Reading Asian American Literature 唐人寫書

Currently reading Christine Ha’s Recipes from My Home Kitchen

20130514-032004The winner of Gordon Ramsay’s reality show featuring amateur chefs earns the title of Masterchef, walks away a quarter million dollars richer and has a cookbook deal lined up. For me, it usually ends at the finale, as in, “So nice so-and-so won…” and it leaves my memory entirely.

The 2012 winner of Season 3, however, left a larger impression. You see, Christine Hà, is blind and completely lost her vision in her 20s as a result of the autoimmune disease neuromyelitis optica. I didn’t watch most of the season but knew she had won and that she is very talented and uses the rest of her senses to deliver stellar dishes and that one contestant really tried to screw her over by giving her a live crab to work with while sighted contestants did not have to wrangle with their ingredient. Since winning the title of Masterchef, she also obtained her MFA in creative non-fiction and fiction.

Before the loss of her vision, Christine suffered a great personal loss when her mother passed away when Christine was just 13. In the context of food and cooking, it meant the recipes for delicious home-cooked dishes were lost forever. When Christine came into her own as a home cook, she worked hard at replicating the flavours her mother created. (My palate is not good enough to know and adjust my food to how my mother’s food tastes, so immediately I admire her tenacity and skill.)

While I did not leaf through my mother’s cookbooks and only started fending for myself in the kitchen when I was living on my own (and as an adult, not the university version of living alone), I think those cookbooks of yore were straightforward “recipe books” or “cookbooks”. I don’t know what to call these books published these days where there are short vignettes and chapter introductions in which the author/chef gets to infuse her personality throughout. Thus, I do mark this book in as one “read” because I read all the blurbs between the ingredient lists and cooking instructions.

When I first heard the subtitle to the cookbook, “Asian and American Comfort Food”, I rolled my eyes a little. How pedestrian and cliche! On the other hand, I found myself bookmarking a lot of recipes because they sound so good and seem within my skills to make. It is, afterall, Asian food and ingredients that are more familiar to me than the next person and comfort food doesn’t have to be pretty. With a short anecdote before a a recipe, she illuminates the context of the recipe in the volume and gets you excited to make the same dish. At the end of most recipes, she provides tips about the ingredients and encouragement, like how a friend and fellow home cook will give you her spin on a recipe she found online. I liked the blurb that answered that long mystery to me, “Why doesn’t my fried rice taste (at all) like a restaurant’s?!”

Many of the vignettes go back to when she still had her vision and she describes the experiences and when I think of what she has lost since and yet writes so fondly of dishes’ appearance, I makes me admire her spirit all the more.

In the most recent completed Masterchef season, one contestant botched a dish by seasoning it with fish sauce and he claimed in defense how he knew Christine loved the flavour. Indeed. In the book, she wrote, “Because they are one of my favorite flavor profiles, having cooked with them frequently on the show, I got images of these three ingredients [garlic, fish sauce and cilantro] tattooed on me to commemorate my experience at MasterChef.” That’s kind of adorable!