5 Chefs On Their Family Food Memories & The Ingredient That Tastes Like Home

Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.
DashDividers_1_500x100
The sound of Calrose rice steaming in a Tatung rice cooker always reminds me of home. The rich and nutty scent of those round grains diffusing through the house is like a warm hug. It takes me back to childhood, where every day after school I’d guess what dishes my mom would be stir-frying and what soup would be simmering on the stovetop. My favourite task was being the taste-tester when my mom was re-creating a dish we had dining out, one that she’d boldly announce at the table she could make better at home. I’d stand by her side at the stove with my chopsticks ready for the first bite. 
Advertisement
Food evokes memory for me as a second-generation Canadian — not only childhood memories, but it reaches back further to traditions steeped in my family’s Taiwanese culture. And for so many others, the recipes passed down through generations gain importance as they follow families across borders, forcing them to adapt dishes since key spices don’t always make the trip with them. But there’s always one ingredient that's irreplaceable. We asked five second-generation women chefs about their memories of food growing up and which ingredient reminds them most of their family.
Photographed by Danielle Reynolds.
Joshna Maharaj's family masala recipe has travelled from India to South Africa and now to Canada.
Joshna Maharaj is a chef, speaker, and activist. She comes from an Indian family that lived in South Africa for four generations. Maharaj immigrated with her family to Brampton, ON, as a baby.
How did you get into cooking?
I'm the oldest female child in an Indian family, so there was no way I was going to escape the kitchen — from getting things from the basement, to washing dishes, and chopping onions, and doing whatever my mom and aunties directed me to do. But the decision to actually be a chef happened when I took a year off after graduating from university to live in India.
What’s a special food memory you have with your family?
The sound of the metal spoon against the side of the pot. And my mom’s bangles! It's definitely a missing sound when I bang the pot and roll chapatis.
What’s one ingredient that reminds you most of your family?
It’d be our family masala. In Hindi, masala just means mixture of spices. This is a recipe from my grandmother's sister — that generation had a bit more of a connection to mainland India. Part of the migration to Africa was figuring out what was available in the African landscape that could enable them to make these familiar Indian dishes.
Advertisement
This same recipe has travelled with our family all over the world. We get together every two or three years and my mom and I make a table full of the stuff. We burn out two or three coffee grinders in the effort. A few of the spices involved are cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cayenne, turmeric, and coriander.
How do you use it? 
The traditional way to use it is in any curry recipe. I will rub it all over a bird before I roast it. I made a masala turkey for Thanksgiving once. That was outstanding — just like lots of butter and garlic and masala all over the bird. It shows up in biscuits and a friend of mine roasted a lamb with it once. 
DashDividers_1_500x100
Photographed by Danielle Reynolds.
Sesame oil is a staple in the Japanese-style fried rice Kiko Nakata's mom makes.
Kiko Nakata is the head pastry chef at Miku Vancouver. She was born and raised in the city but has spent time living in London and Tokyo to connect with her family heritage on both sides.
How did you get into cooking?
I grew up as the only child in a house with my parents, grandparents, and uncle. Some of my earliest memories involve standing on a stool next to my grandma at the stove, where I’d watch her cook and help stir the pots.
What’s your family like?
My mom was born in Osaka, Japan, and immigrated to East Vancouver when she was a toddler. My dad’s parents immigrated to B.C. from England shortly before he was born. No one in my family is in the food/restaurant industry, but we have some really talented home cooks in the bloodline. 
Advertisement
What’s a special food memory you have with your family?
I often think back to sitting on the counter next to my mom, mesmerized by the KitchenAid whipping up a cake batter or eating cookie dough out of the mixing bowl. 
What’s one ingredient that reminds you most of your family?
Sesame seed oil. Sesame seed oil is so popular in most Asian cuisines. In my family, we add to dishes for nuttiness and aroma. 
How do you use it? 
One of my favourite ways to use it is in yakimeshi or Japanese-style fried rice. My mom makes it with crispy bacon chopped into small pieces, white onions, garlic, green onion, cabbage, and carrots all sautéed together. She uses Japanese short grain sticky rice, and the dish is seasoned with soy sauce, salt, pepper and sesame seed oil. I personally like to add a sunny side egg on top.
It was a staple in my house growing up and a real comfort dish for me. Whenever I stay over at my parents for a special occasion, my mom will make it for me as a late-night snack, as we stay up chatting. Even now, no matter how hard I try, it tastes better when she makes it.
DashDividers_1_500x100
Photographed by Danielle Reynolds.
'Every single dish starts with onions,' says Melani Bastians of Sri Lankan cuisine.
Melani Bastians is a chef and entrepreneur, who was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and moved to Winnipeg from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with her family as a teenager.
How did you get into cooking?
My dad opened his first restaurant, Taste of Sri Lanka, six months after we arrived in Winnipeg. Being there most evenings, I started getting to know food. I'd peel bags of potatoes and onions and learned how to use a knife properly. The sous chefs and line cooks would show me which spices to pair together. As young as 13, I was like, “I'm definitely going to be a chef.”
Advertisement
What’s your family like?
My dad is a Red Seal chef, and he worked for the royal family in Saudi Arabia for years before we moved to Canada. My mom is actually a way better cook than my dad! My dad had to make Sri Lankan food for the restaurant, but mom was the one cooking at home, mixing different flavours from various countries. She’s the one who taught me how to make fusion curry dishes — that’s actually one of my specialities now, like the butter chicken poutine I serve. 
What’s one ingredient that reminds you most of your family?
White onions. Because the start of every single dish starts with onions; I don't think Sri Lankan food would taste the same without them.
How do you use it?
In Sri Lankan culture, almost every savory dish starts with sautéed onions, garlic, chillies, ginger, and curry leaves. Whether it’s biryani or seeni sambol, you start with white onions. Then, you can add whatever meat or vegetables you want to the dish. My dad makes amazing lamb biryani, where you can smell those caramelized onions. Not only does it start with the sautéed onions, but you also finish it with crispy onions on top. Even our salads consist of a lot of onions. To pair with meals, I make a salad with raw onions, cucumber, and tomato with either yogurt or lime juice. 
DashDividers_1_500x100
Photographed by Danielle Reynolds.
The smell of cilantro reminds Julie Marteleira of her home in Portugal.
Julie Marteleira is the executive chef at Leña Restaurante in Toronto. She was born in the city and grew up in Portugal, where her mom ran their family-owned restaurant just outside of Lisbon.
Advertisement
How did you get into cooking?
Cooking and sharing moments over food have always been a big thing in our family. I knew one way or the other, I was going to be in the industry. I wasn't sure how I was going to get there, but eventually in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a chef.
What’s a special food memory you have with your family?
One of my earliest memories is making chorizos with my aunt in Portugal. It's a whole tradition –– they kill the pig, they break it down, and then the meat is divided up. Part of it is made into chorizo. It's marinated right then and there, and then a couple of days later, we stuff them and smoke them. 
What’s one ingredient that reminds you most of your family?
Smelling cilantro always reminds me of home — walking through those beautiful markets in Lisbon. They have these huge bunches of cilantro, and the smell perfumes the whole market. 
How do you use it?
It's used a lot with pork and clams. When I make the traditional dish of clams with garlic, white wine, and a little butter, cilantro finishes it at the end. My favourite way to use cilantro is with seafood, like the stuffed Dungeness crab dish that my mom used to make for our family dinners.
DashDividers_1_500x100
Photographed by Danielle Reynolds.
Isabel Chung has a love/hate relationship with the notoriously stinky durian fruit.
Isabel Chung is the executive chef at Fairmont Chateau Whistler. She was born and raised in Calgary.
Advertisement
How did you get into cooking?
Like every other good Chinese child, I had good marks throughout high school and went straight into university. I spent a year being miserable and then promptly dropped out and decided I was going to go to culinary school, much to the disappointment of my very Chinese father. 
What’s your family like?
My father is an immigrant who moved to Quebec in the early 1970s from Hong Kong and went to work at a distant uncle’s Chinese restaurant in Sherbrooke. He worked at the restaurant to put himself through school, where he became an accountant. My mother immigrated from Singapore to Quebec, and that’s where she met my father.
What’s a special food memory you have with your family?
My dad’s a great cook, my mom was a great cook, and my stepmother is also a very good cook. All of them believe that family dinner, eating well, and socializing around the dinner table was really important. I have a lot of memories that are specifically linked to food just because of the way I grew up and because of my family in Singapore. I spent a lot of my summers there. Food is a culture in Singapore. Everyone’s always like, I know the best place for this or that. Hainanese chicken rice is my dish. It’s the dish I grew up wishing my mom would make it more often, but my dad didn’t like it when I was younger.

What’s one ingredient that reminds you most of your family?
Advertisement
The durian fruit. The scent is heady, pungent, and sweet with a lingering scent of something that is not quite pleasant. It holds a very special place inside the hearts of many Asians. It’s like a love/hate thing. As a kid, I hated it! I would run screaming from the room while plugging my nose. It took me many years to embrace it. I spent a lot of childhood summers in Singapore, and at every market, you would see durian vendors with 40 variations of the fruit. My mom would miss it when she wasn’t in Singapore. It was such a big treat for her that I learned to value it for that.
How do you use it?
I rarely buy it in Canada. I will buy the frozen fruit in a box from an Asian grocery store if I’m desperate! I usually eat it as is. I love pairing it with a plain light vanilla sponge and well-whipped Chantilly cream.

There’s this durian cake at the Goodwood Park Hotel in Singapore that's really special. My aunt would take us for it every time we went back to Singapore. Durian is also used in mochi, ice cream, and shaved ice. But for me, it’s always that cake at the Goodwood and going to one of those fresh vendors that had all of the varieties of durian. 

More from Food & Drinks