The act of passing down recipes is a sacred and ancient practice, probably established before written language was even a thing, if I had to guess. For some, it’s a significant piece of family heritage and tradition, for others, a reminder of festivities and culture.
Almost as reliable as last names tying together the paternal side of the family tree, recipes string together the women in my family. That’s not to say men are left out of the practice. My very favorite breakfast, a “Bird’s Nest,” which consists of torn-up buttered bagels topped with a poached egg, came from my Jewish grandfather whom I never had the opportunity to meet. His recipe, however, ensures I get to know him in this little way, at least.
My mom has taught me so many recipes that always feel like home: Beef stroganoff served alongside bowtie noodles; Liver pate that only gets served at Thanksgiving (a dish she shipped to me the first year I celebrated away from home); Meatloaf that we dipped in Heinz ketchup and made mashed potato and gravy volcanoes next to; Spaghetti Bolognese that I always snuck bites of as it simmered on the stove. Hearty, nostalgic, made with love. I will hold my mother’s recipes near to my heart for my entire life.
Once I left home for college, I discovered new flavor profiles and ways to feed myself. I found Trader Joe’s, olive oil (instead of butter), quinoa, and new diets and cuisines both in and out of the kitchen. I got my first 9-to-5 job, which drove me to test infinite variations of homemade lunch salads. Eventually, I met my future husband and discovered his family ate entirely different than mine--vegetables lightly seasoned, spice rubs, lots of fish, new pasta shapes. Cooking became something I was drawn to explore in a whole new way.
With my new culinary influences, I tried new recipes. I developed what my fiance and I affectionately call “Kiley Recipes”: Israeli couscous salad with fried kale; Tahini soy sauce salad dressing; Soba noodles with grilled eggplant; A veggie bolognese inspired by Mom’s meat-centric equivalent; Blackened salmon; Tempeh tacos. These recipes are a reflection of the many influences I encountered since leaving home.
I always jump at the opportunity to cook for others, whether it’s hosting a dinner party or insisting my Mom sits back and relax while I take the kitchen reins. Slowly, I have started to expose my Mom to the new recipes that reflect my own unique taste.
To her, Asian food stopped at American-Chinese, and she still claims to have never tried fish before I served her Branzino. It was exciting to see that, despite her traditional American cuisine upbringing, she was curious to explore new flavors and ingredients. She is always genuinely excited to learn more about my culinary explorations away from home.
It began when I told her I was going to make tofu for dinner. While open-minded, she was hesitant and said she couldn’t promise she was going to like it. I knew I couldn't make anything too unfamiliar or palate-shocking for this first exposure, and I knew texture could be an issue. My foolproof way of introducing new foods with success every time, whether it’s for your 7-year- old picky eater or your previously unadventurous mother, is cooking with a lot of fat, and/or dousing the dish in a lot of sauce.
I served fried salt and pepper tofu over quinoa (“I swear, it’s just like rice!”). The skeptical look on her face when I brought out the quinoa tofu bowl made me nervous. Yet, as she took her first bite, her eyebrows raised and she took another bite excitedly--”It’s delicious! You have to give me the recipe,” she said. And from there, a new tradition began. It was an exchange, in a way, of tried and true family classics, along with newly discovered recipes that incorporate global flavors and ingredients.
My mom's recipes have started to evolve. She now makes a killer Pad Thai, one of many dishes she would have never served me as a child. Family food and cooking evolve over time, and I am proud to have had my eyes opened to new flavors and cuisines, and then to have passed that curiosity up. I constantly beg my Mom to formally write out her recipes for me so I can hold the family heirloom of incredible food in my hands forever. Still, I find joy in knowing that I have been able to make an impression on her home cooking just as she has on mine.