Culinary Nostalgia

Lately I’ve been feeling intense culinary nostalgia.

When I first moved to Albany, I mostly suffered from burrito nostalgia. Not really burrito nostalgia, but hot sauce nostalgia. I can make really good beans and rice. I can make a really good roasted salsa. I can make a really good fresh salsa. But I cannot make hot sauce like they make at La Posta, which is the best hot sauce ever. I suspect it involves mash, which slightly scares me. Maybe one day I will make mash, but for now I’ve learned to live without that flavor and have found other ways to scratch that particular itch.

But now I’ve been feeling more of a homesick food nostalgia. My grandfather lived for years in Sichuan. When I was a very tiny person, before convenience food took over, that was what my mom cooked most of the time. I was young and I didn’t pay enough attention. I think my technique is fine, but I have no clue what spices she used. I can make a decent stir fry, but it doesn’t taste right.

I look at spice combinations in various recipes, but they miss something. Quite possibly the problem is related to the problem of winners getting to write history. Upper classes and large population centers get to define recipes. Just like the typical American cookbook doesn’t include recipes for things like hominy, recipes from rural Sichuan are just less likely to make it onto the cookbook/restaurant radar than city recipes or higher class dishes.

There’s a restaurant here in Albany, CCK, that mostly serves Americanized food that is pretty horrible. You can tell their Dim Sum is just reheated stuff you could’ve gotten from the freezer section at the grocery by yourself. But if you order the things you’ve never heard of and couldn’t convince any of your friends to order in a million years, they tasteĀ  like home. They are amazing if you are with someone who knows exactly what to order, but they are pretty spotty otherwise. I never know if what I order will taste like home or just make me sad that I didn’t eat someplace better. If I’m going to eat out, I’d rather go to Emperor’s, which is Hong Kong style but they make their own Dim Sum, grow some of their own hard-to-find (upstate, anyway) vegetables in the beds around the restaurant, and are high quality cooking all around.

What I’d really prefer is to just be able to figure out how to cook food that I grew up with that I can’t buy here. I suppose I can try going to CCK over and over and try to remember what it was that I ordered that tasted like home. Every once in a while I go back and hope to get the right person in the kitchen or pick the right dish, but I have been disappointed more often than not.

I spent a significant amount of time on Friday bonding with a friend over food we can’t have in Albany. My pronunciation is pretty atrocious and he didn’t know English words for more obscure foods, so we ended up just setting the language on my iPhone to Chinese and using google image search to pass pictures back and forth. (Pro tip: If you try this at home, have your friend switch your Phone’s language back to English before he takes off.)

I think in the end the thing that bugs us the most is that nothing here is spicy. Everything is sweet.There are things we expect to have multiple varieties that have only one. There are things we expect to be a combination of sweet with very spicy, which is a nice combination. Those things are only sweet here, without even a spicy sauce on the side to make up the difference. Even if the food is otherwise well crafted, the complementary spicy flavors are simply not utilized. It’s frustrating. Perhaps I should just carry a hip flask of hot sauce.

On the one hand, it was a nice shared experience. Lots of people act like I’m modestly nuts for trying to make things spicy. It was very refreshing to find someone else who felt the same way. On the other hand, neither of us has any recipes. He is going to ask his dad and a friend of his who cooks. So maybe one day we will have a feast. I think I have figured out Scallion Pancakes. I promised him I will make them sometime, which will be its own post. In the meantime, anyone have any good recipes? Or commiseration? Or approaches to dealing with culinary nostalgia?

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