Thursday, March 26, 2009

the secret to asian cooking

I have a recipe that calls for "Chinese Five Spice." Not knowing what that was, since I am not Chinese, I went out and bought it at a Chinese supermarket--it appears to be a mixture of star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, pepper. I like all of these things, but I have never combined them. I open the jar, and take a whiff.

For crying out loud, this is the "secret" to my mother's excellent barbequed pork and spare ribs?! For all these years, this was the magical recipe?! For all these years, I've been totally paralyzed with fear about trying to replicate my mom's recipes or even attempt Asian--much less Vietnamese--cooking, for fear of being too inauthentic. It does feel shameful that my pork wonton recipe comes from, and all of my recipes that are not learned from my mother or The Only Vietnamese Friend I Have are from whitey recipe sites. But they were not speaking the untruth! The white people, they can interpret an Asian recipe too without the mystical folklorish wisdom of "you just know when" and the imprecision of "a pinch or two of that." Tablespoons and teaspoons are nice guidelines! And even if you use Cooks Illustrated to make Szechuan food (why would an American born and raised Vietnamese American girl know how to cook in that style intuitively anyway, and aren't we against essentialism!), this does not make you a bad person. Sometimes, Cooks Illustrated knows the family recipe that your mother uses.

This is not unlike finding out your Great Aunt Rose's legendary pound cake is made from a box mix, and all this time you could have been making and eating your own legendary cake.