Over the weekend our friends Diane and John invited us over for a Cinco de Mayo dinner. They have two little boys, ages 2 and 4, who are adorable, a little rascally but over all pretty well behaved. I don’t have children so I dig observing the parenting process.
A teacher by profession, Diane takes a kind-hearted educational approach to rearing her boys. While we were at their home, she got the older boy to fetch a step stool so he could stand at the kitchen sink to wash his dinner plate. We adults watched with amusement until we realized that there may be a knife in the sink. Diane let out a small cry, explaining to her son that sharp objects may be nearby, and ran over to check. No knife present. Disaster averted.
It’s hard to know what kind of impression that situation made on the four-year-old but parents do their best. Lord knows I’ve asked myself a zillion times whether or not I’d left a knife at the bottom of a sink full of dirty dishes. I don’t think I figured that one out from my mom but here are five cooking and life lessons that she did teach me. (By the way, the vintage photo at the top has Mom in center and on her left, 5 1/2-year-old me looking grumpy.)
Understand food then communicate and experiment. I’ve spent countless hours hovering over the stove and looking down at my cutting board, thinking about food — how the desired outcome of a dish dictates the way ingredients should be treated, how things can be improved or not! Sometimes I dream or wake up thinking about a vexing cooking issue. You can label that obsessive compulsive behavior but I got that from my mom, who learned classic Viet cooking approaches then resourcefully and nimbly applied them.
Stay open minded. There’s no single way to cook rice. When I was old enough to seem useful in the kitchen, my mom trained me to use an electric rice cooker, a method that I naturally applied to cooking rice stovetop after moving away from home. Oddly, there were grains that always stuck to the bottom of my pot, and when I asked Mom about that, she responded, “You don’t cook rice stovetop the same way as you would in a rice cooker!”
Then she went on to tell me how to make perfect rice, which led me to thinking about myths and truths about cooking rice.
Smartly reign supreme in your kitchen. Do what you feel is sensible and practical for cooking well. Yes, my mother measures ingredients via rice bowls and particular Chinese soup spoons but she also uses a scale and maintains a recipe file box. When she still lived in Vietnam, she read cookbooks, took cooking lessons, and recorded recipes in a notebook (the one that inspired Into the Vietnamese Kitchen).
She developed a personal, systematic approach that enabled her to feed a mini army (our family) at the drop of a hat. My mom’s kitchen quirks includes using the dishwasher as a drying rack and covering the counter with plastic. It all worked and continues to work for her. At her house, we hand wash everything, drying certain things in the dishwasher. No questions asked.
Keep on learning. My mother turns 79 this year and we continue to share food discoveries and knowledge. Years ago, she asked me about how to make tofu. It surprised me because I assumed that she knew the answer already. Responding to my mom led me on the journey to writing Asian Tofu but also many reminiscences and conversations. She regularly reads this blog (my dad prints out the posts) because she wants to stay engaged. If she has a comment, she lets me know by phone or email.
What invaluable cooking and life lessons has your mother taught you?