Sesame: A Family Tradition

Graduate Division

For the first time last month, I entered one of the small Chinese groceries dotting Clement Street, in search of black vinegar.  What a strange moment of nostalgia!  The vaguely bitter herbal smell in the corner, the strawberries so ripe I could taste them in the air, the colorful assortment of snack items — fried dace with black beans, cappuccino hard candies, seasoned rice crackers in the same old green and orange packaging. 

If I squinted, I can almost see my mother picking through the bruised fruit, chatting up shopkeepers, indulging in sticky rice balls covered in sesame seeds while bratty teenage me scrutinized little trinkets next door.  How we hated those grocery trips then!                 

Don’t get me wrong.  We enjoyed our time together.  But groceries bored me, and I detested the idea of women being domestic.  My mother just hated cooking. (The house smelled of seawater for days after a fish dish, your clothes reeked of oil, and all that work — instantly devoured.) 

Truth be told, she only ever did it because she disliked my father’s cooking even more. “Too bland,” she always complained. “You didn’t put sesame oil in the fried rice!”

Needless to say, when I realized in college that cooking isn’t female oppression and, more importantly, couldn’t figure out what to do with asparagus, my mother was the one I turned to for advice.  “Don’t forget the sesame oil,” she intoned at the end of our phone call.  The trick is always sesame oil.            

These days, when I discover a new restaurant or whip up a new dish, my first thought is how much I wish I could share it with my mother.  How she would like the pork belly banh mi.  How proud she might be of my “monk’s stir-fry.”  We could get lunch in that great little hole-in-the-wall dim sum place.  I will show her my latest photos.  We will plan a trip to Paris or Hong Kong.  Maybe later, we’ll go grocery shopping, and I’ll help her pick out watermelons, pretending I can tell the difference. 

Strange, isn’t it, that something ingested as a means of survival should arrest our senses and consume our imaginations so? Whether we like it or not, food is more than survival.  Food is nourishment.  Culture.  Memory. 

I have yet to brave some of my mother’s more involved dishes, but last weekend, I made fried rice, and I didn’t skimp on the sesame oil.