Many people go to a yoga studio when they want to relax. Some lounge out by the pool, while others just find a quiet room. I go to my kitchen. The sound of click-click-click-whoosh puts my mind at ease. The burst of warmth from the dancing blue crown burns away my stress. The up-and-down rocking of a sharp knife slicing through vegetables is my warrior pose. The sweet fragrant smell of cooking garlic and ginger is my aromatherapy. Cooking. It’s my therapy and my meditation. Cooking is Zen.
Food and cooking have been ingrained in me since I was born. It’s a part of my cultural identity. The Chinese have an informal way of greeting family and friends. It isn’t “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?”. It’s our way of showing love. My father was a cook and so were many of my uncles. Having given up everything in Vietnam, we made it to the States as refugees a few years after the fall of Saigon. Poor with limited skills and almost no understanding of English, being a cook at a Chinese restaurant was the only job available to my father and uncles. Day in and day out for what seemed like 12 plus hours, my father went to work and I hardly saw him except for a couple of hours a week. That was life for most of my childhood.
So as a young impressionable child who idolized a father who was always at work, I found a way to get a better understanding of him. I hovered around my mother or grandmother in the kitchen while they cooked dinner. When we would host large family get-togethers, my father cooked for them. I stood by his side, watched everything that he did, studied him. It was like ballet. He flowed with such confidence and grace. I spent weekend afternoons in front of the television watching cooking shows on PBS. Along with my father, mother, and grandmother, my cooking teachers were Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet, Jacques Pepin, and Martin Yan.
My relationship with cooking changed from being a passive observer to being an active participant when I was in college and more so when I moved to Los Angeles. It was no surprise that cooking came naturally to me. It was easy but that didn’t mean that everything I made was great and delicious. I liken my first couple of years on my own to a cooking boot camp. I put what I learned to practice and made many mistakes and failed along the way but I always learned from them. These real life cooking lessons literally kept me alive because eating out every night wasn’t cheap nor healthy.
Then cooking wasn’t about surviving anymore. It was personal. It was about reconnecting with my father. I was an independent adult, truly on my own. The biggest life lesson that my father, my parents, instilled in my brother and me while growing up was to be independent and to never rely on anyone. I never got to thank him for all that he did. He passed away a few years after I moved away from home. I never got the chance to show him how much I loved him. I never got the chance to cook for him. So I cooked to be closer to my father because I wanted to be like him, a cook. Each dish I cooked was a dish for him and I hoped that it made him proud.
Cooking brought me back to my roots. I thought about the days of my youth and the many dishes that my mother and grandmother cooked for dinner and these conflicting warm feelings of joy and longing for simpler times came rushing through me. Nostalgia was a bitch like that. I cooked these humble Chinese and Vietnamese dishes from my childhood. I struggled to get the perfect crispness on my bánh xèo or the right curry flavor in cà ri gà. Every dish, from simple Chinese peasant food like stir-fried cabbage with eggs and pork belly, congee, eggs with tofu, or a whole steamed braised stuffed duck, to phó, bò kho, and bún riêu, were all done over and over again until I could no longer perfect it. But no matter how much I perfected each dish, it never tasted as good as my mom’s.
After many years of cooking and perfecting my craft, I came full circle with my cooking. It was now my turn to show my love to my family. I was the one that cooked for them when I went home for the holidays. Whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, I would wake up early and cook a smorgasbord of dishes for our early afternoon dinner. I’d never been a stickler for tradition and so many of my dishes weren’t either. I cooked dishes that my mom, aunts, and uncles don’t know how to cook or never had. Dishes like Shrimp Monica, lasagna, braised short ribs or lamb shanks, spaghetti aglio e olio, Korean fried chicken wings, creamy jalapeno polenta, creamed spinach, standing rib roasts, or a racks of lamb. It was a lot of work each time, but I enjoyed every single minute of it. It was worth it. I was showing my love.
Now, cooking is about control, being healthy, relaxing, and just trying to be a better person by learning and growing. On average, I cook five or six nights out of the week. With each meal, everything would be cooked from scratch using whole ingredients if possible. I’m not a health nut, but I do like to know what goes into my body. Cooking from scratch allows me to do that. It gives me a peace-of-mind to know that the egg noodles that I used in my dan dan noodles were made 30 minutes ago using just flour and eggs.
Cooking from scratch is a lot of work, but I don’t mind. It’s how I relax. There were weekends where I would do nothing but cook, especially after a long and trying week. Depending on what I planned on making I would start bright and early Saturday or early afternoon. I’d pour myself a glass or two or have a bottle of wine and start my cooking adventure. My focus would be on nothing but the task before me. I’d chop vegetables, sear meat, gather spices and other ingredients, prepping the mise en place. Nothing else would be in my mind but this meal; not what happened at work that past week or what I have to do next week. It would just be mincing garlic, dicing the onions, understanding the recipes so I know when and how I can change it to match my tastes and creativity, and figuring out the timing so all of the dishes would be ready around the same time. This is how I practice mindfulness. I meditate through cooking.
Even though I’d been cooking for so long, there’s still so much to learn. Like with most things, the more I do and practice, the better I get and the more I learn. Doing things that are outside of my comfort zone or new are great ways to really learn about myself. The past two years I started a cooking project where I had to cook at least 30 dishes that I never cooked before. They can’t be some variation of something I had already done. It had to be completely new. The project challenges me to cook different cuisines, use unfamiliar ingredients, learn new cooking techniques, and most important, it forces me to fail so I could learn from it. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.
I love cooking. It is such a personal thing to me. Cooking is such a large part of my identity and shaped me into who I am that I can’t imagine never cooking again. It keeps me centered and helps me relax, along with connecting me to family and where I came from. I’m never more Zen then when I’m cooking, plus I get to enjoy a delicious meal afterwards. Even before I get to work, I would be thinking about dinner. If you see me roaming the halls of the office humming some unfamiliar melody with my perpetual RAF scowl, don’t worry about me or be intimidated. I’m not in a bad mood or mad at someone or stressed. It is just my “What am I having for dinner?” face.