I come from a very ethnically mixed Chinese family, and the food we eat reflects our diverse heritage.
On my mum’s side, my babushka (Russian for grandmother) was part white Russian and part Siberian. Her dad – my grandfather – was Han Chinese, an East Asian ethnic group and nation, which makes up over 90 per cent of the Chinese population.
On my dad’s side, my neinei (Mandarin for paternal grandmother) had a Korean-Russian bloodline and was born in Central Asia. My ‘yeye’ (grandfather) was Manchurian (Tungusic people who originated from Northeast Asia).
My parents and I were all born in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in northwest China. The region’s cultural fabric and food are so unique because it borders so many different countries, from Mongolia to Russia, and Kazakhstan to India. Xinjiang Uyghur was also predominately Muslim Turkic.
So whenever we ate together as a family, our ethnically diverse table featured dishes from three different cultures: Turkic, Chinese and Russian.
Everything we ate also had to have the essential cumin and salt mixed into it.
In winter, we would have the hearty traditional Russian dish called borscht. Mum says because our region never had beetroot, they had to make it with potatoes and tomatoes. We also used to eat kotlety, which are Russian rissoles.
All year round, we would eat handmade noodles; dapanji (big plate of chicken) with rice; zhuā fàn (a dish of rice and carrots – if you were lucky in China, it would have some mutton added); dumplings filled with chives and beef; or bao and mantou; and liangfen (Chinese jelly noodles).
When I was little, growing up in Xinjiang Uyghur, my cousins and I would run around and hide in great watermelon patches. My Aunty Lin used to always tell me about the fruit in the region: the smell of apples was so strong in summer, so fragrant. The capsicum they ate tasted sweet and full of flavour because no pesticides were ever used by farmers.
How our move to Australia changed what we ate
I left China with my parents in 1980 before I turned three. We were fortunate to have been sponsored by my babushka, who left the region with my youngest aunt and uncle to flee religious persecution. There are stories that, as a Pentecostal Christian, she was targeted by the communist regime and questioned over her faith. We initially went to Hong Kong as refugees and lived in Kowloon for a year. We then arrived in Sydney in 1981 on a refugee visa.
I was one of many Chinese-Russians – AKA ‘Crussians’ – who left northern China (what was once Manchuria) and Xinjiang for Australia around that time.
As it turned out, we all flocked to live in the NSW suburbs of Canley Vale and Cabramatta, situated just west of Sydney. These suburbs – which are now known as Asian food havens – had no Asian shops back then. There was only one Franklins supermarket, a budget grocery shop popular in the day.
But the ethnic fabric and food scene in the area soon changed when other Southeast Asian refugees also came to live in these suburbs, after fleeing the Vietnam and Cambodian wars. As more Asians moved in, the way we all ate changed, and my family was introduced to new Asian ingredients.
For example, we had never seen prawns in China, as we lived in a land-locked region during the height of Mao’s revolution. So we were really closed off to experiencing ingredients from our Southeast Asian neighbours and other cuisines. But we first tasted (and saw) prawns because of the influence of other Asian cultures in our area. These days, our family loves eating seafood.
"So whenever we ate together as a family, our ethnically diverse table featured dishes from three different cultures: Turkic, Chinese and Russian."
Looking back on a life growing up as a Chinese-Russian in Australia, food was always central to family gatherings. Chinese dumplings were always eaten during Chinese New Year celebrations. But my favourite dish, ever since I was a child, was the Uyghur meal of lamb and chicken wing skewers, which were a staple for any Crussian gathering.
My dad, who recently passed away, used to cook the skewers over a handmade open barbecue, with coal and open flames. He would throw salt, cumin and chilli flakes on the meat as it cooked over the fire. Every time I have this dish today, I’m reminded of summer during my childhood years in Australia.
My Chinese-Russian identity is important to me because, ethnically, I may look like other people in China. But culturally, I am different – we are different, our history is different and our fusion cuisine is different.
The Chinese-Russian dishes my family continue to eat in Australia today are so important. They are a link to my family’s past and to everything we have been through. Through my family’s immigration to Australia and the many cultural fusions we have experienced in our bloodlines, our cuisine has been the one constant.
I have three children and have taught them about what the Chinese-Russian food they eat means. I can only hope they continue the traditions when they have their own families in the future.
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