I’m a wuss when it comes to preparing Vietnamese foods from scratch. The fear of slaving over a meal that only vaguely resembles the homey dishes that I grew up on is overwhelming enough to send me running to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant.
When I cook Vietnamese food, I want nothing more than for it to taste like my Bà Ngoại (maternal grandmother) made it. If my seasonings are off or the texture isn’t just right, I consider the effort a big ‘ol failure.
For the past two years, I have been trying to get over my complex by learning how to prepare my family’s favorite recipes with Bà Ngoại.
Whenever I’m in San Diego for vacation or just a short visit, I pencil in an afternoon where I can soak in her culinary know-how. Sure, there are countless Vietnamese recipes online and in cookbooks, but what I strive for is the taste of home; in this regard only a tutorial from grandma will do.
Our lessons usually begin with a trip to a bustling Vietnamese grocery store. I love how demanding and picky she is when it comes to buying meat, fish, and produce. The men behind the counter know to only sell the best cuts to Bà Ngoại, lest they want to see her evil eye.
With our bounty in tow, we drive back to her home and start prepping and cooking. Like a lot of Asian grandmothers, Bà Ngoại cooks by feel. She doesn’t think in terms of tablespoons or cups, she just gracefully reaches into her pantry (and arsenal of experiences) for whatever seasonings will make the dish ‘just right.’ Bà Ngoại has taught me the power of nuoc mam (fish sauce), salt, sugar, and pepper. These four simple ingredients bring about incredible depth of flavor with minimal effort.
With each informal lesson, my confidence as a Vietnamese cook gets a boost. There’s a certain rhythm to Vietnamese cooking that’s starting to come naturally with each effort—sauté, season, braise, rest. Learning to cook with Bà Ngoại has demystified Vietnamese food for me, thus making it more accessible and much less intimidating. I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of dishes I want to learn how to prepare, but with my grandmother’s basic tips and crafty tricks in hand; I know that I can master the art of Vietnamese cooking.
This piece was originally published on Pat Tanumihardja’s Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook website as part of a monthly guest column titled, “In the Kitchen with…”