No money can buy

No money can buy

This dish was made with the speciality of my home town of Chau Doc from Vietnam which is called "mắm thái" (salted raw fish.) Photo: Me

I have to confess two things. First, cooking was not my favorite hobby, and I was one of the world’s worst cooks at least 8 years ago. No one could imagine the very first day I became a daughter-in-law; I served my husband’s family with burnt and undercooked rice though I cooked rice in the electric cooker.

Why? I misunderstood the words of my spouse’s older sister who asked me to use seven small cups of rice. I used exactly the same number of cups (seven) but not with the cup she wanted. I used a much larger cup to measure the rice and used the same amount of water.

Since that shameful day, I promised myself that I had to learn how to cook seriously because I did not want my husband to keep losing his face in front of his family. I must add that he is an excellent cook who not only taught me how to prepare our meals but also “enjoyed” all the terrible food I made from the first days of our marriage without any complaints.

Second, I did not know what the cultural ambassador does when the Vietnamese Fulbright program first told me and my fellows that each Vietnamese Fulbrighter would act as a cultural ambassador when we come to study in the United States. In my mind, that symbolic title seemed out of my reach because I was aware that I am not good at history, culture and tourism introduction. More importantly, I am not a well-spoken person and I am very shy by nature.

But after more than 7 months of staying in the land of Uncle Sam, I can confidently say that I am now part of a cultural ambassador because at least I can cook Vietnamese dishes to introduce to my American Fulbright fellows and American friends. I do enjoy the feeling of going to several supermarkets (including Vietnamese and Chinese ones) to look for exactly Vietnamese ingredients or at least familiar ones and preparing Vietnamese dishes in the original way.

The first person I served Vietnamese dishes was my host in Easthampton where I stayed for one month before moving to Boston late August. She enjoyed all Vietnamese food I bought and made but “sau rieng” (durian), which we nicknamed “durian bomb” because she and her youngest daughter could not bear its typical smell. It was also the first time I found that frozen durians (which are available in Chinese and Vietnamese supermarkets) were less yummy than fresh ones. I also thought that the reason the frozen durian I bought at Tran’s Market was not as delicious as durians I enjoyed in Vietnam perhaps because it was not imported from my country. Honestly, I felt thankful to her for inviting her best friends to come over to taste my Vietnamese food. My heart was touched when one of them asked me if she could bring some of my soup home because she said it was really good.

A dish for my host's birthday, "gỏi gà" (Vietnamese chicken salad.) Photo: Me

Though my host complimented on my food but she did not tell me if it was original or not because only those who used to have Vietnamese food in Vietnam are able to make a judgment of the originality of the Vietnamese dishes I made.

Last October was the first time I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in America. That restaurant is quite well-known in Cambridge. The feeling when I tasted “phở” (Vietnamese beef noodle) there and when I have Vietnamese dishes in other restaurants in Boston was the same. All tasted unoriginal. I was so disappointed. But, I was surprised to find that all Vietnamese restaurants in Boston and Cambridge were crowded with a majority of their customers who are American and foreigners. Witnessing the disappointment of my American friend, who just returned from Vietnam after a year of teaching English, when he tasted a stir-fried Vietnamese seafood mixture, I said without any consideration that: “I will cook Vietnamese food for you some day.” At the time, I felt upset when he said that Vietnamese dish tasted like a Chinese one.

Honestly, after making my promise, I did worry a bit if I could be able to bring the authentic taste of Vietnamese food because he is a gourmet who falls in love with our food. I tried my best to make my Vietnamese dishes as originally as possible. And my efforts paid me off. Not only he but his friend, who also used to stay in Vietnam, agreed that my food was very original. No money could buy my overjoyed feeling when I saw him and his friends fully enjoyed my food. I remember they said “It is really good, Chau.” But I still doubted my original Vietnamese cuisine. One month later, I invited another American friend, who spent two years in my city of Can Tho to teach English, to come over for dinner. She loves Vietnamese food and she said I brought original food from Vietnam for her.

Today, I made a Vietnamese lunch to see off  my American friend who will come back to Vietnam soon to work. Seeing my friend, whom I admire his Vietnamese, fully enjoy my dish, I felt that all the time I spent to prepare it was worthy. My friend asked me to disclose my recipe. I replied jokingly that I can only do it with cash in return.

I bet all cooking lovers will agree with me that the only thing they want receive after devoting their time to make a meal is to see diners fully enjoy it. That joy cannot be bought by money. It is very rewarding. I do want to experience such joys over and over.

I would like to say “thank you” again to my American friends for loving our Vietnamese dishes and enjoying my authentic cuisine. I always feel honored to introduce our Vietnamese food to friends in America.

(My 168th day in the U.S)

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