As nice as it sounds to have all your meals prepared by excellent cooks who specialize in your favorite food — homemade VN food — after awhile you start to feel like a freeloader. I try to help my cousins in the kitchen but they usually shoo me away, insisting they’ve got it covered. All I’ve been able to do on a consistent basis is wash dishes, which I’m neither particularly good at nor fond of. More accurately, I’m too good at washing dishes, as in I’m too careful and thus too slow. I can’t stand the feel of oily dishes so I scrub carefully and sometimes re-wash two or three times. My pace is far too slow for any rinsing partner, and even when I’m on rinse duty my scrubbing partner will still outpace me. I especially dislike dishwashing in VN because I don’t feel like the dishes get really clean. I guess when you have to manually wash every single dish because automatic dishwashers are practically nonexistent, you adapt by speed-washing. It’s yet another fact of grossness for which I have to look the other way.
I’m happiest in the kitchen, and in general, when I’m cooking. One of the happiest moments of recent memory was when I was cooking at home as my husband worked nearby on his laptop and my kids played on the floor. I actually remember thinking to myself, “This is what happiness feels like. This is how I would define it.” I derive such pleasure from food, eating it, preparing it, serving it to people I love, that cooking is hardly ever a chore. Because I enjoy cooking and haven’t had much opportunity to do it since I’ve been in VN, and because my female cousins never get a break from doing it, I volunteered to buy ingredients and make lunch for my uncle’s family. A simple proposition, right? My mother had misgivings from the start. She worried that we wouldn’t know what and how to buy at the local market, which was very different from an American grocery store. She worried that our VN relatives weren’t accustomed to our American portions or style of cooking. I brushed aside her concerns. For crying out loud, I wanted to say, it’s just lunch, not the end of the world. I decided to make what I considered an easy, straightforward meal: cubes of beef marinated in garlic and soy sauce, flash fried in butter and served with a simple green salad tossed with onions, tomatoes, and a lime juice and olive oil vinaigrette. I chose beef fried in butter because it’s a crowd-pleaser and I observed over the course of several weeks that beef was never served. Fish was the primary fare the vast majority of the time, while chicken and pork were served sparingly. At the market I realized why; the price of beef was astronomical compared to other foods. A cousin who was a regular at the market accompanied me so there was no risk of getting ripped off. Even so, our grocery bill for the day was triple of what the family averaged.
I went to work as soon as we got home. I cubed the beef against the grain and mixed it with plenty of minced garlic and shallots. I added soy sauce and oyster sauce, a liberal sprinkle of cracked pepper and a few splashes of sesame oil and combined everything until it smelled familiarly fragrant. I made this meal at home so many times I could do it in my sleep. I soaked thick slices of white onions in lime juice, sugar, salt, pepper, and more sesame oil. When it was almost time to fry the beef, I scooped the slightly pickled onions into a vat of freshly washed lettuce leaves and whisked olive oil and soy sauce into the lime juice concoction to make a dressing. As I lightly tossed the lettuce with the dressing, the leaves started to wilt in my hands. Was it the heat or humidity? Was VN lettuce wimpier than what I was used to? By the time I plated three serving trays with the dressed salad, the lettuce had completely lost all will to live. Even obscured by slices of bright red tomatoes, the salad looked pathetic. I started to get nervous. I heated the wok for a long time because I knew the key to saving the meal was to fry the beef in a screaming hot pan. Unfortunately I realized for the first time that the fire on the burner remained fairly low even on the highest setting. On my stove at home it would have constituted a medium low fire. My heart was pounding as I added oil and waited to add scoops of margarine (butter was nowhere to be found at the market). I whispered a little prayer to the kitchen gods as I spilled the marinated beef into the wok, hoping against all odds to get a good sear. Surrounded by my cousins, I felt their expert eyes watching the American girl fumble clumsily around their kitchen. In my own kitchen I’m completely at ease, know where everything is and exactly what to do, move and work confidently. Being watched by superior cooks in a foreign kitchen was so nerve-racking that it was difficult to suppress the trembling in my fingers. When the beef hit the wok, hot oil and melted margarine splattered my hands. I pretended nothing happened to cover up my rookie mistake. After the initial sizzle, the meat started to purr and sweat, which was the opposite of what I wanted it to do. I knew I was doomed, even before I tested a slice. It smelled good and was properly seasoned but the consistency was rubbery and tough. I couldn’t afford to over-fry the beef, which would make it even tougher, so I scooped the limp, gray slices onto platters of soggy salad. After enjoying so many incredible meals at my uncle’s table I was humiliated to serve such an inferior dish. Was it my imagination or did more family members appear at lunch than usual? I wanted to run away and hide, rather than sitting through the meal, picking at a half bowl of rice and eating as little as possible of the ruined meat, my face burning in shame as family members offered words of comfort and consolation, as if I had needlessly sacrificed a cow, which is essentially what I did. To my mother’s credit, even though she ended up being justified in her apprehensions, she didn’t rub it in with innuendos of “I told you so” but instead tried to defend my failure. She explained how meat in the U.S. was so much more tender than in VN and how we were used to cooking at higher levels of heat. She scolded the cousin who shopped with me for not selecting the right cut of meat and criticized the inadequacy of the stove burner. I usually hate it when my mother is right but in this instance she handled it as graciously as I could have hoped for.
Even the side dish I prepared, a foolproof omelet of duck eggs stirred with fermented bean curd, soy sauce, scallions and pepper, was a flop. It was another simple dish I liked to make at home (with chicken rather than duck eggs) to eat with rice. One cousin cautioned me not to make too much because she wasn’t sure if the family would like it since no one had cooked bean curd with eggs before. Out of nervousness and insecurity, I reduced the amount of bean curd. The same cousin who cautioned me about preparing too much whispered to another cousin that my omelet was bland. It was so disheartening to hear how I had mismanaged eggs, the lowest form of cooking. I’m not sure if I have the courage to attempt another meal in my uncle’s kitchen, but if I don’t I’ll never redeem myself and be forever remembered as an incompetent cook. Until I decide what to do, I’ll be nursing my wounds – three burned fingers, a sliced thumb, and a bruised ego.