On the last evening of my mom’s most recent trip to visit me in London, she sat across the table peeling pomegranate seeds into a big bowl.
"Eat this tomorrow after I’m gone, you lazy bee," she teased, dismissing the piles of books, clothes and electronics across the table waiting to be packed into her luggage.
Mom knows me too well: pomegranate seeds are my favorite. They never appear on my food schedule though, as I lack the patience to peel them properly.
Mom doesn’t have the patience either, except when it comes to feeding me.
Her hand moved gently and swiftly, while her eyes looked carefully at the small watery little seeds, attentively trying not to crush them.
When I woke up the next day and opened the fridge. Sure enough, waiting for me was a clear jar of perfect smooth and shiny pomegranate seeds.
Ever since I left home to study in London ten years ago, food is a big part of mom’s London visits.
With each trip, she would be sure to fill the entire fridge with hand-made dumplings, rice cakes, rice puddings, sesame filled sweet dumplings and many other sweets I struggle to find English translations for.
I love watching her knead the dough, turning the loose flour into individual circular layers of dumpling wraps, like little flower pedals. Her hand would effortlessly fold up these wraps into moon-shaped dumplings, and place them neatly into a tray.
Whenever it’s time to say goodbye, mom would never say that she misses me, or that she loves me. Instead, she’ll remark casually: "don’t starve yourself while I’m not with you".
Mom belongs to a generation where food is an expression of love.
Born in the 60s to parents who were accountants in a factory at a time when China was still a planned economy, food meant everything.
Her favorite after-school activity was visiting an old nanny, who would feed her rice mixed with seasame oil. "Mmm…. that’s the best food we could hope for back then," she would say.
During her last month at high school, when she was studying for her university entrance exam, my grandparents gave her the best ever nutritional food they could afford: an egg every day. "Gosh, the egg put on so much pressure on my studies."
By the 1990s, when I was born, food was no longer so scarce in China. So my understanding of why food is so essential to the Chinese culture mostly comes from my mom’s stories.
In my mother’s generation, people would greet each other using the phrase of "Have you eaten?" instead of the more familiar "how are you?" We don’t do that in China anymore, but I still look forward to the ritual of my whole family gathering together to prepare food across a big kitchen table at special occasions, such as the Chinese New Year.
Such fond childhood memories have stayed with me. It’s funny that living in the super health-conscious city of London has taught me to think about food in terms of calories and carb content when I shop at Waitrose.
Well, mom’s home-made dumplings don’t have any food labels. No calorie calculation, no fat percentages, nothing on the package telling me to eat my "five a day". Instead, every bite of mom’s food tastes of love, and of the feeling of home.
Over the last few years, London’s Chinatown has undergone a massive face-lift. New shops and restaurants are popping up, offering an increasingly diverse range of authentic Chinese snacks and regional products, which helped me to rekindle my sweet childhood memories.
During those "treasure hunting" shopping trips, I would also see many British shoppers carrying big bags of snacks. I am glad that food can help to create for them a happy, tangible and real way to connect with the culture of China.