The Southern region of the United States is known for its comfort food, also known as “soul” food (because it comforts your soul!). And in the state of Texas, at Thanksgiving, or really for any other big, home cooked meal, cornbread is essential.
According to the magazine Southern Living, cornbread is a side dish that originated in Native American cuisine. Corn was a staple crop for the Native Americans, and would grind it up and mix it with water to make a type of corn-based bread. This dish stayed in the region after the settlers came, where they adapted it and started incorporating more ingredients to enrich its taste and texture—thus, cornbread was born. Today, my family makes cornbread to go along with chili, beans, and especially at Thanksgiving (just in a larger batch so that there’s enough to go around for the whole family!)
Cornbread is a very simple-tasting dish. It is a little bit dry and has a very prominent corn taste that is slightly sweet, thanks to the addition of sugar to balance out the saltiness of the other ingredients. It is typically made in a cast-iron skillet and is best served warm (not hot) and with a smear of butter on top. To “spice up” your cornbread, you can even add different herbs, candied bacon, or jalapeños (for some literal spice!)
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.
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.
There is a lot to prepare for as an incoming college student, or even as a current student. For those getting ready to live on campus, the list of things to do is endless. Whether it is preparing for your courses, purchasing appliances, assembling a grocery list, I would argue that the most important way to prepare is learning how to cook. I am currently a sophomore living in an apartment, which has taught me to be a little more independent. In particular, I have started learning how to cook, something which is much more complicated than it seems. I can tell you now that the first few attempts will not go perfectly, so don’t give up! I have provided some of the easiest recipes for any beginner. All of these recipes have ingredients that can be substituted to fit various diets. Now especially might be a good time to get a head start on practicing these simple recipes while we are all at home in quarantine. You can even ask your family to evaluate how good your cooking skills are by taste-testing!