Finding Culture in the Kitchen

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When I first talked to my mom about moving into an off-campus apartment as a first-year in college, she laughed at me. “What are you going to eat?” followed the 30 seconds of laughter. Eventually, after having a serious conversation about moving to the DMV, we made it happen. This past January, my parents and I packed up all of the suitcases in the house and flew into Virginia, ready to start this new chapter in my life.

After landing and checking out the apartment, one of the first things we did was hit up the local Asian grocers. My mom kept adding items to the cart, saying, “You’ll need this,” and, “This is easy to use.” In reality, I had no idea what I was going to do with any of the items — unless it was a snack I added myself. After checkout, I ended up with the most intimidating ingredients on the planet (at the time). There was fish sauce, chicken bouillon, oyster sauce, Chinese cabbage, salmon, gochujang and a bunch of other items that I couldn’t pronounce, let alone cook with.

When I tell you I was off to a rocky start, I mean it. I didn’t touch half the grocery items in my pantry for at least two weeks for fear of messing something up. But as mentioned in my previous blog post, all it took for my confidence and determination to set in was to just try out a recipe. I started with rice and eggs, then moved on to fried rice, pad thai and stir-fries. Once I got comfortable with the items in my cabinet and fridge, I experimented on noodle soups, fried wontons, and a few classic Vietnamese dishes. After making every dish, I would FaceTime my mom to show her how proud I was of myself. Through the screen, I was able to see how proud she was too. For a split moment, it felt like we were eating together at home again.

Here are a few of the dishes that my mom was proud of:

I was desperately craving something to slurp on, so I called my mom to ask how to spice up a broth and we came up with this! This is a simple noodle soup that I made with a basic chicken bone broth seasoned with chicken bouillon, fish sauce, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and a bunch of mix-ins.

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This dish is a classic Vietnamese staple called Bánh Xèo. My mom would make this every once in a while and it always hit just the right spot. Although my version wasn’t nearly as good as my mom’s, it still felt like home.

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This dish is called Chả Cá or Vietnamese fried fish cakes. My mom overnighted a huge box of food for me, and this was part of the package. All I had to do was let the paste thaw and fry it in some oil!

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This dish is called Bò Lúc Lắc, or “Shaking Beef,” but the more fun name and what I like it call it is “Twerking Beef.” I would order this at the Vietnamese restaurant by my high school all the time and had the sudden urge to recreate it. All I can say is that it was a mighty fine idea.

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This next dish is called Chinese Broccoli in Oyster Sauce. My family used to order this every time we would eat out at a Chinese dim sum restaurant for lunch. To satisfy my craving, I decided to give it a try and I was successful!

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Now, this last dish hit super close to home. Living in South Florida, my family is full of fishers. During the summer, there was always fresh fish at the house, usually caught the morning of. Luckily, I found a local butcher in Georgetown that sold sashimi-grade tuna and was able to recreate a classic poke bowl!

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Living so far away from home and attending a predominately white institution, I was genuinely afraid of losing some of the culture centered at home. However, I quickly came to realize that some of the best forms of culture are created in the kitchen. Cooking is my way of keeping in touch with my roots (and it reminds me to call my parents every day). My mom even tells me I’m starting to cook better than her — but everyone knows nothing beats a home-cooked meal from your parent.

Header Image: MENTAL FLOSS

How ‘MasterChef’ Changed My Life

My love for “MasterChef” all started when my roommates forced me to join them on an episode of “MasterChef USA.” We had just recently moved into our cute little apartment (that creaks whenever you make a step) in Rosslyn, VA. The WiFi had just been installed, and my roommates decided that we had to have TV bonding night. I made sure to grab my phone as I never really enjoyed the fast-paced cooking reality shows. I ended up finishing the first episode only because I was hoping for some sort of “idiot sandwich” comment from Gordon Ramsay.

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In two short weeks, we finished the entirety of “MasterChef USA” season 10. Since we’d moved in, I’d eaten rice and eggs every day for breakfast. A simple meal, for sure, but I began to imagine how I could make my meals reflect the beauty of the meals on “MasterChef.” After many attempts, my eggs looked great and my sister even complimented them, and my sister never compliments anything of mine! Then, of course, the attention seeker in me decided to post the eggs on my Instagram story. All it took was one person to swipe up for my pride to build.

Every meal after that has become a competition with myself. How can I make my meals look pretty enough to rival the ones on “MasterChef” and make my IG look pretty enough for validation from my followers? Let me show you a few of my greatest creations below.

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These were the eggs that started it all. My mother and sister approved, so that’s all it took for me to gain enough confidence to share on my IG.

Thanks to my roommates’ “MasterChef” addiction, I actually found myself getting better with my skills in the kitchen. I was cutting faster, adjusting the heat properly, and seasoning just how it should be. On top of those, my food photography skills were improving as well. Take a look below!

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This is my friend’s, Kiran, and my version of Chicken Tikka Masala.

In this recipe, my friend Kiran and I made our version of a Chicken Tikka Masala, something I was terribly craving since moving up to Virginia. I’d say we cheated on this recipe, because we used a store-bought sauce. It was good, but we found ourselves adding garlic, onions, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and a heck ton of paprika.

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This is a simple version of spaghetti and pan-fried shrimp.

Now this dish was a banger. It was my first time cooking pasta without anyone’s physical help, and a few noodles may have ended up on the wall (apparently if they stick, it’s al dente).

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This is a ham, turkey, and cheese sandwich with corn salsa and chips on the side.

This meal above was one of my favorites because of all of the colors involved. It also took a little more work because I pickled the onions in the sandwich myself. The corn salsa was something my sister made all the time, but I never had the courage to try it out myself.

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This is my version of deep-fried panko shrimp.

I actually gained a few pounds after eating these fried shrimp bits (jk … maybe). I’ve always had a fear of hot oil (*flashback to past traumatic experiences with popping oil burns*) but built up the courage to try out frying some shrimp because I was in the mood for something greasy. To be fair, I paired it with a salad to make it healthy.

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This is a simple one: pancakes with some fresh strawberries and syrup.

These pancakes were extremely fun to make — partly because this was my first time making them from scratch. I didn’t realize how easy this dish is to make! After that morning, I vowed to never make pancakes from the box ever again.

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Another simplified version of spaghetti and parmesan chicken (but no parmesan, oops).

When I say this spaghetti dish was memorable, I mean it. Despite how delicious this may look, it was probably one of the worst things I’ve made: It was very bland and undercooked. After giving myself some time to reflect (I literally sat on the couch and thought about this), I realized my mistakes: I didn’t let the chicken set to room temperature before frying it, I didn’t pound it flat enough, and, most importantly, I didn’t season it properly. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but I’m glad I know how to improve myself for round two.

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Overall, my experiences in the kitchen were entirely new adventures for me, inspired by my new love of “Masterchef.” Many of the recipes I shared on my IG story were actually my first attempts at them. When someone asks me what my favorite thing to make is, I always struggle to answer because I’ve only ever made everything once! Wait a couple of months and ask me that same question, and hopefully, I’ll have an answer ready to tell you.