The assignment: extract a recipe and food story from our family and cultural heritage.
I had a lot of options when it came time to start thinking about what I wanted to make for our final Green Media project. My family is fully Vietnamese on both sides of my family and my mom cooked Vietnamese meals. At some point in my childhood, however, I got picky with my food. Anything involving seafood and many varieties of greens were unappetizing to me; cheeseburgers, pizza, and pasta were more my speed. I’ve had several people in and outside my family comment on my food preferences and how my distaste for some traditional Asian ingredients and flavors somehow made me less Vietnamese. That pissed me off. Who were they to tell me that I wasn’t attuned to my heritage simply because my palate was different from their own? I was born and raised in America; it’s perfectly reasonable that my tastes aligned with the norms of the culture I grew up in. Western foods may be what I like to eat, but Vietnamese food is still what comes to my mind when I think of my home, my family, and dinner on the table. When I explained the assignment to my mom and asked her what she thought I should make, she immediately said, “Đậu hũ sốt cà,” or fried tofu and tomato sauce. She knew it was my favorite and I knew I could handle making it. My mind was made up.
Unlike Mother, Unlike Daughter
My mom and I grew up in completely different political, social, economic, and geographical environments. As an only child growing up in a nice house in a nice city in the Land of the Free, I sometimes forget that the person who created my life was one of nine siblings and grew up in impoverished, war-stricken Vietnam. Sometimes she’ll tell stories about being hungry and afraid of what was going on out there, but she’ll tell them so casually that it takes me awhile to realize that I can’t even imagine witnessing the situations she’s described, let alone experiencing them firsthand. I can’t imagine being excited about splitting a single orange with eight brothers and sisters. I’ll finish one orange slice in about two bites and think nothing of it; to them, however, it was a rare treat to be consumed and enjoyed slowly. I can’t imagine feeling responsible for multiple younger siblings and working to help support my family. I can’t even fathom being my grandparents struggling to try to feed their family. They made do with what was available; when you’re trying to feed 11 mouths in Vietnam, you look for what’s filling, yet affordable. Tofu, tomatoes, and rice were easy to come by, so that dish was served pretty frequently.
It’s funny that one of my favorite comfort foods was originally a dish that was cheap and easy to cook. I remember having it at least once every week or every other week when I was growing up. I didn’t get to have it as much once I got to college, but nearly every time I went home to visit my mom would make it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen fried tofu and sautéed tomatoes on a restaurant menu—a peasant food tofu dish doesn’t exactly scream am exotic and exciting dining experience—but nearly everyone in my extended family, on both my mom and dad’s sides, knows what it is and how to make it. It was a family staple then and it continues to be one now. It’s right that I learn to make it for myself now even though chances are it’ll never live up to how mom makes it. This isn’t some sort of rite of passage or established tradition I’m learning; this is me learning how to cook something that I love to eat.
Recipe-less in America
I’ve never spent this much time thinking about tofu before. It’s easy to understand why people have a love/hate relationship with it—tofu is healthy and vegetarian, but in its unedited state, it’s a mouthful of bland, watery, and spongy…blah (in my opinion, anyway). Even if you’ve got some tasty toppings to go with the tofu, you still need a certain proportion of topping to tofu before you’re back to the bland, watery, and spongy blah. Even though I’ve never had fried tofu and sautéed tomato at a restaurant before, but I have had in other dishes and they have always paled in comparison to my mom’s. Everyone else’s suffers from BWSB syndrome. Mom’s tofu tastes different. It tastes better.
When my mom was growing up, her mother sautéed the tomatoes with onions and then added salt and water before putting the tofu in. The main difference between what she had then and what she makes now is chicken broth. “Now that we’re in America and we can afford it, chicken broth makes it taste better and heartier.” She explained that what my grandmother cooked was quick and had good flavor, but not enough to satisfy her. She figured that if she replaced the water with chicken broth and upped the cook time, it would taste better. She was right. By letting the tofu sit in the tomato and chicken broth mixture on low heat, the liquid would be reduced and the tofu would have more time to absorb the flavors. It’s strange to me to consider something as simple and typical as chicken broth as a luxury cooking ingredient. Now that I think about it, I do remember one time when my mom made this dish with water instead of chicken broth and the taste was definitely different (it was during Lent and meat and meat products were forbidden on Fridays). My mom also hates onions, so she omitted those. But she said that onions were supposed to be a part of the dish for color. “You get the red from the tomato, yellow from the fried tofu, and green from the onions. We may have been poor, but when you put all of those colors on rice in a white bowl, it’s prettier to look at and enjoy eating.” (Sound familiar? See Kelly’s post.)
In the early 80s, my mom and her youngest brother fled Vietnam and literally risked everything in the hopes of creating better futures for themselves. They were fortunate to find a caring American family, the Weisshahns, who welcomed them into their homes and helped them acculturate to their new surroundings. It was with them that my mom learned to speak English and eat pizza and all sorts of other “American” foods. (I won’t even go into detail about the mystery that was dairy products.) Despite all of this, my mom continued to cook the Vietnamese meals that she learned from her mother—no written recipes, just tastes and memory. With all the new ingredients now available to her, she tweaked some of the dishes here and there until she got the flavors she wanted.
To this day she still doesn’t have any of her recipes written down, yet she’s able to replicate the same tastes nearly every time. This is so impressive to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: My mom and I have vastly different approaches to cooking. I’m a baker at heart and the thought of not having exact measurements for ingredients freaks me out. I’m slowly starting to learn that some things will come easier once you’ve done it enough times, sort of like muscle memory but with your senses of smell and taste. I’m also learning that you can change or improvise flavors if they’re not to your liking. (That is unless you’ve gone too salty, in which case you’re screwed, but maybe I just haven’t leveled up to that yet.)
After enough pestering, I finally got my mom to write down the recipe for me on some stationary we keep by the phone. Being the awesome mom that she is, she knew of my penchant for exact measurements and tried to the best of her ability to give me some estimates. Close enough. My translation is below. It’s as word-for-word as I could so you could see how simple and concise it is.
"fried tofu and tomato sauce
1 teaspoon oil, sliced tomato into pan sauté for color, after that pour chicken broth, fish sauce, tofu already fried, boil, after that reduce heat and it’s good when liquid is reduced. Remember to turn the tofu over evenly so that it will absorb the fish sauce to be good.”
Making Tofu and Tomatoes for Green Media
As I mentioned before, tofu, tomatoes, and rice were affordable options in Vietnam. As it turns out, they’re affordable options in America as well! Here’s the cost breakdown for my three main ingredients:
As you can see from this, chicken broth is indeed the “luxury” ingredient. I picked up the tomatoes from New Lien Hing Supermarket on Clement and the tofu and tomatoes from Hiep Thanh Food Market Co. in Little Saigon. I already had rice, oil for frying, and soy sauce (in lieu of fish sauce) at home, so I was good to go.
I sliced the pieces of tofu into four each and fried them in a large pan in just enough oil for the outsides to become a golden yellow. Unfortunately, I’m not well-versed in the art of tofu-pan-frying, so I overcooked them slightly (the outsides are a bit tough and chewy now; whoops) and my USF t-shirt that I’ve had since the first day of freshman year is now covered in oil splatters. Note for next time: Wear an apron. My mom told me that the reason the tofu needs to be fried is so they can retain their shape; once the rest of the ingredients are stirred in, un-fried tofu would fall apart. After removing the tofu from the pan, I cut the tomatoes into thin slices and cooked them over medium heat with a little bit of oil until they were soft and had all but liquefied. (Since my mom doesn’t use onions, I didn’t either. Her tastes are what I’m used to.) I then added the chicken broth, some soy sauce to taste, and the tofu. After bringing the liquid to a boil, I put the heat on simmer and turned the tofu pieces over every once in awhile until the chicken broth was reduced. I cooked some rice to go with it and it was done! With the exception of the overdone tofu, I think I got pretty close to my mom’s flavor-wise. I think she’d be proud.
It’s cool that I’ll get to bring this to class for 14 people to try; it’s a close parallel to the 11 from my mom’s family. It’s amazing that $2.55 and some ordinary ingredients I already had at home can feed the entire class (even though it’s only a few bites per person). I’m happy that I completed this particular project now, especially as we’re approaching Mother’s Day. It gave me a chance to truly reflect on my culture and what my mom experienced before me. I didn’t just learn how to cook my favorite Vietnamese dish; I gained valuable insight in to the life of a person so close to me but so different from my own. For that, I’m grateful.
*To see more photos, check out my Heritage project set on Flickr.
*Originally posted at http://greenmediasf.wordpress.com.
Sunday, April 1, 2012:
5:30am (EDT): Wakeup call in Cleveland, Ohio. My direct flight back to San Francisco is supposed to leave at 7:30am. Key word supposed.
6:45am (EDT): Standing in the airport and staring in disbelief at the board that says my flight has been canceled. April Fools!…Not. I’ve already gone through security. Argh. Apparently I’ve been rebooked for a flight that will leave at 6:30pm. Since waiting around in Cleveland’s “lovely” airport for an additional 12 hours is just not acceptable, I go to stand in line in the United Airlines customer service area. No disrespect, but airline customer service must be one of the worst jobs ever. Luckily, I get rebooked for something much sooner.
8:00am (EDT): Hop on an express jet to Chicago, Illinois. My, the wings on this plane look small…
8:15am (CDT): Arrive at O’Hare International Airport. The time change freaks me out a little bit, but that’s probably because I’m still really sleepy a tiny bit cranky.
10:29am (CDT): Hop on a big ol’ plane to San Francisco. I try to stay awake because the in-flight movie is Hugo, but I fall asleep halfway through. I wake up to a documentary about laughing monkeys.
12:45pm (PDT): Arrive back at SFO and pleased to see sunshine.
1:30pm (PDT): Schlep my way onto BART and head for the Civic Center where I know that my only option for farmers markets on a Sunday afternoon would be.
2:00pm (PDT): Arrive at the farmers market. I notice right away was the difference in size and diversity of the stalls from the market on Fillmore Street that I had gone to last week. There were many more vendors and varieties of food to choose from. Several tables have green leafy bunches with yellow blossoms and I wonder what they are. After hearing snippets of Vietnamese from one unmarked and unnamed table containing various herbs and greens traditionally used in Asian cooking, I decide to stop in and ask the woman there about them. My strategy: talk to this woman in Vietnamese just in case I end up having to call and ask my mom later about any words or cooking methods. Normally cooking terms and ingredients get lost in translation when I try to go from English to Vietnamese, so I figured I’d just skip a step and save some time. (Luckily I didn’t have to call her for anything.)
The lady told me it was Chinese broccoli, aka rau cải làn in Vietnamese, aka kai-lan in Chinese. No wonder I didn’t recognize it; my family isn’t big on Chinese cuisine. I ask her what the best way to prepare it is and she suggests either stir-fried with beef and garlic or simply steamed and eaten with soy sauce or oyster sauce. She then shows me how to tell which bunch would be the best: less flowers (a sign of freshness) and white at the bottom of the stems. Before taking my $1 for the bunch, she tells me that everything was homegrown from her place in Sacramento, California.
3:00pm (PDT): Arrive back at my house. Must resist urge to fall facedown into bed and sleep.
5:00pm (PDT): Take a baggie of frozen, pre-marinated beef my mom sent me back to San Francisco with after spring break and let it thaw in a bowl of water. At some point I Google “Chinese broccoli” to look for more specific cooking instructions and I find this. Perfect.
6:00pm (PDT): It’s Palm Sunday. Time for mass at St. Ignatius Church.
9:30pm (PDT): It’s going to be a late dinner. Since I’m out of rice (I used up the last of it from the last assignment), I’m glad to see that the blogger says any noodle would be suitable; thus I go with fettuccini.
With the Chinese broccoli, I use a trick my mom had taught me when I helped her in the kitchen with stemmed greens: rather than cutting off the ends with a knife, just bend the stalk and find the point where it easily snaps like a twig. This way, you won’t be left with the tough parts that aren’t fun to eat.
While the pasta is cooking, I cook the thawed beef in a pan over medium heat until it’s cooked all the way through. I remove the beef and add a bit of oil and teriyaki sauce (in lieu of oyster sauce). I add the Chinese broccoli, a little bit of water, and cook them over medium heat. I turn the greens over and over (I couldn’t find a lid big enough to steam them properly) until they look green and esculent. The knife cuts through the stem easily, so I know it’s done.
10:00pm (PDT): Turn on Mad Men and try my dinner. I don’t have a problem with the way it tastes, but I quickly realize that I don’t like the stalks. I’m beginning to see a trend in my vegetable preferences: fleshy and watery stems or roots that go completely limp after cooking are not for me (I’m talking to you, bean sprouts). See you later, stalks.
Overall, I’m glad that I’ve learned how to make a new dish, but it’s not something that is going to make its way into my dinner rotation. The search for vegetables I will like continues!
*Originally published at http://greenmediasf.wordpress.com.
Rainy days are normally reserved for sleeping in late, curling up to watch a movie, and…a trip to the farmers market?
Well, I actually did get to sleep in. Last Saturday morning, I woke up around 10:30am before pulling on my rain boots and grabbing an umbrella for my trip to the market on Fillmore Street. I arrived around noon and saw a few stalls with quiet customers here and there. I’m used to seeing farmers markets abuzz with noise and crowds; I’m not sure if it was because of the rain or because it was just winding down (closing time was at 1pm), but the low turnout for this one was almost as dreary as the weather. As I made a preliminary scan of what was available, someone handed me a slice of apple to sample. It tasted nice.
Many of the vegetables being sold at the market were ones that I had seen before but had either never tasted or would never be able to name. My knowledge of veggies is limited to what my mom cooks, and even then I don’t always eat everything she makes. I eventually decided to duck under the canopy of a stall that had attracted a few other patrons: Garcia Farms. After one of the vendors said hello, I explained that my task was to cook something I had never cooked before and asked if he had any suggestions. “My favorite is when my mom does the Brussels sprouts with bacon. It’s simple—just season with some salt and pepper. It’s great.” I’d never had Brussels sprouts before, but nothing can be bad if it includes bacon, right? It seemed like something I could handle, so I asked if he could tell me how they are prepared and cooked. “I don’t really do the cooking, I just do the eating,” he said with a slight laugh. “Sorry.” Our conversation was cut short when someone else came along to ask him a question and pay for their items, so I didn’t get a chance to get his name. Not knowing how to pick Brussels sprouts, I just went with the ones that didn’t have any brown spots or mysterious markings. The sprouts I picked were weighed and I paid a whopping $1.50 for them. I found out from the other vendor that Garcia Farms is located not too far away in Hollister. Unfortunately he didn’t seem too keen on having a conversation by the way he answered quickly and diverted his eyes, so I left after that.
After I got home, I did a Google search for “Brussels Sprouts and bacon.” (BTW, it took several reads before I realized that it’s spelled Brussels with an s at the end like the city in Belgium. Here’s some history behind the name if you’re interested.) I clicked on a few recipes from Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart, but they didn’t seem like what the vendor had described as one of his favorite dishes. I finally found a recipe for sautéed Brussels sprouts with bacon that sounded right on a blog called The Nourishing Gourmet. I was so grateful to see that the steps looked doable and that so many of the comments for it were positive.
At some point, my mom called and I told her about what I was going to make. “Are Brussels sprouts the ones that look like tiny cabbages?” Oh, mom. She’s so cute.
That evening as I reread the recipe and got ready to cook, I decided to make some rice as a backup just in case it turned out that I hated Brussels sprouts. This was completely reasonable in my mind; weren’t Brussels sprouts one of those foods that made kids on TV groan miserably when their moms served it? Then they would try to sneak it to the dog under the table but even the dog was smart enough not to get too close to them. What in the world had I done?! Then I turned on the TV and the Lion King was on. I wasn’t curling up on the couch to watch it, but it is my favorite Disney movie so all was okay in my world again.
I had a small “What do I do?” moment with the first step in the recipe. It said to shred (haha, poetry) the Brussels sprouts thinly. Sounded simple enough until I had the knife in my hand and didn’t know which direction I was supposed to cut them. Ah what the heck, I thought. I’ll just do it both ways. Next I pan-fried four slices of bacon. In retrospect I really only needed two or three, but my suggestion for anyone is to fry some extra because bacon is delicious and chances are you’ll run low as you snack while waiting for the Brussels sprouts to cook. I spooned out the bacon grease as they cooked in order for them to be crispy, but returned some of it to the pan in order to sauté the sprouts. As they cooked over medium heat, they turned a nice, deep green, which signified that it was esculent. I added salt and pepper to taste and crumbled the (remaining) bacon on top.
The moment of truth finally came and I took a bite. “Not too bad,” I thought. But it was missing something…Turns out it was a good call to make the rice. Having it with the rice helped balance the meal and the flavors for me. I finished my dinner watching the rest of the Lion King. I could probably write something about how my achievement of cooking a new vegetable mirrored Simba’s journey back to Pride Rock (he reclaimed the throne IN THE RAIN!), but that would just be silly.
All jokes aside, I’ll admit that this assignment was a little daunting to me at first. However, after successfully cooking this dish, I think I’m more ready to experiment with my tastes and try my hand at more recipes. If Simba can learn to eat grubs, then I can learn to eat more vegetables. I just need to let go of the notion that any “failed” attempts are wasteful of time and resources; they are a part of the learning and growing process. As they say in the movie, Hakuna Matata!
Here are the directions from the blog The Nourishing Gourmet:
Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon Serves 4-5
1 to 1 1/2 pounds of brussels sprouts, any faded or browned leaves taken off, cut off any hard stems.
4-6 bacon slices
Unrefined Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
1. Using a mandoline, food processor or sharp knife, shred the brussels sprouts thinly.
2. Fry the bacon over medium heat, in a large saucepan until browned and cooked through Remove from pan. Leave about 2 tablespoons of bacon grease in the pan.
3. Add the shredded brussels sprouts to the pan and cook over medium-high heat until it reaches the desired texture and flavor. Sprinkle with unrefined salt. I recommend either cooking for just a couple of minutes and taking off the heat when they are just turning bright green and still have a bit of firmness. Or, I recommend cooking them longer until they are limp and starting to brown.
4. Season to taste with salt and pepper and crumble the bacon over before serving. Enjoy!
Our assignment for Green Media this week was to check out a recipe/cookbook from Gleeson Library and make one of the dishes. While standing by the stacks on the third floor, one giant book with the word “CHOCOLATE” on the spine caught my attention right away and I made a beeline for it. Although I eventually put that one back, the books next to it piqued my interest. I eventually chose the Ghirardelli Original Second Edition Chocolate Cookbook.
The Ghirardelli book, published in 1983 (and autographed by the author!) was interesting in that it had recipes for a variety of sweet and savory dishes, including entrees. All of them included some amount of a Ghirardelli chocolate ingredient in it, whether it was chocolate chips or ground cocoa. One thing that struck me in the book’s introduction was a sentence about how an “unfettered” imagination” can inspire people to cook and experiment with unimaginable flavor combinations to create delicious dishes. This cookbook combined science and art and I thought that was fascinating. Nearly all of the recipes were named after a part of San Francisco. It was fun turning the pages and being able to recognize the neighborhoods and points and the recipes associated to them. From North Beach Spaghetti Sauce to Haight-Ashbury Granola Cookies, this book looked like it covered it all.
As I said, it’s fun being able to recognize the places these recipes mentioned. This was one of the main reasons for why I chose the recipe I did. The recipe I chose was…*drumroll*… Lone Mt. Chocolate Peanut Treasures.
Let’s deconstruct that for a minute.
There it was on page 111. It was like fate. Here’s the recipe below:
Lone Mt. Chocolate Peanut Treasures
*I stopped by the Ghirardelli store near Union Square last Friday to see what chocolate wafers were (and to get my hands on a free sample), and they just looked like really big versions of chocolate chips, except they went for $17. My reaction: What the heck?!?! Since that’s an absurd amount of money to pay for giant chocolate chips, I decided to forgo the chocolate wafers. I looked into the price of the chocolate chips there too, but they were even higher than what I had seen them for at a local grocery store. Normally I just ignore it when recipes call for a specific brand of chocolate and just use whatever I have on hand, but this time I decided to at least stay true to Ghirardelli. I got a bag of regular chocolate chips at Luckys and figured 3 or 4 chocolate chips would be about the same amount as one chocolate wafer. Problem solved.
The first few instructions were pretty straightforward: Combine the wet ingredients (butter, peanut butter, egg) with the sugar; stir in the flour and baking soda; chill for one hour. Afterwards, I enclosed 3 to 4 chocolate chips in a teaspoon of dough and rolled it in a ball. I crossed the top with a fork because according to the recipe, “Crisscross marks the spot for the hidden chocolate wafer…” and baked at 350°F for about 10 minutes. One thing I realized after the first batch was that I shouldn’t have waited for the cookies to turn golden brown around the edges like I normally would. Instead, I should have taken them out at 10 minutes while they were still soft, but set. However, one trick I’ve learned over the years is that if you place a slice of white bread in a container with slightly hard or dry cookies, the cookies will soften. It’s called cookie osmosis! Yay, science!!
All in all, I was happy with the results. I plan on copying a few of the other recipes to try them later. It’s hard for me not to be interested in a book when it contains two things I love dearly: chocolate and San Francisco.
Bonus feature! You don’t need to read this if you don’t want to, but you can if you’re interested. I had cut this from my post, but I still liked it and thought I’d share it:
I had also picked up Hershey’s 1934 Cookbook because I loved the old, vintage cover with two small children digging into a delicious-looking three-layer cake. Although Hershey isn’t my favorite chocolate, I picked it up out of loyalty for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which are a Hershey brand. The pictures of the dishes inside feel old: the colors are super-saturated and the image quality teeters on the edge of looking like a drawing or painting. The recipes were for classic chocolaty desserts—cakes, pies, cookies, icings, and beverages. One recipe that caught my eye while I was flipping through the pages was called “Icing for Chocolate Midgets.” (Now take a second. Did you just reread that sentence? Are you giggling slightly uncomfortably? I was.) I definitely paused when I saw it on the page. Then I thought if this was the recipe for icing, then what in the world were Chocolate Midgets? Sure enough, a few pages later was the recipe located in the cookie section. Included in the ingredients list was “1 cupful chopped nutmeats.” I put the book down, laughed because sometimes I have the sense of humor of a 12-year old boy, and then took a picture to show my friends. (I later Googled that term. In a nutshell [see what I did there? Har har] it’s just an old word to mean the insides of the shells). I’m almost positive that we would never see something called that in a more modern cookbook, what with us trying to be more P.C. these days, but it’s awesome that our library would have this great find that can give us a glimpse into what was socially acceptable decades ago. Ultimately, I decided not to use a Hershey recipe, but I’m glad I got to look through the book because parts of it made me laugh out loud.
It was kinda a bad birthday but thank god for my roommates that made me an amazing dinner.