I am Miss Vu, a Vietnamese woman born and raised in Canada. My parents were refugees who escaped the Vietnam war on pirate ships. Growing up in North America with an extremely strict Vietnamese mother didn't often lead to common ground. We had a strenuous connection at best but my mother’s love always came in the form of food. I started prepping meals with her in the kitchen at the age of 7. Even though we were a poor immigrant family, we were always blessed to have such rich food to fill our stomachs, hearts, and minds.
When I moved out of the house at 16 to attend the University of Toronto I tried to recreate the flavours of my memory. The flavours of childhood love. No matter how many hours I slaved away, my food never tasted the way it did when my mother cooked it. I called her endlessly crying about wasted money, groceries, and time, asking what I had done wrong. How could I have spent my entire life cooking with her and still not be able to make the same dishes? She revealed that all along, when I prepped the meals, she finished them. There were secrets to her touch, and magic in cooking by feel. I hadn’t paid enough attention, and had yet to learn the secrets that lived in her hands.
After university I moved to Ireland for four and a half years. In desperate homesickness, I became obsessed with childhood memory food. I would scour the shelves of the only Asian grocer in town for anything reminiscent of my childhood and cook them over and over. I would research Vietnamese recipes and tweak them endlessly trying to recreate the specific flavour that reminded me of home. Over the years, my skill and attention to detail increased and the flavours got closer to the authenticity I yearned for, but I was still miles away from manifesting that special mother-made taste. I was never satisfied.
When I returned to Toronto I started spending more time with my mother. I begged her to teach me the finishing touches I was missing in my cooking, and year after year her reply was that I wasn't ready. Then one afternoon in the summer 2011 she visited my little apartment in Parkdale. I was taking a shower, and as I exited I saw her sneaking into my fridge to taste my leftovers. I didn’t move or mention anything, because I didn’t want to scare her off. Two weeks later she gave me a call and said “Janet, I think you are ready.” I squealed with delight. I knew exactly what she was referring to and it was like winning the family lottery!!!
It literally blows my mind how many recipes my mother has stored in memory. I cannot believe that off of the top of her head she can make over 50 dishes, each complex and nuanced in it’s own way. So uniquely different than the other. Real authentic home cooked Vietnamese food is so much more than Phở — it’s a rich palette of hundreds of dishes you will never find in a restaurant. It is food that you can only find in the home. So each month I would put together a menu of three to four dishes and we'd spend an entire day cooking together. We'd start by going to the market where she taught me how to pick ingredients for quality and flavour, then we'd prep and cook.
I obsessively documented the oral recipes in her half-English half-Vietnamese phrasing. We laughed at the hilarious metaphors she used to describe measurements. Rice bowls and drinking glasses for volume, fingers and parts of the hand for length (I often had to compare the size of my fingers to hers to make sure that I was getting the correct measurement of ingredients). After eating the first meal we prepared together, I cried. I finally captured the essence of the memory I was chasing for over two decades: the flavour of childhood love. I never had such a visceral reaction to taste! It was like inheriting the greatest gift I could have ever dreamed of. I was in awe of both my mother, and the opportunity to carry on her tradition. To be able to create the same kind of memories of taste in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of those I love.
Each month we met, it was more than just a sharing of recipes and history. It was healing. Between the chopping and cutting, sharing a kitchen bound us and gave us time to observe and relearn one another. It also started to transform the way that I cooked every day. I was using fewer recipes and more often I was cooking from memory and feel, even my non-Vietnamese dishes started shifting this way. Each new recipe that I learned from my mother allowed me to see that there were many patterned habits in Vietnamese cooking. Each type of animal bone was treated differently, boiled or washed a certain way, cut or cooked a different way. The same for spices and herbs. So if you had a specific dish that had a certain collection of ingredients, you very well could work off of memory because there was an invisible flow to the way of cooking. It was my most exciting discovery and when I started approaching food this way - it started tasting more and more like home.