Several years ago life was very different; weekdays would involve braving rush hour traffic in order to get into Central Saigon where I worked arranging advertising for one of the world’s biggest Public Relations companies.
At that time my life was so busy that other than the occasional meal I had little time to cook, plus of course I’d have been treading on my Mother’s toes if I’d taken over her kitchen! Through the strangest series of events, some of which you’d had to have been there to believe, I ended up meeting and marrying a British man and so a little under two years ago packing all that I could into several suitcases, (tôm, mực, cá khô, gia vị nấu phở & bún riêu – Why on earth would I not bring these things?) I embarked on a ten thousand kilometre flight to a new country and a new life.
It should by now, I hope, be fairly obvious that food features fairly prominently in my life and I considered myself fortunate that my husband had been delighted to try almost everything I’d put in front of him in Vietnam. Even better news was the fact that he loved most of the Vietnamese food he’d eaten even though he’d been reared on a strictly British diet, he was also reasonably adventurous and once he’d rationalised it that Ninety million Vietnamese ate it quite happily, with little or no ill effect, he was pretty much good to go!
After I first arrived in the UK with limited cooking experience and without access to ingredients other than those I’d brought with me, we were living on a very British diet which was leaving neither of us particularly happy. Within a couple of weeks I was miserable, adjusting to life in a new country is difficult enough but when you’re pining for the cuisine of home in addition to everything else it can make life difficult. My wonderful husband after much research and several drives to find it eventually located a Vietnamese minimarket in our small city and that has completely blown away many of the limitations that we found ourselves struggling under. Not only do I get the chance to speak in Vietnamese to the lovely couple who run the mini-market, but as they’ve been here over thirty years they know where you can buy most things you need for Vietnamese cooking.
Anyway I’m getting a little off topic, initially I started out very basic, we spent a small fortune on herbs, spices, sauces and other condiments and then the real work began – picking my Mom’s brain, discussing recipes with friends and internet research, as I began looking for that hugely important project, the first Vietnamese meal to cook for us to eat here in the UK.
The very first Vietnamese Food I’d cooked was Lẩu Nấm – Mushroom hot pot. I chose this dish due to its simplicity and how badly I’d missed it. We had Enoki and some local mushrooms bought in the supermarket, I cheated with the broth using a ready-made stock and it turned out pretty well, I had the chance to relive the familiar taste I couldn’t find here with Western food. This made me think about serious cooking a lot. I started to search online, talked to my mother, to friends. It was such a tough start. Finding the right ingredients was the hardest part of the entire process but perseverance eventually paid off. You could say that I hopped with excitement like a kid when we first managed to find the local Vietnamese mini-market as well as some online shops. The journey had begun.
I started with simple and traditional dishes like Thịt kho trứng (pork stew with Eggs and coconut sauce), Cánh gà chiên (Fried chicken wings with fish sauce), Cháo cá (Fish Porridge)… It took a while to cook Pork Stew to perfect it so that both of us enjoyed it very much. I noted down how I changed the ingredients in the recipe, (I’d figured out early that I should write down what I was doing so that I could go back and look up what I’d done when I needed to).
Over the first few months as I became more adventurous with my cooking I would send photos and recipes to friends, recounting my experiences and asking for feedback and occasionally help. Afraid that I would forget everything that I’d cooked and wanting to share it with friends back home in Vietnam as well as having an outlet for my creative urges. As it worked out it wasn’t just a place to write down my experiences but also a place that I ended up sharing my joy of cooking with friends and family. Even now I can’t describe how happy I was when my friends read and follow my humble recipe and succeed in making the food herself, it just inspired me to write more and more… I’ve been fortunate too that my husband is also patient, not every recipe turns out perfect first time and there have been many failed attempts until we’re both happy with it. When it is right the feeling is priceless!
Cooking has become a part of my life, I find joy in hours of standing in the kitchen, reading many online pages to fine tune one recipe and especially, seeing the happy face of my beloved husband when he enjoy my food, that keeps me going. Only last week we had a repair man at the house to repair our fridge freezer, as he took the drawers out of the freezer, full of the ingredients to cook Vietnamese food, he turned to my husband and said, “I can’t help notice that the contents of the freezer isn’t the food I normally see around here. I guess you eat mostly Asian food here?” With a smile on his face my husband replied, ”Yes, we eat almost entirely Vietnamese food and don’t have a single ready meal or microwave meal in either of our freezers.”