The Story of a Fast Eater
"The family is where it's at in Asian culture," says Nina Simonds, who is known as one of the foremost authorities on Asian cooking and culinary traditions. "Whenever and wherever I visit in Asia, I always find an emphasis on family, and it's this dedication to it that I brought home with me after living there the first time."
Nina recalls that when she was a child, her parents' evening ritual included watching the nightly news, so she and her sister and two brothers frequently gobbled up their food in the 10 minutes before the news came on and her mother and father abandoned the table for the living room sofa.
"My husband couldn't believe what a fast eater I was when he first met me," she says with a laugh. Things changed when she went to live in Taiwan in the early 1970s at the age of 19. She was a serious student of food, language, and culture, and to learn as much as she could, she lived in a Taiwanese household. She quickly adopted her hosts as a surrogate family. They, in turn, joyfully embraced their Western daughter.
"Every morning, we went to the market to pick out food for two or three dinners," Nina remembers. "Dinner was one of the most important parts of the day because it was a time when the entire family gathered. Everyone stopped what they were doing and sat down at a large, round table with a Lazy Susan in the middle. There were always two vegetables, a little meat, and sometimes a little fish. And there was always a simple soup and steamed rice. continues
The scarcity of meat had nothing to do with the family's income—they were well-off—and everything to do with how the Chinese and most other Asian cultures assemble a meal.
Nina explains that everyone took food from the communal bowls and ate it with the rice. When your rice bowl was empty, she says, you filled it with what was left of the soup to drink as an aid to digestion. The author of 10 books on Chinese cuisine and culture, including the best-selling Asian Noodles and A Spoonful of Ginger, Nina still travels to Asia at least once a year and dreams of spending a year or two living in Shanghai.
Today, she wanders far from the cultural and urban centers in search of authentic food and customs that have not been influenced by the West. "It's sad to see how Asians have adopted some of our Western customs," she says. "On the other hand, I also see them coming full circle and readopting their own traditions for a more healthful life—things like less meat and more grains and vegetables at a meal."
But regardless of what she finds in Asian cities or small hamlets, she is always drawn to the value of the family she finds everywhere. "The richness of sharing these customs is what it's all about," she concludes.