At Yale, we write, dance, worship, paint, imbibe; we do all things that celebrate our humanity. Yet, despite being the only species that cooks, we don’t always find the time to. Darwin considered language and fire the two greatest accomplishments of men. Fire sparked off cooking, which revolutionized the feeding of the brain, the organ that generates culture and language itself. Levi-Strauss’s metaphor of “le cru et le cuit” pinpoints the threshold where the raw became the cooked, beasts became men. Cooking is indeed both a hallmark and a giver of our humanity.
Still, at Yale, I’ve been told that my appetite for cooking is “feminine,” “wonderful” or “domestic.” I wish, on catching a whiff of my culinary industry, that people would instead say: “Look at you, being all human and stuff!”
* * *
Vietnamese cooking is often just a lot of watchful waiting. I like to think of the stove as a stage, the real cooking a theater of nature, and my pretense at it an exercise in patience and faith.
Cooking for me is everything I want to be at a given moment: communal or solitary, reveling or grieving.
My late father used to make ginger-braised chicken for me. Amidst warmly spiced, glisteningly brown molten fat, floats mahogany chicken dressed in crackly skin. My teeth would linger on the silky, fork-tender goodness, my tongue bathed in the heady yet hearty juice.
Gourmet? Không có âu! It’s a commoner’s food — economical, efficient, easy. Tough meat in lean times, leftover vegetables — everything cooks in one pot and everybody digs in. Last night I dreamt of my dad recasting a cookie tin into wall sockets. My house, like the braised chicken, is a patchwork of reincarnated materials, an ever-present celebration of his thrifty resourcefulness.
* * *
To show you how easy it can be, here is a four-serving recipe that requires only $4 worth of value-pack industrial broiler chicken and 20 minutes of your limb coordination. Ingredients can be sourced from Stop and Shop and Hong Kong Market. Swap chicken for mushroom or seafood as desired, though to my fellow lapsed vegetarians, I’d say, go with the chicken.
Have one nice pound of thighs with both bone and skin chopped into two-inch chunks. Skin and bone are needed to anchor the meat, keeping it chewy and moist.
Make nuoc mau (bitter caramel sauce) by mixing three tablespoons of sugar and ¼ cup of water in a pot on medium-high heat. Watch it caramelize in the next 10–15 minutes. For a creamy alternative, caramelize coconut juice.
In a bowl, mix your homemade nuoc mau, sliced ginger and nuoc mam (fish sauce) — use ¼ cup each. Add one tablespoon of sugar. Add chicken. Massage the marinade thoroughly into the flesh. Feel the naked chicken between your fingers — it’s good! Work it like you want to make the chicken feel good too. Watch out for sharp bone edges. Stick the marinated chicken in the fridge for 20 minutes, or longer if you can wait.
Pick a heavy pot for slow and even cooking, and turn the heat on high. Lather the bottom with one tablespoon of oil. After 30 seconds or when the oil has become uncomfortably hot, dump five cloves’ worth of minced garlic and one diced sweet onion.
When the garlic browns, convey the chicken into the pot piece-wise. Exclude the marinade. As the meat stops sweating, brown crust will form to lock in moisture. Flip the chunks sideways to ensure an evenly seared exterior. After two minutes, remove the chicken and set aside.
Add the marinade to the emptied pot. Scrape caked bits off the bottom. These bits are jam-packed with flavors; exploit them!
Replace the chicken into the pot. Add just enough water or chicken stock to half cover the chunks. After bringing to a boil, skim off fat and froth. Cover the skillet, and simmer for another 15 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Add spring onions and ground black pepper to taste. Garnish with a zingy confetti of fresh parsley or cilantro to lighten the gravy-ty. Spoon the sauce over rice — jasmine, brown or glutinous — and serve.
If scorched, add water; if too watery, add flour and melted butter.
Stick the leftovers in the fridge for some ga dong (“winter chicken”). Jelly chicken may sound dubious, but tastes solidly positive.
Add cider for a bright sweet note, dry wine for a deep tone, or both to create a jolt of zest.
* * *
Fine juliennes of ginger carry a tinge of sweet heat — the signature taste of the dish. In oral literature, the good old pungent ginger symbolizes the Vietnamese self-identification as a long-suffering people, having lived through the millennia of Chinese rule, the French protectorate and the Vietnam War. But we also pride ourselves on making sweet out of the bitter. For us, “When life gives you ginger, make ginger-braised chicken.”
Tay bưng dĩa muối chấm gừng
Gừng cay muối mặn xin đừng quên nhau
This internally-rhymed, harmonically resolved couplet of folk sung poetry, or cadao, celebrates the unlikely union of salt and ginger, each of which denotes its own flavor of hardship. Metaphorically, the couplet sings of the dutiful love between long-married husband and wife braving life’s trials and tribulations together, a kind of tenderness and devotion that is seasoned like salt, warm like ginger.