You may have seen this photo before on VWK or in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. That's me in the lower left, having a bad day. That aside, I was barely six when it was taken so I hadn’t started to really cook yet. However, I’d spent time in the kitchen with my mom and our cook, who would let me do simple things like operate the hand cranked meat grinder when they made pork liver pâté for banh mi. Then they’d let me disassemble it, which is how I learned that the grinding mechanisms were heavy, cold and sharp. That was Saigon in the early 1970s and we were among the lucky few to employ a cook and own appliances like a meat grinder and food processor.
When my family fled to the United States in 1975, my mom took over cooking for our family and my sisters and I became her helpers. I developed a thing for cooking and reading cookbooks. I watched my mom, listened to her conversations with friends, and made mental notes.
She was strict and I liked to slyly depart from her instructions. Mom must have had had eyes in the back of her head because with her back turned to me, she would sternly tell me to do what she told me to do. (I know she’s reading this post.)
I’m not a parent but I wonder if parents realize how much sinks in. The other day I had to purchase a bag of Mahatma rice for magazine story. That’s the supermarket brand of rice that my mom had to cook up when we first arrived in America. It’s so-so rice but reading the label reminded me of a slew of cooking lessons that my mom has taught me.
Wash rice before you cook it. The Mahatma packaging clearly tells cooks to NOT wash the grains before or after cooking them. Pshaw! Bah! No way! My mom made me wash rice 10 times, counting aloud each one, before I cooked it. She explained that washing raw rice not only gets rid of dirt bits (necessary in the old country) but also some of the starch that could make rice gummy and less vibrant tasting.
My oldest sister, who’s sort of a know-it-all, didn’t wash her rice for years. One day she asked my mom why Mom’s rice tasted so good. “I wash my rice,” mom said. Case closed.
Knives are important in the kitchen but so are scissors. Like many Viet women, my mom sews, actually well enough to have a professional tailoring business in the U.S. (She repeated mended a favorite jacket for Richard Nixon, who retired to San Clemente where we lived.) Mom knows the value of sharp scissors for clothing but also for food.
In the kitchen, she made us use scissors to neaten up herb sprigs, shell-on shrimp and other delicate ingredients. To cut up sizzling rice crepes (banh xeo), floppy pieces of grilled meat, or fried imperial rolls (cha gio), we used scissors. It was decades before I realized that many people use kitchen scissors for cutting poultry – which I tackle with a boning knife and cleaver.
Double-fry to resuscitate. My mom must have sensed something about my abilities that I didn’t know because she trusted me as a teenager to deep-fry chicken for our family’s dinner. She’d check on the chicken and if it wasn’t up to her crispy standards, she told me to reheat the oil and refry.
She regularly pre-fries then refries imperial rolls, which go limp quickly because they’re wrapped in rice paper. It totally does the trick to deliver crispy goodness to the table.
You can freeze many things. I think I’m the only one among my mom’s five children to have a deep-freezer. It was one of the must-have appliances on my list when we bought our home ten years ago. I may not be as diligent as my mom about moving frozen food through our eating rotation, but on a near-daily basis I go into the garage to put something into or take something out of the freezer.
Learn from others. My mom will be 81 years old this July. I've mentioned before that we regularly trade new discoveries. Last summer after returning from a trip to Virginia, I told my mom about how Southerners make delicious pickles from watermelon rind. “That is so smart,” she said with great interest. “We must learn from them.”
Mother’s Day comes around once a year but when I paused to take a look at what I do in the kitchen, I realize that I celebrate my mom every day.
Got a cooking insight that you learned from your mom or grandma? Share it with us so we can add it to our knowledge base!