The Art of Eating Well

My maternal grandmother was probably the first person who made me think about good food and good cooking. She was steeped in traditional Vietnamese cooking — from Northern Vietnam — and the way we ate while I was young reflected her knowledge and experience of this style of cooking. We ate lots of vegetables – most of it leafy greens. We ate lots of fish. There was usually steamed white rice and the ever-present fish sauce. Every now and then there would be chicken or pork. We rarely ate beef.

It has been said that traditional Asian cuisine is a “balance” between the yin and the yang, and touches upon the four taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. (Apparently there are five; the last one is called “umami”, but this is a specific response to salts of glutamic acid — like monosodium glutamate (MSG) — a flavor enhancer used in many processed foods and in many Asian dishes. Processed meats and cheeses (proteins) also contain glutamate. Since this is more “modern” and not “traditional”, I choose to leave this out.)

Grandma would spend hours explaining to me which food is “hot” and which is “cold”, and when to eat them (cold food in summer, for example), or how to balance one hot food against a cold one during a meal. Most vegetables made sense to me as a “cold/cool” food, but some (mint) would actually be hot. Some I didn’t bother to learn. Okras, for example, because I know I would never touch that slimy thing in a million years.

I don’t know about the rest of Asian cultures, but traditional Vietnamese cooking also incorporates the five elements (spicy: metal, sour: wood, bitter: fire, salty: water, and sweet: earth), which apparently also corresponds to the five essential organs (gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, urinary bladder). I’m sure my friend Amy Lee will correct me here — but what happened to the rest of organs, like, oh, I don’t know – the heart? Doesn’t that count for something?

Sidebar: my friend Amy is an amazing acupuncturist/chinese medicine practicioner, and if you’re ever in need of some good old-fashioned holistic nurturing, you should go see her. I call it “poking and cupping”, but it does sound a little naughty. h She also co-authored a little booklet on the seasons and foods, and a lot of other goodies. But I think you’ll have to contact her to get it.

Anyway, the number “five” shows up in other ways in Vietnamese cooking too, like the 5 colors to reflect the elements. White for metal, green for wood, yellow for earth, red for fire, and black for water.

From Wikipedia: “Dishes in Vietnam appeal to gastronomes via five senses (Vietnamese: nam giác quan): food arrangement attracts eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, five spices detected on the tongue, aromatic ingredients coming mainly from herbs stimulate the nose and some meals, especially finger food, can be perceived by touching.”
So, apparently fairly complicated stuff for every meal. My fondest memories of my grandmother are of her taking me to the huge farmers’ market “Cho Lon” (literally “Big Market”) for fresh produce/fish/meats/whatever. There was always some form of haggling and “negotiating” — skilled Vietnamese women make an art of it. I never got to practice as a child, and as I got older, I realize how much I hate confrontations, so I was never very good at it.

Other equally fond memories of Grandma was of her cooking in the kitchen. We had an “open” style kitchen in Vietnam – it opened up to the outdoors and the breeze would waft all the good smells and whip up an appetite. Grandma told me that even as a baby, I made a habit of hanging around the kitchen when she was cooking. She used to tease that one of my birthmarks was a result of a hot piece of fried onion. 🙂

I think I’m a pretty good cook, but I would have to say that it was mostly through watching and listening to my grandmother. I don’t remember seeing Grandma ever reading a recipe book — I don’t think I ever saw a recipe book in all of Vietnam, although I’m sure they must have existed…Anyway, most traditional Vietnamese cooking — and I’m going to guess most traditional cooking of any culture — is usually passed on from generation to generation in similar manners like these. Grandmothers (or mothers) are the traditional cooks who had learned great food secrets passed down through the centuries. Well, maybe not “secrets” as much as “knowledge”. Many of these traditional methods are considered to foster the healthiest lifestyles today.

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good, short read on learning to eat well.


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