My Family Recipe

The Lines on Her Palm: How My Mother Measures Ingredients

On cha trung and comfort food.

July 16, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

Type the words cha trung into Google and you'll find a variety of names for it. Some call it quiche, others call it meatloaf; neither descriptor is wrong. The classic Vietnamese dish is a hybrid between a quiche and a meatloaf, and it’s what my family and I would call comfort food.

Growing up in a tiny village in Vietnam, I had eaten cha trung many times before. But it wasn’t until my mother moved in with my husband and me in 2013, right after our first child was born, that the dish took on a whole new level of meaning. My father had passed away many years before, so my mother was a widow. Quick and easy for her to make while we were working, cha trung became a regular meal option in our house.

My husband, an American, had never tried the dish before and quickly fell in love with its simple yet intricate taste. Simple because cha trung is filled with humble ingredients that one can get at any Asian supermarket—including eggs, lots of them (seven, to be exact), and a good amount of meat, too (half a pound of ground pork). Intricate because these humble ingredients are mixed together with all manner of aromatic vegetables like dried black fungus, shallots, and garlic. Small vermicelli noodles provide bulk; fish sauce and bouillon add depth of flavor. The final ingredient is lots and lots of hand action to mix the ingredients together.

My husband was so taken with this dish that he asked my mother how to make it. The problem was, growing up in America, he was used to seeing recipes with specific instructions and measurements while she was not. So when she couldn’t give him a concrete list of numbers and volumes and temperatures, but rather told him that she cooked cha trung by memory and by the feel of her hands, he had to adjust.

“How do you know how much you’ve put into the measuring bowl?” he asked her one afternoon while watching her make the dish.

“Use your palm lines,” she told him.

He was perplexed, having never heard of anyone refer to palm lines as a way of measuring ingredients. She explained that even though everyone’s hands are different sizes, those lines will remain the same length no matter what. So once you figure out how much of each ingredient you like, you can always refer to the lines on your palm as a reference point to replicate a dish that you’ve cooked successfully before.

My mother's method for measuring was, for me, not at all surprising. After all, she grew up in a different time than us, when measuring cups didn't exist. I saw how her palm lines became her lifeline in the kitchen. Experimentation happened time and time again, until she knew by heart just how much of each ingredient she needed in order to make the dishes that comprised our childhood.

“It should have the consistency of boogers,” she said, referring to the texture of the ground pork mixture. At first we were baffled, but she had a point: With cha trung, you simply have to feel as you go along. The texture is very important, for having the right consistency matters in how the final product turns out. Once the loaf is on the stove, there’s not much more you can do but wait. Prepping it for a successful steaming session is essential to achieving the right soft, fluffy texture that the dish requires.

I saw how her palm lines became her lifeline in the kitchen. Experimentation happened time and time again, until she knew by heart just how much of each ingredient she needed in order to make the dishes that comprised our childhood.

Biting into a well-made cha trung means that you immediately feel comforted. It’s simple, warming, and most of all, my mother's own special recipe. Over time, we’ve come to call it "Ly’s egg dish." Whatever it's called, cha trung is the culmination of happy times and of new culinary experiences in our household. It’s the one dish that I will pass along to my children with the hopes that they will choose to make it on those nights when time is not on their side, but a great hunger is.

Now my daughter is six and my son is three, and my mom no longer lives with us. Luckily she's nearby; even still, my husband has perfected her recipe, taking into consideration the importance of feeling and tasting along the way, while at the same time using measuring cups instead of palm lines.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sylvia
  • HalfPint
Writer, Editor, Baker, Author in the Making


Sylvia July 29, 2019
The comment “should be the consistency of booger’s” is disturbing. That should not be on a food blog. How is one an expert on the “consistency” of such? It conjures up all sorts of revolting thoughts. Hard pass.
HalfPint July 16, 2019
This is my comfort food. Simple flavor. Loads of texture from soft fluffy eggs to crunchy wood ears. Thank you for the recipe.