I may have learned to cook from my mother but I learned to eat from my father. He adores good food and when I was growing up, we spent a lot of time together. Before my family fled Vietnam in 1975, my dad was a busy business man struggling to stay afloat in a country that was on the verge of falling apart. When Saigon fell to the communists in April 1975, we were lucky to leave by plane. My parents had to start over in America, forty-somethings with five kids in tow.
Needless to say, Dad had more time hanging with me, in between teaching ESL at the local junior high in the day and adult school in the evening. We drove around Southern California a lot in our Ford Mercury to explore, and we went fishing together too. At home, he’d tell me stories of his life in Vietnam, though I was too young to appreciate them all.
The lasting memories of our time together were frankly, all about food. Does that surprise you? Bo Gia (“Old Daddy” in Vietnamese) and I shared many foods over time and these five are particularly special:
Strawberries: We lived in Southern California and late spring and summer was strawberry season. My mom does not eat fruit that she can’t peel (a very Asian thing) so my dad bought strawberries for himself and to share with us kids. After dinner, he liked to macerate them in a little liquor for us to enjoy. I took over strawberry duty at a certain point and probably got to liking rum a bit more than a 12-year-old should. I currently live in a major strawberry growing region of the state and welcome the berry season every year.
Raw-ish Fish: My mom also has an aversion to raw fish while my dad loves it. The first time I had under-cooked fish with my father was when my mom was away. My father cooked up a simple chao creamy rice soup (congee/jook) and he made a ceviche-like raw fish mixture that he put into the bottom of our bowls. He then ladled the hot soup onto the fish to lightly cook it. Divine. It was so good that I included a recipe for Dad’s chao ca in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.
Avocado: In Vietnam, avocados are called butter fruit. They were pricey and so my father relished all that we could buy and eat in Southern California. We had delicate Fuertes and then graduated to buttery Hass when they became popular in the marketplace. My dad never mashed the avocados up for guacamole. He just cut one open, removed the seed and drizzled sweetened condensed milk in the well. Then he handed me a spoon. Heaven. That’s what led my fondness for avocados, and I eventually wrote a cover story on the fruit for Saveur magazine.
Canned Liver Pate: Western ingredients were and still are expensive in Vietnam. Butter, good baguettes, and wine are luxe items. Before high blood pressure and cholesterol were issues to my father, he indulged in fatty, salty foods. When we discovered The Akron, a precursor to Cost Plus, he perused the imported foods section. Tubes of escargot shells and Dijon mustard did not appeal to him as much as canned French liver pate. My father bought one smaller than a can of tuna and we tried it in the car. Approvingly, he went back into The Akron and bought more for home. Every time I see canned pate at the market, I think of how we ate the pate in the car. Try before you buy.
Mapo Tofu: Sometimes we discovered new foods together. My dad used to let me tag along when he went to visit friends. One day he let me accompany him to lunch with Mr. Lee, a Chinese friend who took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Costa Mesa. There, Mr. Lee ordered a table-full of food. The dish that stuck with me was spicy Sichuan mapo tofu. At that time, I didn’t know what its name was and looked high and low for a good recipe for years. I made it with mapo tofu recipes from Iren Kuo and Fuchsia Dunlop. Finally, I went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in China, to sample the popular tofu dish in its place of origin. Then I went home and developed the recipe that’s in Asian Tofu. That childhood pleasure no longer eludes.
My father didn’t know what he was doing when he introduced me to his favorite foods and let me join him on his excursions about town. He was cultivating a bit of himself in me. What a nice gift to give your daughter. Happy Father’s Day, Bo Gia!
How did your father, uncle, or grandpa contribute to your life in food? Please share.
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- My Father’s 80th Birthday Bash
- Dad’s Other Holy Trinity: Tiger Balm, Eucalyptus Oil, and Toothpicks
- Avocado shake recipe (a Southeast Asian treat)
- Strawberry and Cream layer cake (make your dad one of these?)