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why I cook

Food is often the first introduction to a new culture. Food is culture – and cooking recipes from my childhood has been a way for me to be more in touch with my heritage. In 2020, I started a cooking social media account as an ode to my mother’s cooking and a way to highlight Northern Vietnamese food, a cuisine that’s quite hard to find in the States as most places serve Southern Vietnamese food. I moved away from the Bay Area to New York in 2019 and my brother moved to Texas in 2020, and we wanted to find a way to connect our distributed family through our shared love language – food. Through the pandemic, my mother, brother, and I started cooking together virtually every week.

Food has always been a central part of my family. The first thing my parents ask when they call my brother or me is, “have you eaten yet”? A lot of my childhood was spent around the kitchen and dining table helping my mother prepare for meals. I would stand on a little green stool kept in the kitchen, hovering over my mother as she fed me spoonfuls of her flavorful dishes. One of my favorite dishes of hers is called “bun bo xao”, a vermicelli dish served with lemongrass beef and a lot of herbs and fresh vegetables. It’s a very vibrant and fresh dish that’s actually fairly easy to make, so every time I requested it from my mother, she was able to pull it together quickly. My other favorite dish of hers is her pho – it’s hard to find her version because it’s Northern style, which has a clearer, more savory broth. Most pho joints in the U.S. serve Southern style pho, which is sweeter and served with hoisin sauce and lots of herbs. The way she showed love was by making any of my favorite foods upon request, and I always took that for granted growing up.

Though I had always loved cooking and baking, especially with my mother, I wasn’t always proud of my Vietnamese heritage. I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California rejecting much of my culture, especially throughout primary school and high school. I was always embarrassed by my given name (Van Anh) and often shot my hand up before they called by name in roll call, in hopes that I could beat them to the punch so I could tell them to call me “Lisa” instead. When my mother was away and she wasn’t home to cook Vietnamese food, I constantly asked my dad to take us to McDonald’s or Chili’s so we could get a break from Vietnamese food. Even though I grew up around a lot of other Asian Americans in the Bay Area, most of them were East Asian or South Asian, and I didn’t have a lot of Vietnamese friends. I grew up watching shows and movies with actresses that didn’t look like me, and all I ever wanted was to reject my Asian culture and become more American.

This changed in my early 20s, when I moved to San Francisco and I started feeling more comfortable in my skin. Moving to a city like San Francisco showed me that it was beautiful to celebrate your differences. Moving away from my parents also sparked a lot of nostalgia for the food I grew up eating. Then when I moved to New York, it became even harder to find good Vietnamese food, a cuisine that’s severely lacking here in this city, despite being a food haven for most other cuisines! That’s why when my brother and I started doing weekly virtual cooking sessions with our family to start writing down my mother’s recipes, it brought me so much joy. Our conversations transformed from quick catch-ups and surface-level updates, to deeper conversations about her childhood and upbringing, sparked by the dishes she was teaching us. These weekly cooking sessions brought our family closer than ever, and it made us all feel a little less lonely through the pandemic. I started documenting my cooking journey as I learned more about my heritage through my mother’s cooking. It also allowed me to cook Vietnamese food more frequently now that I had her recipes, and it made me feel a little less homesick now that I could create a piece of home in my kitchen.

In 2021, when we saw more violence in the Asian American community, I attended a few protests in the city. Seeing people from all walks of life defend people that looked like me sparked even more pride for being Asian American. Standing in the crowds during these protests, hearing all the support for our community, nearly brought tears to my eyes. It made me immensely proud to be Asian, despite all the horrifying things that were happening to fellow Asian Americans in the states. Also, the rise of amazing Vietnamese American women like Sahra Nguyen of Nguyen Coffee Supply and Vanessa and Kim Pham of Omsom has also been empowering to see. Seeing a Vietnamese American woman on the cover of Food and Wine magazine on the shelves of book stores and large grocery stores was incredible to witness. Seeing more representation gave me a lot more confidence to start sharing more pieces of my identity and my stories through my cooking.

With that, I’m sharing a simple recipe that every Vietnamese family has a version of – “nước chấm”, or Vietnamese dipping sauce. You can serve it with spring or summer rolls, drizzle it over vermicelli bowls, or use it as a light salad dressing. This is less of a recipe and more of a guide, because it really comes down to your own taste (and the brand of fish sauce you’re using).

Nước Chấm (Vietnamese Dipping Sauce)
3 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp fish sauce (I use the Three Crabs brand)
1 whole lime
1/2 cup water
1 garlic clove, minced
1 birds eye chili/Thai chili, chopped

Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add lime in slowly – it should taste like limeade. Then, add in fish sauce, minced garlic, and chopped chili. Adjust to taste!

I’m incredibly proud to be Vietnamese American, and I hope to continue highlighting our amazing culture and delicious food. For so long, I didn’t feel Vietnamese enough or American enough. Whenever I went to Vietnam, I felt (and sounded) like a foreigner, and in America, it’s clear that I’m not the average American by the way I look. It’s only now that I realize that I’m uniquely Vietnamese American, and that’s an identity in itself. I love being able to weave both cultures together, and it’s sparked a lot of inspiration for me to create some fun fusion recipes. I hope that through my recipes that I share, people can learn more about a cuisine or a culture they may have never seen or eaten before. And I hope that through more representation, our future generation can grow up feeling proud of their identity.

Lisa Nguyen is an NYC-based recruiting manager in tech, who trades her keyboard & phone for her cooking gadgets in her spare time. She seeks to celebrate her Vietnamese heritage through her cooking, learning more about her parents’ journeys from Vietnam to America through their recipes. Outside of work, she also loves to host themed dinner parties, explore the city, create mini-travel guides, and run races.

all photos by Lisa Nguyen.

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