and biological kinship had failed to foster over the years. I had been feeling particularly alienated from them, ever since I moved away for university. We had fallen into a pattern of talking twice a year, and seeing each other just as often. Not that we had ever shared much of our inner lives with one another: it’s always been the terse immigrant parent-child dynamic that would border on stereotypical if only it wasn’t so painfully personal. “Work good? Health good? Good.”
Call it a chasm of language, or culture, or both; I thought at the time that cooking for my parents could start to bridge that rift, that a taste of a familiar dish might spark a memory or anecdote and open the door to more meaningful conversation. Food has always felt like it carried a small amount of magic—just enough for eyes to glitter and stories to unlock. I was banking on that magic.
Hunan, a southern province of China, is where my family and I emigrated from in the 1990s—and in the characteristic heat of its cooking is where my strongest food memories were forged. I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I remember how much this food played a role: the celebratory holiday meals, the extravagant banquet dinners and later, the excitement of finding dishes that reminded us of home, in Chinatown after Chinatown across North America. These experiences have since hardened into a nostalgia impenetrable to the erosion of time and distance, an overwhelming feeling that has no visuals or language but contains the purest forms of pleasure, comfort, family.
One particular dish is an image forever locked away in the coffers of my memory palace: bite-sized morsels of pork belly lacquered with a caramelized sauce, lustrous like rubies. It’s a Chinese classic—allegedly Chairman Mao Zedong’s favourite—and hails from the same place as my family. You might recognize it as red braised pork. I grew up calling it hóng shāo ròu, although these days the English translation is starting to feel more at home on the tongue.
I knew this was the dish I wanted to build a dinner around. I didn’t know much else. My first years as an adult were marked by the pendulum swing familiar to so many third-culture kids—a fervent repudiation of my parents’ culture that pushed me so far away, it brought me right back. Was it out of a desire to assimilate or be my own person? I’m not sure. I had taught myself how to make the perfect bolognese and roast an impeccably juicy bird, but I had no idea what made my favourite pork dish red.
The book of recipes was Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, by the English writer and Chinese cuisine authority, Fuchsia Dunlop. Despite her many and rightful accolades, a blistering shame rose into my cheeks when I ordered it online. What kind of Hunanese person has to buy a cookbook written by a white person, in English, about her own home? It felt like I was handing in my Chinese membership card, like this one move had cemented all of the shortcomings I’d been chastised for as a child. Still, the shame could be overcome, as it always is. If it collapsed the distance between my parents and I even remotely, it was worth trying.
When I made it for them, I read the recipe studiously, obsessively. The dish had to be irreproachable, and any deviation from Dunlop’s instruction—the only directions I had from an expert on Hunanese cuisine—felt like it would create a critical fissure in the system. Resisting my usual instinct to eyeball everything, I measured the sugar, cut the pork carefully, set aside a single pod of star anise. I wanted it to be authentic to their experiences, and mine too; I wanted the hóng shāo ròu suspended in amber.
The weight of authenticity shouldn’t be the immigrant’s to carry. It’s the impossible task of replicating conditions that will never exist again—not in our present-day kitchens, and not in the places we once called home. From access to ingredients to the natural shifts in culture, food is a living, shapeshifting thing, not a fixed ideal; to uphold authenticity as the barometer is to limit its potential. It also discounts the possibility of multiple truths. Right now, there are countless variations of hóng shāo ròu found across China, each authentic to its own origin story.
And I just wanted to be true to mine. In retrospect, this plan was inherently flawed: I was trying to recreate a dish the way it used to be, when what I wanted from it was acceptance for the person I have become. In that way, the dish will always turn out perfect. The pork, immensely aromatic, falls apart in the mouth; the salt, fat and sugar work in concert to make something just short of alchemy. Served on a simple bowl of glossy-grained rice, it’s irresistible.
In the absence of a shared linguistic fluency, food becomes the language of intimacy—and Dunlop’s version of hóng shāo ròu spoke ours beautifully. It wasn’t quite like I’d remembered it, but my parents nodded with stoic approval all the same. “Now that you know how to cook, we don’t have to worry about you,” my father declared, as though it was the only dish I’d ever attempted. It might as well have been—the only one that mattered. My mother told me stories about how much she’d find herself missing it when she left Hunan, and how that craving still stirs her awake in the middle of the night sometimes. “Me too,” I said. She laughed, marvelling at how these things get passed on. For a moment, I see it: the bridge.