I can't tell you what my favorite home-cooked meal from mom is, but I can tell you off the top of my head our favorite sushi restaurant, our top-frequented gelato cafe, and our most beloved street food stalls in Hanoi. The taste of my childhood wasn't the fruit of mom's laborious hours in the kitchen. Instead, it was built on her love for food and leisure, and her sense of adventure. School days were wrapped up with detours to our local Japanese bakery and weekends were planned around visits to our favorite noodle spots.
The fact is, my mom has never been much of a cook. Dad worked abroad for many years, so between childcare and her full-time teaching job, Mom had little bandwidth for cooking elaborate dishes. She favored one-pot meals made in pressure cookers, because she thought she could just set and ignore them until they’re ready to eat. That's how we ended up with half-burnt congee and overcooked chicken on many occasions. Instant noodles were our breakfast staples, or untoasted bread and butter if we were crunched for time.
To supplement Mom’s home-cooked fails, we made staples out of delicious takeout. On school nights, we enjoyed rice with crispy-skin pork and pickles from the nearby market. On the weekends, we headed out for noodle soup on her motorbike and finished off the day with ice cream or iced cocoa. Even before the internet, mom tapped into Hanoi’s food-obsessed whisper network for all the up-and-coming restaurants around the city and made plans for us to try them.
We became best friends as a pair of foodies. Mom was in her element when we were out in search of good food, unbothered by the stress of housework and grown-up responsibilities. She made jokes, complained, and gossiped with me about work, relatives, and her students. She let me talk to her casually without the heavy formalities Vietnamese society demanded of our parent-child relationship.
We had so much fun together that I never knew how Mom constantly felt that she was falling short. Dad's return after four years of working abroad was her deadline to become a good Vietnamese wife who headed straight into the kitchen to cook fresh entrees after work. Back then, I didn't understand the way home-cooked meals hung above the heads of every Vietnamese woman as a measure of her accomplishments. In today’s rapidly growing economy where almost all households are dual-income, Viet women still toil in the kitchen after hours to avoid the sneers of their husbands, neighbors, and relatives.
When Dad decided to bring our family to the States together a few years later, life became a whirlwind of preparation for our next few years abroad. It was decided that Mom was going to be a housewife because she didn't have the credential to teach in America. Dad discouraged her from finding other job alternatives. Part of his reasoning was that many women like her worked illegally and he didn’t want to risk his U.S. visa status, but mostly he just didn’t really believe in her potential.
In our Washington, D.C., apartment, she became a student again, studying the ways American produce worked in Vietnamese recipes. She collected recipes from everyone she met and scoured Facebook for tips and tricks. I rarely saw her without her iPad, where she collected screenshots of recipes for stir fries, noodle soups, and side dishes.
Vietnamese cooking is an art of intuition. The best cooks use a pinch of this or a handful of that as measurements, they don’t time things, they feel for them. This didn’t come easily for Mom and each meal she cooked that year was very much hit or miss. Rice was her first challenge. It took months for her to find a rice cooker that worked for the jasmine rice we got from H-Mart. Then came experiments that involved vegetables, meats and fishes, and sauces. We went through countless microwavable recipes and threw away so many bottles of fish sauces that were too bland or lacked complexity based on her palate.
Mom figured out right away that the elaborate, time-consuming traditional route of cooking wasn't her thing. Her solution was to embrace extreme simplicity. Almost everything ended up boiled. Boiled morning glory. Boiled chicken. Boiled pork belly. And if it wasn't boiled then it was tossed together into canh, a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth plus pretty much anything else. Her other trick was preparing DIY meals that we assembled ourselves; in the summer this meant Vietnamese spring rolls and in the winter it was Korean barbecue or hotpot.
To say cooking as a stay-at-home mom is a thankless job is an understatement. Dad simply ate, without commenting on her food or acknowledging her efforts. He was more occupied with his non-stop work calls and the serious discussions with my mom that I was too young to comprehend. On the other hand, I was quick to praise what I liked but also just as quick to express my dislike of anything that wasn’t up to my taste. Rather than telling me to eat what she gave me, Mom adjusted her cooking to my preference, something I never thanked her enough for.
Mom never magically transformed into a phenomenal cook, but she persisted. There was always something to eat on the table when I returned home from track practices and orchestra rehearsals. She kept it up so well that sometimes we forgot the joys she set aside when we ate out in Hanoi. Sadly, we rarely got takeout together in the U.S. and missed out on a lot of one-on-one bonding during those years. Mom was often knee-deep housework and I busied myself with after school activities and new friendships. The weekly carefree conversations we used to have while going out became more of a monthly occurrence.
Thankfully, the housewife life that never suited her came to an end. After four years, we returned to Vietnam, the summer after I finished tenth grade. It was a relief for Mom, who returned to her full-time teaching job and was once again free to roam the familiar streets of Hanoi on her motorbike. She still cooked on occasion, but not as someone trapped in the kitchen. The two of us resumed our weekly routine of eating out as if we never stopped. She stepped out free from the smallness of the housewife role she played in the U.S.
I enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal as much as anyone, but growing up eating takeout with Mom taught me that a mother’s love language is about sharing what she loves with her child, in whatever form it takes.
Sometimes I wonder if Mom still feels pressured to cook for Dad when I'm away, but when I fly home from university for Christmas every winter, we always celebrate our reunion at our favorite spots just the way we like it.
Published on May 6, 2022