One thing I have in my kitchen that neither my husband’s mother nor anyone in his family even owns is cookbooks. My mother-in-law has never followed a written recipe. She cooks according to what’s in season, what’s suitable for the season and what’s freshest at the market. She cooks the way her mother taught her, adds her own flourishes, and measures with an old tin can, a soup spoon, and her eyes.
Until just a few years ago, a two-burner gas stove, a water filter and a rice cooker were her only kitchen appliances. Now she has a fridge, but she still buys fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, and meat, fish or tofu almost every day. Sometimes twice in one day.
My husband remembers that when he was little, Mother and Grandmother did all their cooking over a coal pot. These braziers still see a lot of use when it’s too hot to cook inside (though Mother surprises me with her ability to stand in an airless kitchen on a 38°C night, frying tofu while a pot of soup boils beside her and heat shimmers up from the orange flames spouting from both gas rings. I would just make a big salad on a night like that. But it’s Việt Nam and people expect their rice and soup.) The coal pot also comes in handy during Huế’s damp, chilly winter, when Grandmother sets it up near the open door and we all sit in a circle and hold our hands over the embers.
A decade ago, Mother’s kitchen was a tiny rectangular space with a counter that had an open cupboard underneath it to store dishes, the rice bin, and the gas canister for the stove. A small unpainted cement room to the side served as both a shower and a space to wash dishes and vegetables in large metal washbasins. Mother did and still does much of the food preparation on the floor (in bowls and pots, and on chopping blocks, of course—not directly on the floor!) Our neighbours and relatives do the same.
The equipment in my in-laws’ kitchen hasn’t changed much; Mother still uses the same pots and pans, knives and chopping blocks, chopsticks and ladles, and a rainbow collection of strainers. A press for lime juice and a wooden mortar and pestle sit unused in a corner. She finds it more practical to squeeze limes by hand. I always wondered why she pounded garlic and chilis in a ceramic bowl, which I feared might break at any moment, especially once she passed this task on to me. Now I like the alternating ringing and dull sounds the bowl makes depending on how I hold it.
One year, my husband’s family renovated the kitchen. Along with the new tiled counter, they put in metal-framed cabinets with glass doors, and much to my delight, a real stainless steel sink, though still with cold (or rather, tepid) water only. The plumber lacked experience installing modern kitchen sinks and rendered the faucet practically useless by having it poke out directly from the wall, extending over the back of the sink by mere centimetres. The water pours out high above the sink, and when anyone tries to wash dishes, it bounces everywhere except down the drain.
I try to tilt dishes and pots to keep the water aimed into the sink, and use a towel to soak up the puddles, but Mother just keeps on using the old knee-high water spout on the wall. Like before, she squats in front of it and cleans the vegetables and the dishes in her wash basin. There’s a drain in the floor below it, but it takes dexterity not to get the whole floor wet. At least it’s now just a kitchen spout, because the shower was moved to a proper bathroom.
Kitchens in Việt Nam vary from simple rooms with space for storage and food preparation and a fire pit or coal pot to fancy, expensive ones with every convenience (dishwashers, fridges with ice dispensers, and so on). With the surge in numbers of upper middle class and very rich people, expensive kitchens are more and more common in the big cities, but most country kitchens remain the way they’ve been for decades. I’ve been in ones so dark I wondered how the cook could see what she was doing, and in airy ones where the sun twinkled through chinks in woven grass or bamboo walls. I took this photo, and the one of the open-air kitchen at the top, in Hồng Ngự district in the western region.
Vietnamese restaurant kitchens vary as much as or more than home kitchens. At some restaurants, all the food is cooked on a simple brazier on the sidewalk. At others, the food preparation takes place in shiny, spotless stainless-steel kitchens like the one my friend Chef Shane ran so efficiently at the Pullman Đà Nẵng.
Often, people will do smoky or messy jobs, like cooking over a coal pot or cleaning fish, outside. Sometimes, we set up our chairs in the lane to peel piles of onions or peanuts, rather than have the papery skins drifting around the kitchen. On really hot days, when the kitchen becomes unbearably stuffy, the breeze makes food preparation a lot easier.
The most important item in Mother’s kitchen isn’t her rice cooker, stove, or water faucet. It’s the kitchen gods’ altar. And taking care of the altar is the one kitchen job that falls to Ba, my father-in-law. He lights the incense for the kitchen gods every morning, and again in the evening. Ba is happy when I take the evening shift, but the morning is just for him.
Whenever the family holds an offerings ceremony, whether for a death anniversary, the twice-yearly cúng đất (offerings for the earth deities, wandering souls and souls of the original Chăm inhabitants of the province), or Tết, Ba and I clean the altar and put fresh sand in the incense pot. During the Tết, when the kitchen gods travel to heaven to make their annual reports, Ba is the one who organizes all the necessary preparations for their departure and return.
The kitchen gods will make their next reports in February, 2015. My in-laws will do their best to keep them happy so that they’ll give a favourable report and bring another good year for the family. I’m looking forward to all the activity in the kitchen to prepare the Tết food. And as always, I hope to learn how to make a few more of my mother-in-law’s specialties.