While I love cooking very much now, my foray into it was unconventional. Most women probably spent their childhood watching their mother or grandmother in the kitchen picking up tidbits here and there, maybe an occasional recipe. Others probably received hands on training from their mothers showing them how to chop ingredients and the appropriate flavor profiles for each dish. If neither of those scenarios happened, then they likely are self taught from various public mediums such as the food network, blogs, etc.
I learned how to cook a lot of non-Vietnamese dishes through recipe books, but my Vietnamese cooking started when I was in sixth grade over the phone.
When I was in sixth grade, many of my 11 year old classmates were probably on the phone with their friends or playing outside after school (something the youths of today probably wouldn’t understand). Both of my parents had full time jobs, and we often ate dinner at a fairly early hour – usually around 6:30. We lived in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston, which meant my mom’s drive could range anywhere from 30 minutes to over a hour depending on traffic. Because of that, one day she called home after I’d returned from school and told me she needed me to cook dinner. By that point, I’d already been cooking rice for dinner. It wasn’t hard. (How hard was it to cook rice? You washed some rice in the pot, covered it with water, and then pressed cook. If you messed that up, you really had no business in the kitchen.) I remember the conversation. I told her I didn’t know how to cook anything, and she said it was easy. She’d tell me how to make it over the phone.
Now, if you’ve got one of those awesome moms or aunts or grandmas that know how to cook a lot of stuff, you know they cook by taste. There’s no such thing as “add 2 tablespoons of X.” It’s more “add about half a bowl of X and then add more if you think it doesn’t taste right.” You’re left wondering, ok what size bowl? Half like half of the bowl visually or half like volumetric? If you’re using fish sauce and you add too much, how do you fix that? Then there are times she really doesn’t know how much to add because she adds fish sauce directly from the bottle to the broth, so she’s just pulling an estimate from thin air. But we ate the same types of food every day at home so I already knew how each dish was supposed to taste.
So here I was, 11 years old in the kitchen wielding a big 8″ chef’s knife chopping vegetables and meat to cook dinner. How many of you reading this would trust your 11 year old to cut up the ingredients for dinner? My instructions were things like “ok on the bok choy, you want to cut it about 1″ long pieces and with the beef, try to slice it as thin as possible. Cut up the tomatoes into small pieces and then chop the cilantro into really tiny sections to put on top of the stir fry.” I’d stand there thinking “ok I got the bok choy. What did she mean by cutting up the tomatoes into small pieces?” Luckily, when you eat the same types of food every day, you remember what the dish looks like, so I went off of memory and got to work. Some dishes were harder than others to learn over the phone, especially ones that require special sauces to be made, etc but every day I learned more and more and got the practice I needed to become comfortable in the kitchen. My mom, and to a lesser extent my dad, still cooked on the weekends, so I used that time to learn other dishes that we wouldn’t normally cook during the week.
If Master Chef Jr was a show back then, I wonder if I would’ve stood a chance.