My time spent cooking in the kitchen has been a continuous journey of learning. I have graduated from being the head herb and lettuce washer in my mom’s kitchen to the one calling the shots at the helm of my own little kitchen in France. When I was cooking only for one, I stuck to a handful of dishes that I had mastered and added variety to my diet by frequently indulging in the decadent Texas cuisine in Austin.
The last leg of this winter has been exceptionally brutal in Paris and the surrounding areas. Several severe storms and torrential showers pounded the city throughout January, which caused the water levels of the Seine and the Marne rivers to overflow. We saw very little relief from the thick shrouds of gray gloom that blanketed the skies all month. The sun only made a handful of rare appearances that were so fleeting that if you blinked, you likely missed it.
Before I started dabbling in Vietnamese cuisine, cooking the dishes that I ate growing up always seemed so daunting. My grandma, mom and aunties would make these dishes with such ease and never once did they ever refer to written recipes. It wasn’t the techniques or the step-by-step preparation of the dishes that seemed difficult though. The challenge for me was being able to accurately replicate the flavors of the dishes by seasoning them with the correct proportions of spices, salt, fish sauce, etc. Without recipes specifying the quantity of each ingredient, it was always difficult to know if what I was making was on its way to becoming a disaster or if it could still be salvaged.
My mom became a widow when she was only 28, an age when many of us are still trying to figure out how to navigate life. My parents had only just begun to plant the seeds to the life and future that they were hoping to cultivate for our young family. But before those seeds could even begin to take root and sprout, those hopes and dreams were violently crushed to a pulp within an instant. Our lives were derailed without forewarning, and my mom was abruptly propelled into single motherhood when my younger brother and I were 6 and 4 years old. We suddently became three and New Olreans no longer had anything left for us.
Only in recent years have vegetarianism and its derivative regimens started to gain greater recognition here in France, a country whose culinary identity is inextricably bound to dishes that prominently feature meats and offal of all varieties. When I initially arrived here, most of the French people I met could not fathom the idea of omitting meat or dairy from their diet, and they considered meals served without animal protein as unsatiatingly incomplete. Friends visiting from the US who had dietary restrictions would have difficulty finding restaurants catering to their needs. But over the last few years, I‘ve noticed that meat-free as well as gluten-free dining options have become increasingly more common in Paris. I even met a French vegan in the master’s program that I just recently completed. I was astonished to learn that he had been vegan for the last few years, because I didn’t think that that eating lifestyle would ever be a thing in a country where cheese reigns supreme.
Finding work in France has never been difficult. The challenge has always been finding a position that was well aligned with my interests and skill set. Needless to say, the job market here in France does not mirror that in the US. The labor market here lacks the diversity seen the US is and is woefully resistant to change. France’s inadequate investment in scientific research has consequently stunted the evolution and growth of many fields, including my own. So, I’ve always settled for positions within the realm of my field of work, but the work was never quite what I wanted to be doing.
As soon as summer comes to an end, there is no shortage of events and art exhibits to keep us entertained during the fall. Most of the interesting events take place in Paris though, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the town I live in host a Food Truck Festival a few weeks ago. The event was the first and largest of its kind in France, and perhaps even in all of Europe (so says this article).
I recently read in the latest edition of the newly revived French Master Chef magazine that Vietnamese cuisine includes at least 500 dishes. 500 dishes – that is astronomical! I feel like a neophyte of my own cuisine, even though I grew up in a Vietnamese household subsisting mostly on foods from my parents’ native country. I haven’t even come close to eating through the cuisine, and I’m constantly discovering dishes through my MIL’s kitchen, exploring restaurants and the internet, which gives me the chance to uncover the cuisines from around the world without having to set foot on an airplane.