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.
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.)
Cook by connecting
the dots. When we came to the U.S., my parents had to start over. Preparing
good Viet food was not easy in 1975. But my mother perused American supermarkets
to find ingredients that were the same or nearly the same as what she’d used in
Vietnam. For example, she knew enough about pig anatomy to surmise the
difference between pork shoulder/butt and pork picnic cuts. Rich tasting salmon
was similar to a type of fish she’d salt and marinate in Vietnam so devised a terrific
lemongrass salmon. My mom wasn’t afraid to ponder and ask questions. After
all, our family’s food was at stake.
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!”
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
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.
cooking and life lessons has your mother taught you?