Recreating My Favorite Dishes

By Sarah Selke

[3 minute read]

After asking several students in ALI conversation groups what they missed most about their homes, the unanimous response I received was simply, “food.” Despite the wide array of restaurants in Los Angeles featuring cuisines from all around the world, it is hard for many international students to find what they would consider be truly authentic good food.

A student I recently conversed with talked about the food from his hometown, Chengdu, a city known for its spicy cuisine. Although he likes trying other cuisines, nothing beats Sichuan food. Speaking of the various similarities and differences between regional cuisines in China, I proclaimed my own partiality to Shanghainese food, which is known for having more sweet and sour flavors. One dish that I especially love is Sheng Jian Bao, which roughly translates to pan-fried buns filled with pork inside. This dish can be found throughout China, but is most common in Shanghai, where it is commonly sold as street food.  

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Thinking about food left me with a craving to make my own Sheng Jian Bao. Ever since I tried the dish on a trip to Shanghai several years ago, I had been looking for a place in the San Gabriel Valley that would meet my expectations. Unfortunately, none of the restaurants I visited succeeded in matching the ones I had eaten abroad. Finally, over a recent three-day weekend, I looked online for a recipe and decided to try a hand at making the dish myself. It was a long process: gathering all the necessary ingredients, letting the yeasted dough rise, seasoning the meat, wrapping the buns, then steaming them. Although the whole affair was rather tedious, the buns turned out to be delicious – perhaps not quite as perfect as the ones I had eaten in Shanghai, but enough to be worth the preparation effort. 

Cooking has always been an enjoyable activity for me – not merely because of the product that I get to eat at the end, but also the process of creation itself. Like other art forms, cooking involves the fusion of various raw materials in order to create something consumable by the senses. By making recipes from scratch, I get to witness the exciting combination of different flavors come to life. In a sense, I can recreate moments from the past – little glimpses of the visit I had to Shanghai years ago, or of the more recent trip I took to Beijing. For a brief moment in time, I can re-enter a space I had once been immersed in and that would otherwise be forgotten without the tastes to carry it. A mixture of egg and tomatoes stir-fried into one of my favorite comfort food dishes carries with it the memory of eating at my grandparents’ apartment in Beijing. A bowl of noodle soup reminds me of birthday celebrations with my family abroad, as noodles are a symbol of longevity throughout China. No matter where you are in the world, cooking is always a way to bring about a sense of home, even if only for a few moments. 

Featured Image by Katie Smith on Unsplash

Sarah is a junior majoring in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She was born in the Los Angeles area and has lived there much of her life. In addition to English, she has some background in Mandarin Chinese, French, and basic German. In her free time, she likes reading, listening to music, photography, and cooking. Sarah went to Beijing last summer and experienced having one-on-one conversations with other local students learning English. She hopes to continue improving her Chinese and French and is interested in teaching English as a foreign language someday. Feel free to reach out to Sarah if you need any help with your English language skills.