Taste The Soup (Before You Change It)

My wife and my first date was at a Vietnamese restaurant. We were going to go eat Thai food, but she wanted to stay closer to home because she was nervous about going out on a date with someone she only knew from the coffee shop in a country she had only lived in for a few years. Being that the only Vietnamese food I was familiar with at the time was phó, that is what I ordered. She ordered the same, but without any ‘green’ in it, meaning no cilantro or scallions. When our soups arrived, I added lime, basil, bean sprouts, and then I dumped in sriracha hot sauce for some heat and hoisin sauce for some sweetness. She tasted her soup and then asked for a small bowl, into which she put a little bit of sriracha and hoisin, but she added nothing to her soup except some basil and bean sprouts. She ate the soup as it was and dipped the sliced meat into the sriracha and hoisin with her chopsticks. We had a nice date and the rest is history, sort of.

During the time we dated, I spent a lot of time at my wife’s cousin’s home where she lived. We ate a lot of Cambodian food, but also a variety of different Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes, including a multitude of different soups and stews. One day, her aunt made a giant pot of clear, rich bone-broth. I was served a big bowl of soup with rice noodles and slices of meat. I immediately reached for the sriracha to pour it in the soup. My wife (then girlfriend) grabbed my hand to stop me. She said quietly, but sternly, “Taste the soup first.” I looked at her with confusion and attempted to continue with the sriracha when she repeated herself, “Before you add anything, taste the soup first.” I acquiesced and tasted the soup broth, plain, as it was served. It was rich, salty, unctuous, and absolutely delicious!

“All this time,” my she said, “You have been eating soup, but you have never tasted the soup. How do you know if it needs something added to it if you did not even taste it first?” I conceded that she was right. Her aunt had spent all day simmering, straining, and seasoning the bone broth until it was perfectly clear and impossibly delicious. It took eight hours for her aunt to make the broth, but it took a lifetime of experience to get it as perfect as it was and I was going to ruin it within thirty seconds of receiving it before even trying it. After tasting it, if I wanted it to be spicier, saltier, or if I wanted to squeeze in some lime-juice for acidity, no one would have thought twice because her family all adjusted the soup to their tastes as well. However, this person had dedicated her life to getting this broth to my bowl exactly as it was. The least I could do in return was to try it as she intended before determining I had anything of value of my own to add.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

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