When I recall a food memory, I picture grandma moving about the kitchen.
I am not often nostalgic but when I think of cooking, my grandma comes to mind. My cooking skills come from watching her cook and tasting her food. One of the things I learned from watching my grandma cook is preparing garlic. I think a lot of people are surprised by this. Instead of peeling garlic, she just mashed it. This is one of the things I picked up by absorption, osmosis! No lessons. I think the other thing that influences my cooking is that I never saw Grandma measure anything. So of course when I cook, I just taste for the flavor. I’m just throwing stuff in. I developed the habit of not measuring anything. My food never tastes the same twice!
I’ve gotten to the point of just mashing ingredients with a mortar and pestle! This way I get to macerate stuff. I do love the combination of coconut oil, turmeric, ginger and garlic. Then I’ll throw in whatever…vegetables, meat, eggs. This is Chi cooking. I try to cook with recipes and it always drives me nuts being confined to measuring. Maybe I’m not fond of baking because of this. I know my aunt bakes quite a bit, but my grandma never did, so I don’t think it ever caught on for me.
I hear the sizzling of garlic as it hits the hot oil. I smell cooked garlic. A savory fragrance fills the kitchen. The smell and sound of food simmering and sizzling makes me feel warm.
I can’t say that my cooking is exactly Vietnamese but fish sauce is a staple. When I cooked with fish sauce in the past, which is also how my family cooks with it, I put the sauce in while I am cooking. But some years later, I was given some pointers on cooking with fish sauce. She said when you season with fish sauce, you wait until you’re finished cooking to season with it, this way it doesn’t stink up your house! It is very salty, so if you’re frying with it, then you only use a little bit, but if you are stewing something then you should use a lot more. You want to cook with the fish sauce in the beginning to get the flavor soaked into the meat.
One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes is this family style dish with thinly sliced pork belly cooked with fermented shrimp paste and some sugar. It is really tasty. Salty and a bit of sweetness. I’ve tried to duplicate it, but haven’t gotten it quite right yet.
Grandma chopping, adding ingredients, stirring. No measuring. This is how I also cook. Just adding ingredients.
My family normally cooks in big portions at a time, which means we end up eating the same dish for a whole week. My family was very poor. I recall the simple yet yummy flavor of soy sauce cooked with lard and sprinkled over white rice. Such a simple meal, but so good. Steamed vegetables dipped in a salty sauce made of fish sauce, garlic, black pepper and sugar. Food does not need to be complicated. Food is made to be shared and made to be tasty!
[ Chi Nguyen is photographed in her home in Chicago, Illinois on 120mm film. ]