Cooking, like design, has a way of triggering the senses.
I didn’t really get into cooking until last year. I realized I was spending too much money on food every week, so I came to the conclusion I should cook my own food. My resolution for 2016 was to cook as many meals for myself as I could.
Sous vide was what I started with, and that kicked off my food exploration. From making meats, custard, and jams to pickled vegetables and my own cannabis butter—I liked that everything was so precise—especially as a designer. The sous vide brought me closer to making something as perfect as possible.
I’m always looking for tools that will make my entire job easier while also bringing the level of precision that I want to the task—this started with design and moved into cooking.
This is why, as I began to cook more, I was so focused on measurements and documenting my recipes. I want to be able to replicate what I’ve done again and again every time I make it, especially if I’ve perfected it.
My mom is an awesome cook. She’s always made traditional Vietnamese dishes, so I grew up around cooking. All of my aunts cook too, and I am the fourth of six kids, so every family get-together is a feast.
As I got more and more into it I realized that there was so much to learn from my mom, but the problem was that all of her recipes are in her head. She can’t really pass them on. It’s kind of a design flaw.
When I asked her to start measuring everything she was pretty frustrated. The kitchen is her turf; it’s her sanctuary, her space. There is no room for measuring cups or spoons, which is why she doesn’t have exact measurements for her recipes.
But I wanted to learn from her so the recipes could be passed on. I have so many siblings, and none of them hold any of our mom’s recipes. Over time, I have been able to export things from her head by spending more time with her in the kitchen. I have taken her recipes and made them my own. I learned her techniques and incorporated them into my own cooking using techniques of my own. I am taking something old and literally making it new. It is me paying tribute to what she made for us as kids, but I try to refine it to make it better.
In January 2017, I decided to experiment with veganism. My New Year’s resolution for was to eat purely vegan lunches for the entire year. I wanted to use this experiment to test my self-discipline, especially since I was the total opposite of a vegan for 25+ years of my life. A couple days into my vegan lunches, I realized I was really enjoying the challenge. Food still tasted great, and I was cooking even more. That was when I decided to go all-in.
Full-on veganism. It started from there, and I’m still there.
Vegan food sometimes gets a bad rap, and I wanted to embrace the challenge of fixing that. I didn’t want to make food that was “good…for a vegan alternative,” but instead I wanted it to be good because it’s good.
Over time, I’ve taken my mom’s recipes and continued to put my own vegan spin on them. I’ve embraced both the challenge of improving them, and also making them vegan.
Bánh xèo (Vietnamese sizzling crepes) is hands-down my favorite recipe that she gave me. She and my aunt both have their own versions of how they should be made, and it’s almost become a rivalry to see who’s crepes are best, especially on who can get theirs to be crispier.
When I went to learn how to make my mom’s crepes, I literally slipped a scale under everything she prepared and documented it. While observing, I noticed the crepe recipe had a similar recipe to a deep-fried cauliflower dish I had recently made. The cauliflower batter had vodka mixed in it, that left a extremely crunchy coating on the outside. I knew this was something I wanted to experiment with once I had a chance to make these crepes on my own.
When Mother’s Day rolled around, I told my mom I wanted to come over and cook her my version of her crepes, fully embracing the pressure of recreating one of her best dishes. My mom, grandma, and aunt were all there that day. It was both a pleasure and a very intimidating opportunity that I took on. Luckily for me, they loved what I made. My aunt even asked for my recipe too.
But my mom being my mom, told me to keep the recipe within the immediately family. It’s not a spoken competition between her and her siblings, but there is something special to her about keeping it a secret.
Phillip’s Banh Xeo Recipe (inspired by Mama Nguyen)
Like a lot of Vietnamese food, this recipe involves a lot of ingredients and elements that make up the dish. It is meant to be eaten and enjoyed at the table with family and friends.
Heavy bottom nonstick 8” skillet w/ lid (cast-iron is even better)
For the batter:
230g rice flour
140g corn starch
2g baking powder
425g cold water
140g vodka (I use Smirnoff)
4 stalks of green onions (green parts only, sliced in about ⅛” pieces)
Canola or vegetable (or any kind of neutral) oil
For the filling:
A block worth of fried tofu—I use Bui Fried Tofu, commonly found in asian grocery stores (sliced into 1/8” thick pieces)
12oz oyster mushrooms* (sliced into ¼” thick pieces—I partially cook these by sautéing them in oil, minced garlic, salt, and pepper) Note: you can substitute this with any other mushroom
1 medium sized yellow onion, thinly sliced
12oz of fresh bean sprouts
200g pork belly (sliced in small ⅛” thick pieces)—I partially cook them by sautéing them in oil, minced garlic, salt, and pepper
400g small/medium white shrimp (traditionally these are cooked with the shells still on, but I prefer them shelled and deveined)—also partially cooked by sautéing them in oil, minced garlic, salt, and pepper.
1 medium sized yellow onion—thinly sliced
12oz of fresh bean sprouts
Vegetable/herb platter - Red leaf lettuce, mint, cilantro, perilla leaves
Pickled daikon/carrots - optional
Weigh out all dry ingredients in bowl, and whisk together until evenly distributed. Add cold water, vodka, and green onion tops then mix until combined. Chill batter for an hour in refrigerator.
After an hour, whisk batter again (since the dry ingredients may have settled to the bottom of the bowl) before proceeding to the next step. Batter will stay good in the fridge for 3-4 days so you can make this ahead of time if needed.
Heat skillet on medium-high heat. Once heated, add 2 tbsp of oil (we want this to be a regular to shallow fry—it may seem like a lot of oil, but it’s needed). On one side of the skillet, add 4-5 onion slices, and an even amount of mushroom and tofu to cover the bottom half of the skillet, but don’t overcrowd the pan. If using shrimp and pork belly, a couple pieces each of shrimp and pork belly.
Once protein/veggies are added, ladle in batter while tilting the pan in a circular motion (enough to thinly cover the bottom of the pan, and trap in the ingredients added). Add a small handful of bean sprouts to the same half side of the pan, and cover with a lid for 2 minutes allowing the steam to cook the bean sprouts.
Fold the crepe in half—the half side with no ingredients on it, over on top of the opposite side (similar to a omelette). Continue frying on each side for another 30 seconds to a minute. The reason why we fold it early is so the crepe doesn’t get too hard where it’s difficult to fold. The end fry is to make sure the crepe gets hard and crunchy.
Transfer to cooling rack when crepe is finished.
Repeat steps 3-6 until you finish the batter.
To eat: cut each crepe in half with scissors, and wrap the half inside lettuce leaves and herbs mentioned above. Dip in either fish sauce or vietnamese peanut sauce, and enjoy!