LESSON TWO: ‘DID YOU TASTE IT?’: From time to time I forget to just simply taste. An action seemingly obvious but not when dreams for an ambitious dish overwhelm the task at hand. Mum taught me everything by sight, sound and taste. So for me, this lesson is very much about mastering the skill of cooking a dish with your natural human senses.
LESSON FOUR: MORE THAN ENOUGH Growing up in a Vietnamese family of five, every meal was served family style. Each person armed with a single bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks would pile on samples from the dishes of their choosing. Mum would always cook more than enough so that everyone was well fed, even if surprise guests paid a visit, there would be ample amounts to go around. But her genius in making more than enough was solely for the purpose of leftovers. She is a mother of three with a husband who loves his food. This was her plan of attack. In our home, nothing went to waste. Whether it became lunch, dinner or you couldn’t wait so you had it for breakfast, she always had this down to an art and her creativity is what kept food exciting. This kind of forward thinking is what makes me love her. Because of that, more than enough always became just the right amount.
Anyone who knows me will know that my mum, Thi Ngoc Dung Tran is the reason for my love of cooking and food. Ever since I was young, I spent days in the kitchen with her, folding hundreds of Spring rolls for a family gathering or waiting (with her beside me) for the right time to scoop out the spice pouch from a pot of Pho broth. These memories, a huge bounty of lessons and recipes, are what I return to whenever I cook today.
LESSON ONE: USE YOUR HANDS Mum would always stress that using bare hands was the only way to really cook. And she was referring to knowing your ingredient. How much rice? How much water? Is the chicken ready? Is the beef tender? All these questions can be answered with a simple prod, squeeze and touch. Many times with lack of utensils this skill has proved to be my best tool. Moreover, I’ve found it to be a great lesson in understanding how food should feel.
LESSON THREE: FAILURE IS KEY When something came to the table that Mum was unhappy with, it would be written all over her face. Failure is key and let me assure you that countless failures are what brought me here today. Trial and error is ultimately what seasons your palette and you never forget when you have stuffed up. I learnt this from watching her obsess over how she would change it here or fix it there. And I still admire her for this today.
LESSON FIVE : NEVER SPILL THE FISH SAUCE! Not only because it would leave the house reeking of fermented fish but also because just don’t! I remember when I was ten; Mum asked me to grab a bottle of fish sauce from the cupboard with very clear instructions to use both hands. (Here is a family anecdote: My parents would keep fish sauce as sacred as wine. They bought cases upon cases of their favourite kind, priding themselves in purchases as old as ten years and were convinced that each bottle got better with age.) Being young and totally unconcerned of her very specific request, I used one hand to grab the bottle and misjudged its weight. Of course it smashed into pieces and the entire contents splayed all over our kitchen floor and on me. I hid. Yanked out of my stoop by ear, I was led to admit to the scene of my crime. I was well and truly in trouble. Though, I realised later that the breakage never really mattered; what mattered was the value of this flavour that my parents spent time nurturing. In that instant I felt the same love they had for food and this love took time, care and carefulness. Now I keep one or two bottles just as they would, hoping it would appreciate in value over time. As for that bottle lost to the floor, it stuck around only by way of smell…for many days after.
LESSON SIX: TRY EVERYTHING ONCE To this day, the best lesson I will ever learn is to give everything a try. I grew up with a very cheeky Dad who would make us try things like pigs’ brain, livers and frogs’ legs while he chuckled at our dismay. We use to travel a lot as a family so for him, it was a way of preparing us for everything and anything. Now, the offer of a new experience exhilarates me, and if it has anything to do with food, I’m always the first to raise my hand.
Everyday I am reminded of who I am because of moments we shared in our Vietnamese kitchen. And if you ever get to taste the food of our home, you’ll too get to see the life in a cuisine that both my parents imparted in us.