Foreigners seem to adore many Vietnamese dishes, especially “pho” (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) and “thit kho” (pork brined with coconut juice) thanks to their unique flavors and taste, 2012 U.S. MasterChef Christine Ha told Tuoi Tre News in an interview last week.
Christine Ha, a 34-year-old visually impaired cook, came to Ho Chi Minh City on July 5 to attend the “Taste the Story” charitable auction gala organized by a social enterprise in order to raise funds to build a vocational training school that teaches hospitality skills and English for local disadvantaged youths.
The American chef and writer of Vietnamese origin, who was crowned champion of the MasterChef reality show’s third season thanks to her Southeast Asian three-course meal, talked about her life after winning the title and her journey of promoting Vietnamese dishes to the world.
Among the Vietnamese dishes that you have cooked so far, which are well-received by foreigners?
I have cooked a lot of Vietnamese dishes. It seems that foreigners especially like “pho” and “thit kho” as well as many other dishes. They adore Vietnamese food thanks to its unique aroma and taste. I travel a lot, everywhere I go I tend to find Vietnamese food and it’s definitely popular in many countries around the world including France, Canada and Sweden. I think a lot of people watched me cook Vietnamese food in the 2012 MasterChef show so now they are curious about it.
Foreigners often say that Vietnamese condiments such as fish sauce and shrimp sauce are smelly. Have you ever cooked any Vietnamese dishes using them and what was the reaction of foreign eaters?
Yes, I cook with them all the time. A lot of people can’t stand the smell. It does smell bad to them but once they taste the dish and get used to it, they love it. I tell them it’s about ratio and balancing of flavors.
Do you have any plans to present your cooking skills and your delicious dishes to Vietnamese people?
I currently have a cooking show in Canada called “Four Senses” made by AIM, which is a local network that makes television accessible for people without sight or hearing. In this show, I co-host with a full-vision chef who won Top Chef Canada in 2012. In every episode we cook a new dish that revolves around a certain theme such as ‘salty’ or ‘sweet’.
As we cook, we describe everything we do so that at home, audience members who don’t have vision can follow along as we talk about what we are doing, even in specific detail. I used to love watching cooking shows but when I lost my vision it became much more difficult for me to keep up.
I’ve cooked some Vietnamese dishes such as “ca kho” (grilled fish) and some sauces. The audience is always excited to try to cook Vietnamese food.
I think watching me on television cooking a lot of Vietnamese specialties really opens up people’s curiosity about Vietnamese flavors. They realize that it’s a very simple cuisine with cheap ingredients but it also has a complex flavor. Hopefully one day, I can have a show in Vietnam, too.
What do you think about Vietnamese cuisine?
Vietnamese cuisine utilizes fresh, yet inexpensive ingredients and employs simple cooking techniques. But it’s incredibly delicious. There are a lot of ingredients that if you eat it by itself is very strong. For example, you can’t eat a spoon full of “mam tom” (shrimp sauce) but when you put a tiny bit into a meal its taste becomes totally different. Cooking is a lot about the balancing of different flavors so your meal must always have a little bit of sour, bitterness, sweetness, and salt.
How has your life changed after you won the 2012 U.S. MasterChef title?
I’ve become much busier! Now, I’m not home very often as I travel to do a lot of different things. I’m just really busy but I think it’s good. Last year I finished writing my first cookbook. Hopefully I will write another one soon. Besides filming the “Four Senses” show in Canada, I also work for non-profit organizations and speak at a lot of conferences to inspire people.
As the winner of the 2012 U.S. MasterChef show, you were entitled to publish a book. What did foreign readers comment about it?
Many people from around the world loved my “Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food” cookbook. In the U.S., it even made the New York Times Bestseller list. That was another crowning achievement of which I’m very proud. Many people who are unfamiliar with Asian food liked that my recipes made the cuisine less intimidating and more accessible.
As a visually impaired person who has been accomplishing many impressive achievements, do you have anything to say with regard to disabled Vietnamese people, especially children, to encourage them to follow their cooking passions in particular and follow their dreams in general?
I think with the right support from the community and family, people with disabilities can live just like those with no disabilities. I was fortunate to have a good support system from my friends and family back in Texas to help me adapt to vision loss. I am blessed to be able to show the world that disabled people can achieve unexpected results, as long as they don’t give up.
What has your father [who is currently living in Vietnam] said about your success so far?
My father is a very simple man and he is also a man of few words so he just said “I’m proud of you” and I know that means a lot.