Dictators in the Vietnamese-American Kitchen

BY DIANE CU
Apr 27, 2011

Gutting squid at age 11? Check. One writer speaks about the kitchen of her Vietnamese-American childhood.

Being at home even during college, I had a good balance of both worlds: Jack in the Box for breakfast before classes, fast food at the student centers for lunch and a Việt dinner. But it wasn’t until my last semester in college that changed my gastronomic yearnings completely. I went away to participate on the Northern Spotted Owl biological research project in Olympic National Park for four months. Over half of that time was spent living for seven days straight in the rainy, wet boonies of the rain-forest chasing owls. My huge caloric intake out in the back-country consisted of whatever was dried and light enough to carry in my pack to last me for seven days. These meals consisted of bagels with butter, gorp, power bars, 8 oz of cooked pasta for dinner, M&Ms for dessert and more butter to keep me warm at night. But after two (seven-day) stints in the slippery, moss-laden land of the Olympic National Park backcountry, my body was breaking down. I was eating over 4,000 calories a day and still not satisfied.

 

Back to roots

On my days off I would eat and eat and never be content with my meals. Realizing that my body was aching and my spirit was deteriorating not because I was weak mentally or physically, but because I was missing some important flavors and textures to keep my body and spirit happy… rice, greens, noodle soup and soy sauce. All the flavors and foods I thought I could do without, my body was crying out for. Never had I craved a bowl of white rice so badly or anything that reminded me of my childhood meals at home. I could have almost sold my bagel buried soul to the devil for a bowl of spicy, steaming hot Bún Huế noodle soup. Maybe it was a sign that I was homesick, but all I knew at the time was that I was f***** starving for my native foods. There was not one Việt that I saw in the town where I lived, let alone a restaurant.

So after a quick phone call to my mother, Christmas came early in the form of a food care package. This treasure chest was filled to the rim with four different type of ramen noodles (ones you find at Việt grocery stores), a huge bottle of soy sauce, bottle of garlic chili sauce, dried persimmons, dried banana treats, and pretty much anything else that was not American. My back-country days now were then filled with a piping hot bowl of ramen noodles for breakfast, raw ramen noodles for lunch (with the MSG sauce packet tossed inside), and more ramen soup for dinner to dry me on the outside and keep me warm on the inside.

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During my days off from the back-country, I was limited to ingredients from my pack. I preparing home cooked meals and realized all the meals I was creating were things that I was tired of as a kid – Vietnamese food. My little rice cooker was my very best friend. To fill it with the jasmine rice that I yearned, I drove to Seattle and bought myself a 50-pound bag of rice. I didn’t resist my childhood instincts and home kitchen education this time, so if it was a 50-pound bag we use to buy then a 50-pound bag it will be! I then became everyone’s best friend in the national park when they needed to satisfy a craving for Asian food (There weren’t too many of us Việts living on the Washington peninsula). Being butt broke and living on a $50 a week food stipend, I was barely able to feed myself, let alone all my research teammates. So thankfully everyone who was making the big bucks helped me out and brought me groceries to prepare my many Việt dishes. The most prized dish (and the one that I was eventually nicknamed after) was the Vietnamese spring rolls. I made so many spring rolls for the crew that my nickname became “Spring Roll Girl “.

I felt like a celebrity because I was cooking Vietnamese food; a cuisine that many on my crew had never been exposed to before. All Asian food to most of my friends on the crew was reduced to the basic Chinese fried rice, chow mein and orange chicken. To have a Vietnamese fried spring roll and fresh spring roll with lettuce, herbs and dipping sauce was so different to them that it was exhilarating for me to see non-Việts get so excited. What a compliment it was to me (really a beginning, mediocre cook at best, but they didn’t know that) and what a respect it was to my culture to have all my friends rant and rave over Việt food. I was given the “cook” status and never did it ever cross my mind that I would leave a biological research project famous for rolling cabbage up 50 times.

My five minutes of fame at Olympic National Park opened up my mind, my cookbooks and inspired me to research and create foods beyond my spring rolls. I was definitely living the irony of life that is the premise to so many other stories: finding comfort and re-connecting with your childhood experiences. Now, never do I neglect my cravings of rice, soup or noodles. It’s even more humbling to satisfy my hunger pains with home-cooked meals. Knowing what I learned as a kid had returned to haunt me, but in the best sense of the word.

But it’s not the specific dish that is as important as the sights, sounds and smells that bring us back to our roots and happiness to our bellies.

I look back at all those days on the prep stations to remember how it was all prepped to get the garlic, lemongrass and shallots to the right size and fried to proper crispness. I closed my eyes more than once to envision again all that my mother and father taught me regarding pickling, caramelizing pork, salting fish and pineapple, and phở broth family secrets. All these conjure up excitement in my appetite but may stir up a frown in others. But it’s not the specific dish that is as important as the sights, sounds and smells that bring us back to our roots and happiness to our bellies. Many can probably relate to my experiences whether it be with rice or any meals from one’s childhood.

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My feelings of overburden with childhood foods have humbled me to the fifth degree. If I can’t remember the verbal recipes cited again and again to me from the past, I again close my eyes to try to remember the scents, sounds and sizzle of the pan. When my dishes don’t exactly come out as remembered, I know the recipes and lessons are just a phone call away.

The comfort of knowing that Vietnamese food is in my kitchen keeps me safe and the excitement of learning new foods from around the world keeps me sane.

I am living and learning, just the way all my elders said I would.

 

This post was originally published in White on Rice Couple.