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How Chefs Preserve Family Heritage Through Food


Carrie Dennis | May 1, 2018
Tastes, scents, and secrets are passed down from generation to generation, evoking other eras, other kitchens, and other people.

Pork jerky caramelized under the Colorado sun, chicken wings marinated in pungent fish sauce, and army-sized vats of sticky rice are just a few of the snacks that Colorado-born recipe developer Perry Santanachote remembers from family road trips. Her expat Thai parents are restaurateurs, and on days off they would explore their new country by caravaning around the state. Santanachote’s mother would pack a mortar and pestle to make fresh papaya salad on the road, while bags of shrimp chips, mango spears, fish balls, and chile dips and sauces stuffed the trunk. For Santanachote, these moveable feasts were formative. And though the particulars obviously vary, many chefs have similar memories.

Certain foods bridge time and distance. Tastes, scents, and secrets are passed down from generation to generation, evoking other eras, other kitchens, other people. In Santanachote’s case, as with the many other chefs, cooking instructors, and bloggers we spoke to for this story, she didn’t find inspiration simply from her ancestral connection to the art form; rather she was driven by the desire to preserve traditions and cultures writ large, be they in her own family or on a global scale.

Santanachote family picnic (image courtesy of Perry Santanachote)

Traditions arise from both necessity and proximity

Growing up with parents and grandparents who spend a lot of time in the kitchen is super influential, whether those adults actively teach the younger generation to cook or not. “I was in awe at her command for the kitchen,” says Illinois-based bread-maker and chef Casey Engelman of her mother. “I remember when peach yogurt was added to the braise for chicken one night, or when she threw in pickle juice to a dressing to add some zip, or potato flakes to thicken up a stew last-minute. There was no shame, only determination to make a stellar meal for the people she cared most about.”

Santanachote, who grew up prepping vegetables and dumplings in her family’s restaurants, may not have been as inspired by reverence as Engelman was, but the ends are the same. “I didn’t learn in any sweet, at-my-grandmother’s-knees kind of way,” she says. “Neither of my grandmothers ever stood me up on a chair and showed me how to make spring rolls or curries. I simply learned to cook because the kitchen was where I was. When your family runs restaurants and you grow up playing hide-and-seek in the dry storage room and walk-in refrigerator, you pick up a sense of cooking through some sort of osmosis.”

Perry Santanachote (image courtesy of Perry Santanachote)

Visceral food memories capture all the senses

Washington D.C.–based executive pastry chef Pichet Ong — whose family is from China but who was born in Thailand — fondly remembers working in a ginger-and-scallion-scented kitchen with his mother and sisters, wrapping dumplings by hand as they talked about what life was like in mid-20th-century China amid wars and political upheaval. “All the work is done by hand — knife work, small batches,” he says. It was a way of cooking that harkens back to a simpler time. This sort of nostalgia is something most chefs can relate to, regardless of country of origin and idiosyncratic circumstances.

Santanachote family in the kitchen (image courtesy of Perry Santanachote)

Pakistani food blogger Maryam Jillani — who grew up in Islamabad and immigrated to the United States in 2008 — reminisces about mutton curries. “I grew up eating several variations: mutton with potatoes, mutton with spinach, mutton with turnips,” she says. “Every time I eat a richly flavored mutton curry, it reminds me of home.”

But food associations are not always about sentimentality. “Durian is my most potent example of the connection between memory and sense of smell,” says Santanachote. “My family is a durian-loving family, specifically the women. When it’s in season, they eat so much of that stinky fruit that even other Thai people get weirded out. My dad and uncles are often forced out of the house by the pungent smell.”

Makos (image courtesy of Makos Koukakis)

Food connects us with family members from another time or place

“Cooking Pakistani food was my way of dealing with homesickness as well as making friends in my new home,” says Jillani. “My mother has walked me through a million recipes over the phone. Cooking is my way of giving homage to my mother, my grandmothers.” For Jillani, food is a bridge to another home and another life, a means of connection to some of the people she holds dearest when she can’t be with them physically.

For many chefs, specific foods and the rituals around them allow families to bond. “My dad is the oldest of seven kids,” says Engelman. “He joked that when they were growing up, his mom would toast a whole loaf of bread and have it on a plate in the middle of the table. And now, our more simple meals are accompanied by a board of freshly sliced sourdough.” Makos of The Hungry Bites blog agrees with the power of a shared culinary experience, specifically making cookies with his Cretan mother and grandmother. “It’s a fun and easy way to connect with all the members of the family,” he says.

Casey Engelman (image courtesy of Casey Engelman)

Contemporary chefs love secrets learned from previous generations

Santanachote’s family’s recipes go way back: “My mom’s a chef and my aunts are chefs. My grandmothers were chefs and my great-grandmothers peddled their foods on the streets of Bangkok to provide for their families,” she says. “My grandma made a sauce that restaurant customers fell in love with, but it didn’t really have a name, and eventually it came to be known as Mama Sauce.” Santanachote is happy to share the recipe: Using a mortar and pestle, smash together garlic, Thai chilies, cilantro stems, and palm sugar; grind until it’s a coarse paste, then add fresh lime juice, fish sauce, and a little finely minced lime rind. “Grilled meats, seafood, fried food — pretty much everything can benefit from a dip of Mama Sauce,” she says.

Engelman learned from her beekeeper parents to add a bit of sweetness, “whether from a spoonful of sugar or a slug of honey.” Makos and Ong abide by fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients; the latter leans toward elevating raw ingredients through transforming and seasoning. And Jillani always has “a stash of shami kebabs tucked away in the freezer to serve with tea on days of need.”

Almond tofu fruit cocktails (image courtesy of Pichet Ong)

Cooking can be the catalyst for entirely new family rituals

Regardless of where you’re from, food traditions are often closely associated with holidays. Whether that’s baking almond snow cookies (kourabiedes) and honey cookies (melomakarona) as Makos does, downing a potent anise-flavored digestif with 40 to 60 of your relatives after a round of the German drinking song “Ein Prosit” like Engelman and her family, or preparing mutton pulao for lunch and serving sawaiyyan for dessert as Jillani is learning to do, there’s a distinct connection between food and seasonal festivities. However, culinary rituals don’t always have to take the shape of a specific event. They can also be an extension of the everyday ceremonies we all experience with our loved ones. For the Engelman clan, for example, the prevailing rule was that no matter how hectic things got, the whole family would come home for dinner. “It was a perfect ritual to slow down and make sure that we had some quality time together at the end of our days,” she says.

An individual’s approach and relationship to food can be interpreted in many different ways. But ultimately, the rituals, tips, tricks, and reminiscences we carry with us through the years are often indicative of our worldview. Santanachote puts it best: “Eat with curiosity and openness. Let food open doors, ask questions, learn! [It’s] not just about cooking, but the people and culture behind it. It is more important to me that my family views the world this way than if they’re any good at cooking. Well — they at least need to know how to cook rice properly.”

Visit some of the oldest heritage families behind food & drinks here.

To sip 5 distinguished drinks inspired by heritage and history, click here

For more stories and wisdom from Edoardo Branca, go here.

To read about sisters making new business traditions, click here

To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca .

Carrie Dennis is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.


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