By Eric Silverstein
Chef Eric Silverstein is the founder and owner of The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas. He recently released his first cookbook, “The Peached Tortilla: Modern Asian Comfort Food from Tokyo to Texas.” This article is part of our ongoing spotlight for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
For the better part of 11 years, the Japanese and Chinese-American culture within my home was all I knew. I was born in Tokyo to a Chinese-American mother and Jewish father, and even though I was an American citizen, spent significantly more time in Japan and Asia than I did in the United States. It’s a unique way to grow up, I now realize, knowing so little about the country you’re “from,” and by the time I was twelve and we moved to Atlanta I’d probably spent no more than eight total months in the U.S.
I was so exposed to Japanese culture and during such formative years, I hold that it’s stayed with me to this day and shaped a lot of my thinking, too. The Japanese are very hard working, respectful people. The culture preaches diligence and perfection in every aspect of life. Japanese salarymen famously go to work early and stay late, putting the good of the organization ahead of themselves and you see this aspiration for perfection in the food world, too. Walk into any Japanese department store like Takashimaya or Mitsukoshi, and make your way to the food hall; you’ll see everything organized down to the centimeter and packaged to perfection. Sometimes foods are packaged and shelved or displayed so perfectly that you feel like you are damaging them just by opening them. As if disrupting some greater order. The Japanese take pride in their jobs, be it corporate finance or running a night market yakitori stand.
When I moved to Atlanta, I was ill-prepared for the shift to American culture. My parents sent me to a private school in Atlanta and didn’t really talk to me about the big changes that would await me. There were only one or two other Asian kids in the entire school of over 500. In a flash, I had gone from attending an International School (in Japan) with people of all ethnicities and races to a school that was largely white, with few minorities sprinkled about. That, for me, was less of an issue than the cultural learning curve. I knew little in the ways of how to act and talk. And, quite frankly, the other students knew very little of my background. I remember my mom taking me shopping for clothes to fit the school’s dress code; khaki pants and short sleeve collared shirts. I was even learning a whole new way to dress.
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Modern Asian Comfort Food from Tokyo to Texas.
My upbringing was not terribly relatable to most, having spent 12 years in Japan. I was an American citizen, but felt anything but American, culturally. I remember once in a soccer game I’d aggressively tackled a player from the other team. Upset at having been upended he told me to go back to Vietnam. But I, of course, was not from Vietnam. I’d be lying if I said things like this didn’t give me a chip on my shoulder, and I kept a formidable guard up for many years. It wasn’t for about five years of living in the U.S. that I finally started to feel even a little bit comfortable in my shoes.
The one constant my life, despite the difficult adjustments and shocking culture shifts, has been food. Food inspires me and shapes my thinking. I associate it with positive memories from childhood and with family and it plays an important role in my life to this day. My family would always have dinner together, and mom would cook. Dad would get home from work around 6:30 or 7:00, and we would sit down as a family, eat, and talk about the day. If I had any issues, I’d enlist my parents to help me solve them. It was a wonderful time of the day.
My mother would cook food ranging from Chinese to Japanese but also sometimes Indian or Italian, and she did all of them well. I’ve since tried to replicate a lot of her recipes, especially the authentic Chinese dishes like chow fun, fried rice, dumplings, and shrimp toast. Another of my favorites growing up was “shabu shabu,” aka, Japanese hot pot. Mom would get a Bunsen burner and set it out in the center of the table with a pot filled with broth. We would all take turns cooking accoutrements in the boiling broth like thinly shaved beef, tofu, Napa cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and udon noodles. Always with a side of white rice and sesame-infused shabu sauce for dipping. These were the food memories that shaped me and I cherish them dearly.
Raising my own family now, I find myself longing to recreate those food memories for my kids. For me, our culture isn’t just in the type of food I’m making, it’s more about what the experience of eating the food is and represents to all of us. A time to enjoy eating and talking with the people you care most about. Simple pleasures like being with friends, experiencing great food, and even better conversation. This experience is probably what led me to begin opening restaurants and as much as I love having the experience for myself, it’s twice as nice knowing I can create it for others, too.
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