I had to learn to cook to survive during a COVID-19 lockdown in Đà Nẵng

Up until a month ago, the extent of my skills with pots and frying pans was making fried eggs and instant noodles. 

But since the COVID-19 outbreak in Đà Nẵng, where I live, prompted every food stall in town to shut down, I was forced to roll up my sleeves and get into the kitchen.

How I’ve survived my entire life without a seemingly essential skill

Up until a month ago, fried eggs and sausages were all I could conjure up in the kitchen

For most of my life, I had absolutely no idea how to cook. Never liked it, never needed it. Back when I lived with my parents, my mom would take care of the meals.

Now if that makes me sound like a spoiled brat, allow me to clarify: that’s just how my family divides the work. My mom cooks, while my dad and I would help out with other chores. There are occasions when my mom would be out of town, but they are few and far between, and during those days my dad and I would make do just fine with simple dishes such as boiled pork and boiled veggies, or we’d simply opt to eat out.

Even during social gatherings where my friends and I would all go to one person’s house to have a hotpot or a barbecue, I’d always be the guy who volunteered to do the dishes. I never felt any shame doing so because I figured that I was still contributing just as much effort as my friends who cooked or bought ingredients and drinks.

It was probably to everyone’s benefit too, as me in the kitchen is a potential hazard just waiting to happen. 

I’m not even exaggerating – there have been times when I managed to screw up even instant noodles. Once, the inexperienced, ill-informed 15-year-old me thought it’d take really long for water to boil, so after putting a pot of noodles with water on a lit stove, I decided to run to the nearby bookstore to grab a new manga volume. I returned half an hour later to a kitchen full of smoke and a pot half-full of burnt noodles that took me like an hour to scrape clean.

On top of that, the numerous cuts and burns I inflicted on myself when I did make an effort to try and learn how to cook only served to drive me further away from the kitchen.

Point is, I hated cooking and I was terrible at it back then, so I found ways to contribute in other areas where I could be more useful.

But everything changed when COVID-19 attacked

Đà Nẵng has so many great foods to savor, and this bowl of bánh canh (rice noodles with seafood broth) is just one of them

I left my hometown of Hanoi earlier this year to move to Đà Nẵng, and for the first 3 months, the question I got asked literally every time my family called to check in on me was “Are you eating alright? Do you know how to cook?” I’d just answer with general statements like, “Yes, I’m fine. Sometimes I eat out, sometimes I cook at home. Don’t worry, Mom!”

The truth was, I ate out 90% of the time, and on days when I was too lazy to hit the streets, instant noodles and fried eggs were good enough for me.

I had no intention of changing my lifestyle. After all, Đà Nẵng is a beautiful city with plenty of delicious food waiting to be savored, and I have a stable job with a stable income so I can afford the luxury of eating out.

Huế style beef noodles with ample toppings and extremely savory broth made by simmering beef bones and lemongrass – another of my favorite dishes

But as a new COVID-19 wave hit Đà Nẵng in late July, the city was put under a social distancing policy where all food stores were ordered to close. “It’s okay, let’s not panic,” I told myself, “I’ll just order takeaways, no big deal.” 

But just a few days later, a new order came and bam! Even takeaways were banned. So I was left with two choices: learn how to cook, or stick with instant noodles and canned food until the outbreak is snuffed out – which could take weeks or even months. For a picky eater like me, the second option was not an option at all, and thus began my venture into the world of cooking.

The struggle of learning to cook

The grocery store near my place, MM Mega Market Đà Nẵng, was packed full of people coming to stock up on the night before the lockdown

Naturally, as a total cooking noob, I faced lots of problems learning how to make my own meals. Even the very first step, buying the correct ingredients, was a challenge as I couldn’t tell bok choy from choy sum or mistakenly bought galangal when I needed ginger.

Picking the right place to buy ingredients is incidentally also a big part of cooking prep. I can count all the times I’ve been to a market to buy cooking ingredients throughout my entire life on one hand, so I have no experience haggling for better prices or telling which slices of beef are newly cut and which have been there for a few days. As a result, I opt to avoid markets and instead buy meat and veggies from the biggest mall in town – where everything comes in packages with clear expiration dates and prices printed on the labels.

Meat is sold only in big packs at the mall

Problem is, they only sell groceries in large quantities – the smallest pack of meat is at least 400-500G. This means I have to plan my meals around the ingredients I have and use them up in a few days before they go bad. So unless I want to eat the same dish over and over again, I need to pick up new recipes that use the same ingredients.

Actually, getting into the cooking part isn’t easy either. I had to google the most basic food prep techniques such as how to mince onions or how to cut beef into thin slices.

I often buy just enough groceries to last a few days at a time

On top of that, I’m terrible with measurements and never know how much seasoning I should add, so I tend to use too much. I still haven’t forgiven myself for ruining a perfectly good steak by spraying it with too much salt – I’m talking 4-5 times more than the amount necessary. That cooking recipe I found on Google did say I needed to be “generous” . . .

cooking in lockdown - steak
I have an undying passion for steak, so naturally, I had to learn how to make it

My girlfriend is a major reason why I am gradually overcoming the learning curve. Even though she lives in Hội An and can’t come over due to travel restrictions, I can always call her whenever I have questions, and I can send her pictures of ingredients to confirm they are indeed what I need. She also walks me through the steps to turn them into an edible meal, going so far as to tell me exactly how many teaspoons of spice I should add to a dish, or how many minutes I should fry my veggies for.

Now, just 4 weeks since the lockdown, I’ve already got several recipes up my sleeve, enough so I can go for an entire week without having to repeat a dish.

Some cooking tips I’ve picked up along the way

cooking in lockdown - fried noodles
My homemade stir-fried noodles. Not bad, eh?

I’m still very much a beginner who still has a lot to learn, but if you are where I was a couple of weeks ago, here are my two cents:

Stock up on the basic stuff: Salt, pepper, garlic, and shallots are staple ingredients that go well in almost every dish in both Western and Asian meals, so they are great to have on hand in every situation. Always make sure to buy plenty of them. They can last for weeks or even months, so there’s no reason not to stock up.

Learn how long ingredients can last and buy accordingly: Meat can be kept in the freezer for months with very little impact on its taste when defrosted, so it’s no big deal if you buy more than you need for one meal. 

Eggs and root vegetables such as carrots or potatoes can last for a couple of weeks as well, so pick them up on your market visit if you have none at home – you’ll get to them eventually. Veggies, on the other hand, are best enjoyed in the first 3 days or so.

Don’t hesitate to try your hand at more complicated dishes: It makes sense to start with some simple dishes, but if you are a picky eater like myself, don’t let that be a mental barrier stopping you from learning more complicated dishes. 

In fact, the very first dish I learned to cook was spaghetti. You can easily find spaghetti and premade sauce in any supermarket. I’m sure advanced cooks will know how to make their own sauces at home – but store-bought premade sauce cooked with minced beef, fresh tomatoes, and chopped onions can turn out pretty darn good.

cooking in lockdown - spaghetti
Premade spaghetti sauce can be delicious too

You don’t have to follow the recipe to a T: Everyone’s tastes are different, so don’t let others’ opinions influence your own. Do you like your chicken wings extra hot and spicy? Go ahead and add more chili powder! Recipes should be only a reference, not a guideline.

Feel free to experiment around to find what tastes best to you. Sure, you might fail, probably more often than you’d like, but you’d learn a lot more from cooking something of your own creation than from just copying someone else. And trust me, once you hit that perfect spot where the taste is just right for you, the sense of achievement is sublime.

cooking in lockdown - pho cuon
My homemade phở cuốn, where you roll thin slices of phở with beef, veggies, and other toppings for delicious, healthy bites

How cooking in lockdown changed me for the better

A month ago, I couldn’t have even imagined myself surviving on my own home-cooked meals for weeks. But today, looking back on all the things that I’ve learned, I feel as if I’d passed some sort of rite of passage into proper adulthood. I am now able to fully take care of myself no matter what, without having to rely on others to cook for me.

And as I slowly move through the learning curve, I’m beginning to realize that cooking can actually be fun. I’m still nowhere near perfect, but now, cooking feels less like a chore and more like an enjoyable challenge where I work towards a delicious reward.

With Đà Nẵng still recording new cases of COVID-19 community transmissions, it’ll probably take at least a few more weeks before the lockdown order can be lifted. Do I miss all the fancy restaurant-cooked food? Sure! Will I still be eating out when everything opens again? Of course! But I’ll definitely be making my own meals a lot more often now – I’ve developed a certain liking to them, after all.

Check out other Vietnamese cooking articles here:

Cover image adapted from @fzmarchboy and The Smart Local Vietnam

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