When I think about my life now—having graduated from college several years ago, and trying to work and navigate early adulthood—I realize there’s been one constant that has carried me through it all: Eating dinner with my family.
My parents established sitting down for dinner every night with my brother and me when we were infants, and it has been so significant to our family’s dynamic. Especially once my brother and I started school, dinner was the one time of day where my dad could come home from work and have quality time with us, and where my mom could have us all together in one place—even if just for a few minutes.
Our time together at dinner was when we could really be present with one another. It was a place free of distractions; where all that mattered were the people sitting around the table. So many of my memories came from sitting at that dinner table together, including the silly things my brother and I said when we were little that we still laugh about to this day, or sharing our last family meal together before one of us went away to college. Dinnertime was, and still is, a place to tell stories from our day, share big news, or work through anything that’s troubling us.
For my blended Vietnamese and Bangladeshi family, so much of our lives and traditions are rooted in or around food. Because of that, it felt second nature for my parents to put an emphasis on sitting down together for dinner. Beyond the daily conversations, dinnertime was also when we could explore our heritage and blend our two cultures together to really represent our family.
"For my blended Vietnamese and Bangladeshi family, so much of our lives and traditions are rooted in or around food."
Through eating dinner together, my mom was able to share her favorite Bangladeshi food with us and teach me to love it just as much as she does. The dinner table was where I watched her eat dishes like chicken roast, rice, and vegetable bhaji by hand and mimicked her until I was an expert at eating by hand, too. It was a place to share Bhapa Pitha with my mom—I would eat the plain ones my grandmother made especially for me because I was picky and she would eat the ones with coconut and gur in the center, or teler pitha. Together we relished in those uniquely crisp edges and tender centers.
The dinner table was also the place where my dad introduced us to the Vietnamese foods he loves. Sunday dinners were spent sharing crispy Bánh Xèo packed with shrimp and bean sprouts and passing plates of rice paper rolls laden with fresh herbs. We would regularly sit together for dinner and slurp big bowls of Pho with far too many noodles, the empty plates that once held freshly washed herbs and lime wedges and bottles of hoisin and hot sauce still sprawled across the table.
Dinnertime is where we not only indulged in the respective dishes from each cuisine, but blended the two. Now, when everyone is home at the same time, my dad serves soup inspired by pho with noodles, fresh herbs, and lime, but the broth is different and much stronger in flavor—bold and intense just like my mom is accustomed to with Bangladeshi food. We add things like crispy tofu, soft-boiled eggs, or avocado. My mom serves dishes that she adds a touch of extra-hot chili powder or cumin or coriander to, dishes that normally wouldn’t have it, but makes it taste all the better, like somehow it’s more “us.”
"By instilling a tradition of eating dinner together, my parents taught me about the importance of connection."
Having dinner together every night—and especially eating dishes that are representative of our heritage—opened up a space to learn more about my parents. Over so many years, I’ve been able to learn what parts of the cuisines are their favorite, about how they came to the U.S., how these foods connect to their lives and what it means to them, the memories it evokes, and how their parents used to prepare certain dishes. Coming together over dinner is how my family has bonded and, to me, is hugely representative of the importance of food throughout our cultures and of so many others from the AAPI community.
By instilling a tradition of eating dinner together, my parents taught me about the importance of connection. I’ve grown to treasure the idea that you can bond, open up space for conversation, or show you care (amongst a number of things) just by sharing a meal. I carry that idea with me every day and have truly learned to appreciate it the last few years in the pandemic. Family dinner doesn’t happen as frequently anymore with everyone’s schedules having picked-up substantially post-lockdown, but when we do have dinner together, I value those nights more than ever.
Out of all the advice and lessons my parents have taught me about cooking and food throughout my life, the most important thing they’ve taught me is the importance of sitting down and eating with the ones you love.