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Northern Table: Getting my feet wet in the kitchen


A plate of cucumbers, a omelette dish, and a glass of water are pictured.
Lan’s simpler style of Vietnamese cooking.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2019 Northern Health: Health and Wellness in the North magazine.

What would you do if you were shooed out of the kitchen?

You might stay out.

Growing up, my place in the house was anywhere but the kitchen. I always seemed to be in the way or, as my mother put it, “doing things too slowly.”

My mom worked full time, but still managed the household and whipped up delicious meals in a jiffy.

My early childhood was spent in Vietnam, and food is an important part of my life; family meals and gatherings define the Vietnamese culture.

Vietnam is a tropical country with an abundance of vibrant, fresh produce that’s available year-round. One of my fondest memories is going to the outdoor markets every morning with my grandmother to pick out food for the day (in Vietnam, daily shopping is popular because it guarantees freshness and minimizes waste).

Variety of bowls full of delicious looking Vietnamese food
Lan’s Mom’s cooking — complex and with many different ingredients.

When we moved to Canada, daily shopping was no longer possible, as time was limited. As well, many of the foods and spices we ate in Vietnam weren’t available.

What did my mother do? She created her own mouth-watering dishes from the ingredients that were available. She called them “Vietnamese-inspired.”

Every time I asked her how she made a dish, she’d shrug and tell me she just threw it together. I assumed cooking came naturally to her, and that I’d never be a cook.

Fast forward to university: I was living away from home and missed Vietnamese food. Not having much experience, I was intimidated by the thought of cooking. I was overwhelmed by the steps and techniques, and by having to familiarize myself with an endless list of spices and seasonings that I couldn’t even pronounce.

However, I learned that if you want it badly enough, almost anything is possible.

It took some time for me to be more comfortable in the kitchen. I started out by stocking my little kitchen with salt, pepper, and fish sauce — the Holy Grail sauce of Vietnamese cooking.Slowly but surely, my time in the kitchen yielded semi-edible foods and a growing confidence. Meals from my kitchen were simple: steamed rice, boiled veggies, and steamed chicken with fish sauce.

In the beginning, I often phoned my mom for help, which, as a by-product, also helped deepen our relationship.

Through many “learning opportunities,” I’m now at a point where I can navigate the kitchen without setting off the smoke detector!

Although my cooking is simple, I enjoy it. I’m still learning and excited to grow through this process.

My goal is to be able to re-create some authentic Vietnamese dishes, because food is such an important part of my identity, and I want to preserve that.

My tips for budding cooks:

  • Start simple – try a recipe with less than seven ingredients.
  • Stock your kitchen with basic ingredients. For me, that included rice, veggies, a few key spices, and fish sauce. It might be different for you.
  • Recognize that things might not turn out the way you’d hoped. One way to get around this is to use recipes from trusted sources. And if you fail, just try again!
  • Ask for help – call your relatives or friends.
  • Make cooking social – cook with friends or family.

Becoming a confident and competent cook doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t be too harsh on yourself — you can always try again tomorrow. I know it sounds cheesy, but if I can do it, I really believe that you can too!