May 19, 2024

Why third-culture cooking is less of a trend and more of a triumph

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Chef Mark Singson, who moved to Canada at age 7, says his cuisine pulls from the sum of all his food memories. ‘The way I cook has always been Vancouver-forward. Some of the dishes are in Filipino flavour, but in the context of Vancouver.’Shingo Suzuki

When you’re born in the diaspora to immigrant parents, you’re often tasked with learning how to live in two worlds. With the ceremonious transfer of generational trauma, a well-documented experience for children whose parents likely fled conditions such as war, poverty and abuse, along with the burden of assimilation, a new generation of “third-culture kids” find themselves floating somewhere in the intersection of two or more cultures. The term was first coined in the 1950s to refer to children who grew up in a culture other than that of their parents, but it’s now being adopted by those with multiple cultural identities, like myself.

Looking back at my childhood, it wasn’t always easy to find the right words to express my jumbled British-Indian identity. But the food we ate somehow did. From tandoori chicken legs, salad and tomato chutney served with chips (proper fat chips, not fries) to a remixed Heinz baked beans on toast with spice-laden tadka to make it “less bland,” as my South Asian mother would say, these unique-to-us flavour combinations gave a nod to the different sides of our cultural identity. Now, I find that the way I cook is, in many ways, stirred by the endless possibilities of a borderless kitchen.

“The third-culture experience is very special because it’s not bound by ethnicity or culture but by the person’s lived experience,” said Jon Kung, a Hong Kong-born, Toronto-raised, Detroit-based private chef who is adding to a growing discussion about what Chinese-American cuisine can be with Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen. “It doesn’t matter if you are Chinese, Indian or Nigerian. How we blend things is usually informed by a place of love and nostalgia.”

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‘How we blend things is usually informed by a place of love and nostalgia,’ private chef Jon Kung says.Johnny Miller

With the soaring popularity of third-culture cooking videos and cookbooks, grounded by a deep respect and appreciation for our ancestors, it feels like a natural evolution rather than just fusion – and it’s reshaping how we eat. “I know people think ‘fusion’ is a dirty word, but I think it’s where cultures intersect. It’s the intersection of culture in which new culture is born out of or progresses,” explained Los Angeles-based food writer Khushbu Shah, author of the soon-to-be-released cookbook Amrikan: 125 Recipes from the Indian American Diaspora (available June 4).

On any given day, third-culture kids yo-yo between one identity and another. It doesn’t help when a disapproving aunty tells you you’re “too Western” one minute only to be “othered” by your adoptive country the next. “My issue was more about defining what my culture was,” explained Kung.

“The common goal for all of us is to realize we are enough – that’s why I truly embrace the third-culture aspect, because it is a kind of fusion, but so am I,” added the TikTok star with 1.7 million followers. “I’m an accumulation of many things. It’s not that I’m not Chinese enough. I’m Chinese plus something else.”

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Food writer Khushbu Shah grew up eating Taco Bell, McDonald’s and the traditional gamut of Indian home cooking.Alex Lau

“People are so obsessed with the idea of authenticity,” said Shah, who grew up eating Taco Bell, McDonald’s and the traditional gauntlet of Indian home cooking. Her mash-up of Rice Krispies treats with jaggery and candied fennel seeds is an example of dishes born in the diaspora that would likely be frowned upon elsewhere. “That’s one of my favourite recipes from the book. I don’t think any of my cousins in India would have ever thought of doing that, but I love Rice Krispies treats and I love fennel. To me, that isn’t fusion or two incredibly forced things – it feels like my kitchen.”

Throughout history, every wave of immigration has brought a certain level of adaptation and improvisation to recipes and cooking techniques, whether in restaurants or at home. “Necessity forces you to find equivalent ingredients with similar properties or functions,” said Nigerian food explorer Ozoz Sokoh, who teaches food and tourism studies at Centennial College in Toronto. Even though she stresses the importance of documenting and preserving traditional dishes, she is excited by this new phase of exploring and experimenting.

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Nigerian food explorer Ozoz Sokoh. Photo credit: Ayobami OgungbeAyobami Ogungbe/Handout

“My greatest love for food is that an ingredient is an ingredient is an ingredient – it doesn’t have to be limited to a pre-existing use,” she said. “I think [third-culture cooking] is a deep form of personal expression that no amount of traditional culture should squash. There’s room for both, especially as these cultures and cuisines haven’t had a chance to shine.” Compared with immigrants 50 years ago, we’re living in the age of the global pantry, which means third-culture kids have better access to culturally significant ingredients at a more reasonable price point.

For Mark Singson, one of the opening chefs behind Vancouver’s AnnaLena and a Top Chef Canada runner-up, appearing on Season 6 of the show was not only the start of his “rebrand” but an opportunity to speak up. “It was a moment where I could showcase who I was without feeling like I needed to hold back,” said the Filipino Vancouverite. Having moved to Canada at age 7, his cuisine now pulls from the sum of all his food memories, whether that’s his mother’s Filipino dishes or first discovering things such as clam chowder or canned Campbell’s soup, which naturally became part of his West Coast palate.

“The way I cook has always been Vancouver-forward. Some of the dishes are in Filipino flavour, but in the context of Vancouver,” he said about his buzzy Mabuhay YVR pop-up series and his tuna tartar – a build-your-own maki roll, which is a nod to the city’s love for torched sushi but reimagined through his own cultural lens. “It’s like a bistek, the caramelized onions normally associated with beef [in Filipino cooking], but I’m putting it on fish. I’ve always called what I do ‘Filipino-ish’ for a reason. I enjoy traditional food, but if we just made traditional food, it doesn’t evolve.”

Montreal-born chef Marissa Leon-John expressed a similar sentiment. “There’s more of a desire to show off what you’re made of, like literally,” said the MasterChef Canada alumna and founder of Elle Jay’s, a pop-up culinary events company. Her parents are from St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines and moved to Montreal in search of the “Canadian dream.” With that came their strong desire to assimilate into the multiculturalism of the eclectic city. “I have this global Canadian identity with deep Caribbean roots, and my food has always been exactly that.”

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Montreal-born chef Marissa Leon-John , a MasterChef Canada alumna and founder of Elle Jay’s.Emmett Rose/Handout

Leon-John believes this category of cooking forces you to step up your game. Her East meets West Indies supper club with fellow third-culture kid Eva Chin of the Soy Luck Club in Toronto last year is just one example. “We created a magical experience for our guests and each other,” Leon-John said. The collaborative menu featured jerk chicken liver mousse, char siu octopus with callaloo (a green leafy vegetable), oxtail cheung fun (rice noodle roll) and, for dessert, a pumpkin and scotch bonnet sorbet with ginger and Sichuan peppercorns.

“We knew our food would go together but we didn’t know what sparks would fly. We were blowing each other away,” she said. “Eva called it ‘fusion confusion,’ and that’s exactly how it was. I fell in love with that. All food is fusion in one way or another, and when you really tap into it and hit a sweet spot, it’s pure magic.”

Whether it’s Calvin Eng’s hip Cantonese-American joint Bonnie’s, which reflects the chef-owner’s Brooklyn upbringing with dishes such as wun tun ravioli (shrimp and pork wonton in a citrusy Chinese stock and parmesan) and savoury MSG martinis, or L.A.’s Pijja Palace, an Indian-American sports bar that does crazy pizzas, dosa onion rings and rickshaw-shaped pasta, many third-culture restaurants in the U.S. have proven highly successful. “There’s an ability to communicate between both cultures that they exist in, in a very seamless way – and it’s fun,” said Shah.

However, we’re not talking about a craze such as kale or cooking with instant pots here but rather a liberating form of expression for those who have often been tethered neither here nor there. “I don’t think it’s another trend simply because it’s so difficult to define,” said Kung. “We’re talking about a way of thinking that opens up cuisines that have entire civilizations worth of culture behind them, and now we’re realizing, ‘Oh, this is what happens when you blend the primary colours.’ And once we get into the mindset of mixing more, the possibilities become infinite.”

Third-culture cooking is a celebration of all the delicious possibilities that exist when cooks worry less about what others may perceive as authentic and focus on what best reflects them. Third-culture cooking has brought communities together – and isn’t that what food is all about?


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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Jon Kung’s Hong Kong chicken and waffles

“My style using Hong Kong egg waffles (aka eggettes) and karaage (small bites of Japanese fried chicken)—enhanced with the use of Szechuan peppercorns in the maple syrup and splashes of chili oil— became so popular that I was constantly encouraged to enter local fried chicken and waffle competitions (I never could bring myself to; I don’t really enjoy competitive cooking). I particularly like tearing up the waffle into little individual pieces, then taking a fork and stabbing into one of those pieces, then stabbing a piece of chicken, then stabbing another piece of waffle. You now have a tiny and perfect fried chicken and waffle sandwich that you can eat plain or dunk into a ramekin of warm Szechuan-spiced maple syrup.” – Jon Kung

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

Fried chicken
  • ⅓ cup light soy sauce
  • ⅓ cup Shaoxing wine
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground white pepper
  • 1½ to 2 pounds boneless skin-on chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Neutral oil, for frying
  • 2 cups potato starch
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 large eggs
Waffles
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons custard powder (available online)
  • 1 tablespoon nonfat milk powder
  • 1 tablespoon tapioca starch
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1½ cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for the waffle maker
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Szechuan-Spiced Maple Syrup (Makes about 2 cups)
  • 2 cups pure maple syrup
  • ¼ cup Szechuan peppercorns
  • 1 to 2 cups dried Szechuan chilies (or any fresh hot red chili), chopped (quantity depends on desired spice level)

Preparation

Marinate the chicken: In a large bowl, combine the soy sauce, wine, sugar, and fish sauce. Add the chicken, stir to coat, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the marinade and transfer to a paper towel–lined plate, then return it to the refrigerator to air-dry for 30 minutes.

Fry the chicken: Preheat the oven to 200°F. Fill a heavy saucepan, wok, or Dutch oven with neutral oil to a depth of 1½ inches and heat over medium-high heat to 350°F (or set your deep fryer to 350°F). Have a paper towel–lined baking sheet nearby. Place the potato starch in a medium bowl and the flour in a second medium bowl. Mix 1 tablespoon of the salt, 1½ teaspoons of the black pepper, and 1½ teaspoons of the white pepper into each bowl. In a small bowl, beat the eggs.

Bread the chicken using a dry-wet-dry sequence: Working in batches, dredge the chicken in the flour mixture, then coat it in egg, then dredge it in the potato starch mixture. Gently place the breaded chicken in the hot oil (do not overcrowd) and fry until the chicken is golden and the internal temperature reaches 165°F, about 3 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer the chicken to the paper towels to drain, and repeat with the remaining chicken. Once you’re finished with the whole batch of chicken, give it a quick double fry to really get them crispy, about 1 to 3 minutes. Set them all on a tray and keep the fried chicken warm in the oven until you’re ready to serve it.

Make the waffles: In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, custard powder, milk powder, tapioca starch, and baking powder. In a separate medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, 2 tablespoons oil, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk just to combine.

Heat a waffle maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Using a pastry brush, dab a bit of oil onto the plates of the waffle maker (every one I’ve come across has a nonstick coating, so avoid sprays, as those don’t work well on nonstick surfaces). Add enough batter to fill the iron per the manufacturer’s instructions and flip, if necessary (an eggette maker will require you to flip). Use the first waffle to gauge how much batter is needed to fill the iron going forward. Cook the waffles until golden and keep them warm in the oven until serving. Divide waffles and chicken evenly among serving plates and pass the syrup.

Make the syrup: In a small saucepan, bring the maple syrup to a simmer over medium heat. Add the peppercorns and cook for 5 minutes, reducing the heat to low if it looks like it will boil over. Add the chilies and cook, tasting every 5 minutes, until the syrup reaches your desired spice level; it will become spicier the longer it simmers. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a heat-safe container (discard the solids). Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Warm before serving.


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Leroy Hernandez Rodriguez

Mark Singson’s adobo tuna tataki

“I love this dish. The idea of an adobo tuna tataki speaks to where I live now. We have great influences and cultures from all over the world here in Vancouver. It’s just how I love to cook and create food — this dish that’s typically chicken or pork but now fish and served in tataki form. It is served cold but still has the essence of adobo from the strong flavours of garlic, bayleaf and peppercorns. It’s Vancouver food with a Filipino heart.” – Mark Singson

Ingredients

1lb Albacore tuna loin
Adobo dressing (Part A)
  • 1-2 small-medium shallot, minced
  • 4 fresh bay leaves or 2 dry
  • 3-6 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 4 tbs canola oil
  • 2 tsp black pepper
Adobo dressing (Part B)
  • 100 ml soy sauce
  • 150 ml water
  • 50 ml white vinegar
  • 3/4 cup or 50 ml sugar
  • Salt or soy
Garnish
  • 1 radish
  • black pepper to finish

Preparation

In a medium size spot, add canola oil and bring to medium to high heat. Add shallots and black pepper, cook until translucent and pepper toasted, 5-10 min. Add garlic and bay leaf. Cook until the garlic has caramelized edges, 5-10 min. More colour more flavour. Add part B, bring to a boil and back to a simmer for 20 min. Cool down fully before adding the marinate to the tuna.

Trim tuna into rectangle loins or cut vertically directly in half. Blanched tuna in salted boiling water for 5-10 seconds then put directly into an ice bath. After cooling, dry tuna with a paper towel. Slice to desired thickness, marinate with adobo dressing for at least 5-10 min before serving.

Garnish with radish thin or thick cut and black pepper to finish, served on a chilled plate. Keep the dressing nice and cold in the fridge before serving on a chilled plate, an garnishing with radish and black pepper. Could easily be prepared ahead of time and easy execution.


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Marissa Leon-John’s jerk salmon with carrot slaw and fry bake

Serves 4

“Although we can’t deny how tasty jerk salmon is and the carrot slaw adds fresh flavours, the unsung hero of this dish is the fry bake. It adds a sweetness to tame the flames on the jerk seasoning and acts as a perfect vessel, bringing the entire dish together to make a deliciously Caribbean inspired meal. This very approachable recipe can be made in two parts – Make the carrot slaw ahead of time! The longer it sits, the more delicious it gets.” – Marissa Leon-John

Ingredients

Fry Bake
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 3 cups canola oil (or vegetable oil) for frying
Maple and jerk salmon
  • 1-2lbs salmon fillet (skin off)
  • 1 tbs jerk seasoning (Walkerswood Hot & Spicy)
  • 1 tbs maple syrup
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
Carrot salad
  • 4-6 large carrots, grated
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • 2 limes, zested and juiced
  • 2 green onion, finely chopped
  • Small bunch coriander (cilantro)
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3-4 Tbsp mayo
  • Pinch of salt and pepper

Preparation

Fry Bakes

In a large bowl, sift flour and baking powder, add salt, sugar, and butter. Using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Make a hole in the center of the flour and start pouring water little by little slowly while mixing the ingredients in a circular motion. Mix the ingredients gently until you form a nice soft dough.

Note: If the dough is too sticky, dust with a tablespoon of flour; if the dough is too dry after adding all the water, add a teaspoon or so of water and bring the dough together. Knead on a lightly floured surface for a few seconds until almost smooth. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes, then dust with flour and knead to form a smoother dough. Rub some oil on top of the dough and cover with plastic wrap or a damp paper or kitchen towel and allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes.

Cut the dough into about 8 pieces. Roll them into balls and place them on a well-floured surface. Allow them to rest for about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, add oil in a deep pan over medium heat. While the oil is heating, using a rolling pin, roll out the ball with short light strokes in one direction until you get the required size. Try not to stretch the dough while rolling. When oil is heated thoroughly, add the rolled-out dough one by one to the hot oil. Depending on the size of your pan, 3 bakes should fit comfortably!

Turn dough immediately as it’s added to the oil, as this will help the bake swell or puff up. Fry in hot oil until both sides are golden brown then drain on a paper towel to absorb some of the oil. Serve warm.

Maple jerk salmon

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine jerk seasoning, maple syrup, olive oil, salt and pepper in small mixing bowl. Place salmon filet on lined baking sheet. Brush salmon all over with maple jerk mixture. Pop in oven for 10 minutes.

Carrot slaw

Combine all ingredients into large bowl and mix together thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. The slaw gets better as it sits.

To assemble

Cut open your fry bake. Fill with jerk salmon and carrot slaw. Bonus: Drizzle some of the cooking juices from the salmon over your dish and hit with a squeeze of lime.

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Khushbu Shah’s jaggery and fennel Rice Krispie treats

Serves 12 to 16

“There’s a snack sold at most Indian stores that is essentially puffed rice combined with melted jaggery, shaped into ornament-­sized balls. It’s known as murmura laddu or pori urundai (depending on which part of India your family is from), and it’s the perfect treat, minus one thing: I always wished the murmura laddu had the satisfyingly gooey stretch of a good Rice Krispie treat. So I combined my favorite elements of both snacks into one super snack. I upgraded the flavor and texture (and aesthetics!) by adding those beloved colorful candied fennel seeds often served after dinner on the way out of any Indian restaurant. They are a must in this recipe and can be purchased online or at any Indian grocery. Also keep in mind that these treats are extra thick, with some serious height. Halve the recipe if you prefer thinner treats.” – Khushbu Shah

Ingredients

  • ½ cup or 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup ghee
  • 1/2 cup packed jaggery (brown sugar can substitute, but jaggery is preferred for the caramel notes it brings to the recipe)
  • 2 (12-­ounce) bags marshmallows
  • 1 (12-­ounce) box crispy rice cereal
  • 1 cup candy-­coated fennel seeds (also sold as fennel candy)
  • 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Preparation

Line a 9 x 13-­inch baking pan with parchment paper.

Melt the butter and ghee in a large pot over medium heat. Add the jaggery and stir until melted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the marshmallows and turn the heat down to low. Let the marshmallows melt and become gooey, 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. The final texture should be like a thick, creamy face moisturizer. It’s normal to see streaks of jaggery in the marshmallow. Turn off the heat and stir in the cereal until everything is evenly coated, then mix in the candied fennel.

Pour the cereal mixture into the prepared pan. Press into an even layer using another piece of parchment paper. Top with the flaky sea salt, then let cool and harden, at least 1 hour. Cut into squares and serve. The treats keeps well in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. Or you can freeze them, with parchment papers between layers, for up to 3 months.

This is part of a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Inspired Dining section.