May 2009

Learning to Cook with Bà Ngoại

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.

Family recipes:

Bánh Bột Lọc – Savory Tapioca Cakes
Bánh Giò – Steamed Minced Pork Cake
Bánh Mì Tôm Chiên – Shrimp Toasts
Bò Kho – Vietnamese Beef Stew
Cà Dê Nướng – Grilled Japanese Eggplant with Scallion Fish Sauce
Cà Ri Gà – Chicken Curry
Canh Chua Chay – Vegetarian Sour Soup
Cháo Chả – Porridge with Pork Sausage
Cơm Chiên – Fried Rice
Đậu Hũ Kho – Vegetarian Braised Tofu with Mushrooms and Tomatoes
Đậu Hủ Xả Ớt – Vegetarian Lemongrass Tofu
Mom’s Lollipop Fried Chicken
Phở Chay – Vegetarian Phở
Thịt Kho – Braised Pork with Eggs

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…”

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10 thoughts on “Learning to Cook with Bà Ngoại

  1. My grandmother can’t function in a kitchen — she was spoiled by having a chef! Oddly enough, however, my mom is a great cook…because she hung out with the chef when she was a little girl. 🙂

  2. Awww…I really loved this entry from beginning to end. Very well articulated and very much poetic! Reading this made me really miss my grandmother…she knew how to make banh cuon by hand and that’s REALLY hard to do! I think the key to Vietnamese cooking is patience and perfection, which I’m still trying to learn myself so I know exactly how you feel. I was totally craving banh duc today, but have no idea how to make it. Maybe one day…Thanks for sharing this entry though. It was perfect for Mother’s Day! 🙂

  3. hey there, can you tell me the name of the greens in the pot. is there an english name for them?

  4. Cathy,
    I love the part about the 4 “spices” to balance any dish. Fish sauce, salt, sugar, and pepper.

    The best analogy for asian cooking compared to North American cooking. specifically baking is…
    Our cooking is more of an art. A little of this, a little of that until it is just right.
    Where as North American is a science. Follow ingredients and instructions to a T and you will have end product.

  5. Oh, thank you for sharing this story. Your ba ngoai looks like an amazing woman and she’s passing down the tradition on to you! The spread really shows the love and passion she has for food, it’s making me so hungry and teary. I especially love stories like this and sharing the stories of those amazing individuals that inspire us.
    Your ba ngoai must be so proud of you!

  6. Man I can totally appreciate that sentiment in the first paragraph! I have just moved to Vietnam after growing up in the UK. I had no problem cooking English or any other dishes but just avoided cooking Vietnamese for ages. It’s strange psychology but I really don’t want to make a poor imitation of my mums cooking!

    Now I’m in Hanoi and I have to get to grips with Vietnamese ingredients…FAST! I’m gonna be working through all your recipes systematically over the next few weeks! Thank you for sharing you’re a lifesaver!

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