Comfort Foods: Rice cake soup is a fusion of cultures brought together in one pot

Life staff writer Eileen Murray shares a story of identity and heritage through food

If I wanted to tell you the story of how my family made it to the United States and how I exist today, then I would tell you about my favorite food: rice cake soup. 

It begins in Fuzhou, China, the city my maternal grandmother is from. She died years before I was born, but I know that her youth was marked by war, poverty and famine. To me, the base of the soup reflects this rocky beginning my grandma had and showcases the lack of resources with its simplistic pork and watercress broth. 

When my uncle was old enough to be left alone, my grandfather left Fuzhou to search for domestic work in Singapore. I know little of this period in her life, but Singapore is a melting pot of cultures being predominantly Chinese, Malay and Indian. This is presumably where she expanded upon the recipe, adding in fish sauce and now being able to afford rice cakes to add into the soup. And that’s the soup — the one my mother grew up with in Hong Kong and New York, the one I remember slurping away every last drop of as a child.

That soup made me feel connected to my grandmother, to Fuzhou and to my ancestors’ culture when for many years, I never felt like I was enough. I suppose this is the typical spiel of a mixed kid in America, never feeling enough. But that feeling is generated by those around you — it is generated by a family that doesn’t fully see you as one of its own, as something alien. It is generated by the other Chinese American kids insisting you will never be Chinese enough because of how you look, even though you experience the effects of being a minority. It is generated by a lack of understanding in language, of being told to drop Cantonese to speak English properly in preschool.

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It created a hatred within me. I hated myself. I hated that I couldn’t fit this ideal Chinese kid who spoke Cantonese and physically fit the part as well. That I was too Irish at times or too American. That I was nothing. That I was no one. It made me wonder, with all the people in my life, including my own family, never fully accepting me, would my grandmother accept me? I had always been told I looked like her, albeit a bit more Irish and a bit chubbier, but I look like her. 

Her soup was an amalgamation of her life and the cultures she came in contact with. Her soup is a bit like a melting pot. A melting pot like the United States is, and a melting pot like me. You can taste the savory fish sauce as the pork falls right off the bone, the slightly chewy rice cake intermingled with the smooth crunchiness of the watercress. It mixes so well like the perfect harmony of cultures in one pot. It makes me wonder, maybe she would’ve loved me fully. After all, her soup is the perfect symbol for the cultures that she brought with her to the United States and posthumously to me.

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