What Does It Mean to Cook Well?

Cooking well is what the little old woman in front of me does. She has approximately five teeth, one good eye, and two hands that orchestrate the movement of nearly sixty gargantuan shrimp on the grill in front of her. Her vocabulary and mine don’t overlap at all, but she knows what I want, and she smiles as I watch her work.

Those are not shrimp she’s grilling, actually, but river prawns plucked from the Chao Phraya River here in Bangkok. From left to right in front of her, the crustacean color spectrum goes from a raw, translucent blue to a charcoal-kissed coral. If the fire gets too low – below what is left of her eyebrows – she grabs a small bellows and blasts it back up. I laugh to myself when I compare her stature to that of the ogres I’ve seen work the grill station back home. And I practically giggle with delight when I taste what she’s made. Smoky, juicy, and plump on their own, the prawns are better still dunked in a fiery sauce that could not have been much more than just fish sauce, vinegar, and some bird’s eye chilies.

It’s a bittersweet moment, for she might not be back in this same spot tomorrow, and I know I won’t be. I’ll be on a plane back home, where the shrimp are a little smaller; the cooks, a little bigger; and the exhaust fumes from the cars and the grill smoke of the sidewalk food vendors might not mingle in the same, beautiful way.

Fortunately, cooking well is also what my three-year-old niece does, and she doesn’t even use fire. Together, we will dice tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos that grow in my parents’ back yard. But first, she helps me pick them, because I need her to know where food comes from. It doesn’t always come from the supermarket in those shiny plastic-wrapped, Styrofoam-padded packages, I tell her. Vegetables grow in the dirt. Now she’ll know exactly how that dirt feels, as we dig around to yank up an onion or two. She has my mother’s gardening hat on – eight sizes too big for her – and a wicker basket in her hand. I won’t ever forget this.

Back inside, we make pico de gallo, a chunky Mexican salsa made (in our kitchen, at least) with just those three ingredients and a generous splash of lime juice. She and I somehow always manage to make it a little too spicy, but I don’t think I’d want it any other way.

A bunch of scraps remain on the cutting board – onion skins, tomato stems, jalapeno seeds – and I motion towards the trash can. “Not there, Aaron,” she scolds me. “There.” She points to the compost bin. This three-year-old understands the idea of composting, of giving back to the soil that gave us lunch.  And something tells me that this little girl will be cooking well for a long, long time.

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