From Sad to Fab, the Lessons I Learned through Salads.
Salad in my childhood was understood as Western food that repulsed many East Asian palettes. My first introduction was at a restaurant doing a Japanese/Taiwanese take on American cuisine. The appetizer was a sad bowl of chunky cold iceberg lettuce and tomatoes sitting in a puddle of Thousand Island dressing. The vegetables probably sat refrigerated right before serving, which erased all natural textures while making them resistant to seasoning. Whatever and whoever this salad was translated from, it was a version where the original spirit and execution was lost; leaving diners like me wondering why anyone would find it enjoyable.
For many years during my travels in U.S. and Canada, I continued to come across sad salads. The options might now include other leafy greens besides iceberg, but I found them all to have the same cold and stern demeanor. Added to the encounter was the horror of learning about Italian dressing in a bottle, activated by shaking before use like a can of spray paint. It was the kind of food that would be carelessly served at international student events, conjuring up the comment of “Why is everything cold?” and leaving the homesick sojourners feeling hungrier than before. It was food that asked you to bend to its will because you needed food to survive, and the ingredients were never coaxed to work together.
Food with little thought put into who your audience is and the context you are serving them, implicitly spoke the words of, “This is just how things are done here. The minimum is met and you should just accept it.”
Having experienced this callous sentiment many times in salad form, I came to believe that I hated everything about it: the bland texture, the flavorless or overly artificial dressing, and cold vegetables that jarred my system. It took experiences over the course of several years to counter my view of salads, element by element.
The first came when I was a guest in a French/German home on a hot summer evening, the sun still out and casting warm rays on the table. Before me was a plate of sliced tomatoes from the market and fresh mozzarella cheese dressed in olive oil. The simple presentation conjured up childhood horrors of cold slimy sensations in my mouth. I was too polite to decline. My body was activating the script I’ve known for ages when encountering carelessly prepared foods: take some, have a polite bite, and swallow fast.
The tomato slice met my teeth and offered up refreshing tartness followed by succulent flesh and the slight crunch of seeds; paving the way for the tongue to be delighted by the contrast of the creamy and delicate mozzarella. The olive oil held the merging flavours while coating my tongue with rich aroma. I was also served some room temperature greens, drizzled with homemade dressing of olive oil, mustard, salt, a crank of black pepper, sugar, and a touch of soy sauce. I recalled how my tastebuds sang at the sapid dressing, rejoicing in the fact that it was whipped together to the melodious chime of a fork against a bowl versus the shaken gurgle of a plastic bottle.
At this point, I had learned having raw ingredients at the right temperature greatly enhances their flavours and texture. But what about the vegetable that started my prejudice against all salads, the iceberg? A Filipino host showed me how meticulous knifework turned the leaves into fine shreds that perfectly moderated their bitter taste. It was further transformed by a topping of crushed ramen and craisins, which gave each forkful a nice balance of fruity, earthy, and gratifying crunch.
These experiences challenged what I had thought about salads. Feeling undeniable pleasure at enjoying them was akin to being presented with evidence that sad salads were not all that the world had to offer. I realized that the salads I enjoyed were because they followed the methods of how cold and raw food are served in East Asian cuisine: always modified through appropriate knife work and seasoning, be it through pickling, marinating, or the addition of fat and crunch.
I realized that translating a recipe across cultures is thoughtful work that requires the person to not only know themselves and others but how to add their own personal touch to this act of relational care.
If I were to meet the sad salad of my childhood again, I now know exactly what to do to make it enjoyable: room temperature vegetables, lettuce teared up to pieces, tomatoes cut to bite size, served with homemade dressing and accompanied by grilled vegetables and seafood.
Besides satisfying my own stomach, my other reward for making a tasty salad was challenging others’ conceptions of it by serving it to them. I was part of organizing a community event for Asian immigrants in their forties and older, with many of them being first-generation settlers. I took note of the event menu and decided on a salad of spinach and fresh-cut strawberries that would nicely compliment the heavier dishes. The dressing was the backbone of it all and made a day in advance: freshly minced onions, poppy seeds, sugar, salt, pepper, and apple cider vinegar. This alchemy of flavors, when tossed over the spinach, strawberries, and slivered almonds, yielded a glideslope of tart, fruity, and earthy flavors with every bite. My moment of triumph was seeing all of the salad gone at the end of the event, and a participant telling me they don’t like salads, but they liked mine and went for seconds.
How this connects to therapy:
For queer and gender diverse immigrants of color, we often run into many barriers in our search for identity, belonging, and community. Many of us were told what a good life should look like from our home cultures, even if there were elements of it that didn’t fit what we wanted. These messages may be that we can either be queer or belong to our roots, or we can only have prosperity and success while neglecting our value for social justice, while being told this is what it takes to have a good life. From my own experience and working with clients that these sentiments are just like the sad salads of my earlier years: they kept me alive but didn’t make me happy in my life. And eating them regularly only eroded my spirit.
I have seen over and over in my clients how life-changing it can be to not wholly accept ways of living that do not enliven us. Just because someone gave you a version of a desired life doesn’t mean you have to accept it with no edits. It will take time and work to find out what really gives you pleasure and what to change, but the result is having a good life true to your heart.
It would be my pleasure to help you gently ask questions about what you want, what is working, and what you are considering editing. My clients appreciate having a professional, kind, and sometimes humorous guide to help them reflect on what can make their lives more satisfactory, piece by piece. You can build a life that you look forward to.
And just maybe, when you are living out your version of the good life and doing so in your relationships, people will surprise you with comments like they never liked salads, but they can see and appreciate the value of what you have made for yourself and others.