The first time I remember going to an Asian grocery store was in primary school. Back then, my sister and I used to compete in aerobics. We’d travel to Sydney from Newcastle every few months to perform on the stages of old suburban town halls. We’d pack the car up with empty eskies; store them next to duffel bags filled with stage makeup and leotards and make our habitual journey down the Pacific Highway. We’d complete our aerobics routines and, at the competition’s end, my parents would take us - medal or no-medal - to the Asian grocery store.
As a Chinese family living in Newcastle, these trips to Sydney were some of the only times we’d be surrounded by East Asian faces and the only chance to stock up on my parents’ favourite groceries. After all, Newcastle in the early 2000s wasn’t known for its cultural diversity. It was the kind of place where Chinese food was mostly served in food court bain-maries and signature dishes revolved around deep-fried meats covered in sauces as colourful as they were sticky sweet.
As a Chinese family living in Newcastle, these trips to Sydney were some of the only times we’d be surrounded by East Asian faces and the only chance to stock up on my parents’ favourite groceries.
My parents (or ‘Ma’ and ‘Ba’) left China in the mid-90s. They had grown increasingly cautious about government control and information censorship enforced by the communist regime. Back then, the one-child policy reigned supreme, and tensions were high in the aftermath of country-wide student demonstrations and the devastation of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Ma and Ba had always wanted to have another child, so it was natural that they’d pursue a life in the West.
After first moving to New Zealand and shifting careers from medicine to podiatry, Ba got a job offer in Newcastle, which inspired the move to Australia. From then on, our family was based in Newcastle - a coastal town that boasted a much slower pace than a capital city and had a similar atmosphere and climate to that of Ba’s hometown of Shantou.
But even with an idyllic lifestyle and newfound freedom, my parents longed for familiarity. Looking back on our Sydney road trips, I realise they were an attempt to take a tiny piece of China back to Newcastle with them.
I remember how Ma and Ba used to stroll leisurely around the Asian grocery stores; their shoulders relaxed as they moved seamlessly through the aisles.
I remember how Ma and Ba used to stroll leisurely around the Asian grocery stores; their shoulders relaxed as they moved seamlessly through the aisles. They’d grab bottles of sauces, dried goods and odd-looking vegetables as if on auto-pilot, oblivious to the scurrying of fellow shoppers around them. There, they could speak Mandarin freely without me or my sister shushing them, while conversations with shop assistants would roll off their tongues happily.
For me and my sister, these grocery store visits were mainly a post-competition ritual where we’d indulge in confectionary and artificially sweetened drinks. I remember how we used to run up and down the grocery store aisles, stopping every few metres to ogle at labels with unfamiliar characters and bright packaging. We’d pick up Nongshim Shrimp Crackers and Hello Panda biscuits; throwing anything that sparked our curiosity into our personal shopping basket, before meeting Ma, Ba and their overflowing trolley at the check-out.
Later, when we got back to Newcastle, and in the days and weeks that followed, we’d witness the loot from our grocery store pilgrimage on the dining table transform before our eyes. In the kitchen, mysterious sauces turned into Hong Sao Rou (red braised pork) marinade and frozen dumplings grew plump into plates of steamy Xiao Long Bao. Packets of rice noodles became Cantonese-style beef stir-fries, while blocks of soybeans would materialise into spicy Mapo Tofu.
Later, when we got back to Newcastle, and in the days and weeks that followed, we’d witness the loot from our grocery store pilgrimage on the dining table transform before our eyes.
While we gathered around the dining table, we’d listen to Ma and Ba relay tales of China. Ma would tell us about dumpling-eating competitions with her brothers in Nanchang; she’d tell us about famous Jiang Xi noodles and how her mother (my Wai Po) used to cook them for her on Sunday mornings. Ba would rave about fresh fish served in his family home - a small apartment perched on a bustling live seafood market.
Like many others, food in my family is linked to love. I realise now that the meals of my childhood were entrenched in my parents’ love for the food they’ve known and a desire for my sister and me to experience them. Over the years, I’ve found myself shopping in Asian grocery stores and searching for ingredients to recreate the dishes from my childhood. For me, there’s truly no better recipe for comfort than cooking a home-cooked meal that’s so steeped in our collective family history.
Bec Zhuang is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @beczhuang
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_.
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