Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Vi Thuc Ha

Vi picks red ursa kale in her garden, 2011.
I'm excited to follow up my post on The Vegetable/Ceramics Exchange with an ESD Questionnaire from Vi Thuc Ha, one of the main participants.  It's been a pleasure to get to know Vi and to see her perennial garden in the backyard of her home in Chavez Ravine.  She sent me her questionnaire response just before Thanksgiving, but I held onto it until we were able to arrange a meeting between Vi, Bari Ziperstein (the other half of the Exchange), and myself to discuss their system of trading Vi's home-grown vegetables and herbs for Bari's hand-crafted ceramic sculptures.

Before I met Vi, I'd been told that she was an avid gardener and cook, but what I didn't know was that she comes from a long line of accomplished gardeners and cooks.  As you'll read in this questionnaire, Vi's grandmother used to grow water spinach in two clawfoot bathtubs, but they were kept in her garden, NOT in the bathroom as I envisioned when I originally read this questionnaire!

1. What is your favorite food to eat? Why?
Dim sum. It's my ultimate comfort food. I grew up Chinatown and could walk to dim sum restaurants and delis at all hours of the day and night. I love it all--the cheap and the fancy avant-garde.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Noodle soup. I do a simplified phở [a Vietnamese soup made with rice noodles] that I would eat everyday for breakfast if I could.

3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
My parents are my greatest culinary influence. They cook everything from scratch (as best as they can) and we did not have highly processed foods or prepared frozen foods in the refrigerator. Growing up my mother (and now it is my father) walks to the markets in Chinatown every day to buy vegetables and meats to cook with. Chicken was fresh, never frozen.

My maternal grandmother, now deceased, was a phenomenal traditional Vietnamese chef, entertainer and gardener. She flooded her clawfoot tubs to grow water spinach and had a garden that was larger than mine in El Monte. She hosted 30+ church parties and family gatherings (giỗ) and she was the main cook.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Chopsticks. I can stir, mix and pick things up with them.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
One of my sisters had a large party, so I had Thanksgiving early with both Vietnamese and mostly American foods.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another  meal the brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat?
We are a private household. Our big family meal was after Sunday Mass with just my parents and my sisters. We would eat some form of traditional noodle dish either at home or at Phở 79. We were a Chinatown Phở 79 family.

Growing up in Chinatown, my father knew the Huy Fong guy [David Trần-- maker of "Rooster Sauce"] way back when he was starting his business in 70/80s. He used to be the tailor du jour of the Los Angeles Vietnamese/Chinese community, making suits for Asian (read short) men.   Ed. Note:  David Trần is the owner of Huy Fong Foods and the inventor of his company's recipe for their famous Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce.  Because of the drawing of the rooster on the label it is frequently referred to simply as "Rooster Sauce" and is often used as a condiment for phở.

 7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Because I work full-time and don't have much time to work in the garden (approximately 1-2 hours a week) I grow a lot of perennial vegetables and herbs. I follow the seasons as they go. I started the garden a few years ago with Michael Parker; we built 3' diameter mounds in which one puts plants into the sloped sides and waters only the center of the mound.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
A trip to El Bulli.

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
Again Ferran Adria, he can do whatever he wishes to do, hopefully with some freeze-dried foams.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is ____________."
Vietnamese is a poetry-driven language; one would find poems in daily newspapers and that most people of the older generation can recite a few lines from their favorite poems. Vietnamese proverbs are used a language teaching tool for children. One famous proverb is "Bát đẹp ngon cơm." Literal translation is "beautiful bowls, delicious rice"; a simplistic liberal translation would be "appearances matter". In light of my current ceramic plate trade with Bari Ziperstein, I can't think of anything more apt.
Bari and Vi in Vi's garden in the backyard of her Chavez Ravine home, Jan. 2011.

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