EGOR #3: An Ingredient with ALL THE FEELS
I paired the Purple Amaranth with Red Fermented Tofu recipe's strong, funky, fermented flavor with the fresh, clean taste of whole steamed fish (see EGOR #2), but I really chose this recipe for the one ingredient that reminds me of a Thai noodle dish I learned to cook with my Thai grandmother. - P. Hungry
People often assume I learned to cook from my grandmothers, perhaps conjuring an image of a little girl standing on a stool by the stove at her grandmother’s side.
But the Pacific Ocean and a language barrier often came between me and those imagined lessons.
When my YaYa would visit from Bangkok she would stay several weeks – just long enough for me to warm up to her and her unfamiliar cultural rules of engagement, before she jet set off to another part of the States to visit her other grandchildren.
My YaYa would often bake sweets (for her sweet tooth and her son’s), but I didn’t inherit this tooth, preferring savory bites to her sweet jelly roll cakes. She made everything from scratch and coaxed my mother’s temperamental ovens to cooperate for a few hours to produce the most perfectly baked sheets of cake.
The smells and commotion in the kitchen inevitably drew me in by her side. Curiosity would often get the best of me during the most delicate step of the recipe – rolling the entire sheet of cake slathered in strawberry jelly into a perfect cylinder roll with a perfect jelly swirl on each side. My little fingers would creep towards the sticky sweet jelly in an attempt to “help” with the rolling and my YaYa would have to gently swat away my curious fingers while gingerly holding her half rolled cake in place. So, I'd run off to play because I had the attention span of a gnat.
As the years rolled by, her visits became less frequent as trans-pacific travel became harder for her. And unfortunately, my interest in cooking skyrocketed as the frequency of her visits plummeted.
While I am Chinese AND Thai (and Texan and American), I identified more with my Chinese side since my PoPo lived with us for extended periods of time during my childhood. This explains why my Cantonese forever limps at a 4th-grade level, but my Thai vocabulary primarily consists of one or two-word sentences (hello, hungry, pad thai, thank you, and bathroom). I can swear like a sailor in Thai though. (Thanks, Dad!) I don’t even know how to say “I love you” in Thai, however, I’m not really sure you say things like that so directly any way. At least that’s true in Chinese - what’s often said translates as “I’m very affectionate to you.”
I learned the basics of not burning food in college. My senior year I had the luck of living with 3 other Asian American gals. One girl cooked like a true PoPo, and two others like me, were eager to learn. So my cooking skewed Chinese (and Italian because seriously, give me all the carbs), as I had mouths to feed on Tuesday night, my night to cook. I taught myself risotto, which wasn’t so different from congee or jook. I learned how to sear a steak properly. And I learned that even if a dish fails, it’d still get eaten. Because college boys, amiright?
After college I kept cooking, refining the art of applying heat to ingredients, and finding friends who loved to cook or eat, or both.
But usually, if I wanted Thai food I’d wander over to my aunt and uncle’s and there’d always be something delicious on the stove. Or if I wasn’t living near them I’d resign myself to restaurant pad thai or pad kee mow since my most favorite Thai noodle dish is so poorly executed in restaurants (sad face).
My most favorite Thai dish is Yen Ta Fo.
For me, it represents the epitome of Thai food’s delicious flavor profile (a marriage of umami, salty, sour, sweet) I could eat without dying from the spiciness. Afterall, I am only half spicy.
The key ingredient to Yen Ta Fo is red fermented tofu, which gives the soup a rich, funky, umami boost and its signature red color. You can tell if the soup was made from scratch or flavored with a pre-made commercial sin depending if the soup turns the white rice noodles a ghastly, day-glo pink or not. White noodles with just the slightest hint of pink mean you're getting the real deal.
Then one day my YaYa planned a trip to Houston. As with most trips home, there is always a flurry of activity in the kitchen – meats to be marinated, veggies to be washed, broths to simmer, and lots of discussion of what’s for the next, next meal even when the next has yet to be eaten. At the very least, there's always talk about what's for the next meal during the current meal.
During meal deliberations, I lent the most vocal support for a Yen Ta Fo lunch with the promise that I’d help my YaYa do most of the prep and heavy lifting if I could cook by her side and learn from her.
After all the years of navigating distance, language, culture, and a generation gap, I was finally standing next to my YaYa (sans kitchen stool) learning how to make Yen Ta Fo from scratch - simmering bones for stock, washing the ong choy (aka water spinach), and gathering the many, many components to assemble the mise en place just so.
The feisty lady who still tears through the streets of Bangkok in a stick shift CR-V brought the same energy and sass to the kitchen, just with a few more naps sprinkled in throughout the day. I was allowed to do the heavy lifting though, now that my YaYa’s physical strength was beginning to wane.
Her instructions came rapid and exacting on how to peel, devein, and season the shrimp, blanch and arrange the vegetables, fish balls, shrimp, and bites of chicken just so. And TASTE! Taste, taste, taste the funky red sauce until it was just right to swirl into each bowl of noodles.
In true grandma fashion, no ingredient was measured with more than a passing glance.
I started a unit of measure of how long my YaYa eyeballed an ingredient while adding it to a pot or bowl. I’ll call it the g-unit, short for grandma-unit. Since this dish is my reigning favorite, my YaYa insisted on making it TWICE during her visit.
Of course, she changed how the stock was simmered based on what was in the fridge, she changed this and that, and the final dish? Still so delicious. The recipe notes I so carefully took the first go around looked like chicken-scratch and I ended up with a list of ingredients as my “final recipe” for my YaYa’s Yen Ta Fo. This explains why when friends ask for my recipes I end up sending just a list of ingredients (and if they’re lucky, some ratios, HA!). While I may not have learned cooking basics from my YaYa or inherited her sweet tooth, I did inherit her kitchen intuition and expression of love through food.
I know people aspire to be surgeons or lawyers or all that professional fancy-pants stuff, but I truly aspire to be the ultimate grandma – always something delicious simmering on the stove or a tasty snack just minutes from materializing out of thin air. This is how I aspire to love, love, love the people in my life.
Now, when the weather turns from suffocating summer to crisp hints of fall weather, I grab my recipe, er, ingredients list and run to the grocery store. The stockpot comes out along with the massive mise en place. And a few hours later I’ve got Yen Ta Fo on the table. I’ve made it for church friends, foodie friends, friends who somehow trust me enough to try anything I place in front of them. This recipe has nourished my family and my friends. I know this recipe by heart because my YaYa taught it to me from her heart.
Even though she is an ocean away, she is with us as we gather around the table, slurping noodles, joking in English, laughing, and of course, swearing in Thai.