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Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnamby Kim Fay
Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam by Kim Fay
Of the hundreds of meals I ate during the four years I lived in Vietnam, it would be an exaggeration to say that I remember all of them. But I do remember most. I remember where I was and who I was with, and most especially, I remember the flavors. Those tangy, sweet, fiery flavors that are the essence of Vietnamese food.
At the age of twenty-eight, in the mid-1990s, I came to Vietnam from Seattle for the adventure of living in an exotic country, and to write a novel. Teaching English was my way of getting a visa and paying my rent while I wrote. A few months into my life in Saigon, the southern city officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, I moved from a hotel of dubious repute in the tourist district to a family-run guesthouse a few blocks away. It was late September, Saigon was just coming out of its rainy season, and the days weren’t as humid as they had been when I arrived in June. After my morning classes, I would pedal my bike back to the guesthouse from the beautiful old French-colonial high school where I taught grammar, usage, and the occasional racy idiom to adults. During the lunch hour a woman wheeled an aluminum cart to the head of my guesthouse lane and surrounded it with small plastic stools and tables. I would lock my bike inside, then walk back to her cart.
I didn't know what the woman's food was called in Vietnamese, and I didn't need to. Like most street vendors, she sold only one meal. In her case, a pork chop with a side of water spinach, served on a bed of rice. I would take the plate up to my third-floor room and sit out on my balcony beside my little jasmine plant while I ate. The pork chop was slender, and tender to the bone, and it had a hint of sweetness that mingled addictively with the char from the grill. Softly sautéed in garlic, the water spinach was always fresh. The rice, though firm, seemed to melt in my mouth, and it left me satisfied and craving at the same time.
For three months I lived in the guesthouse, and for those three months I ate this lunch nearly every day. I never got tired of it, or of gazing down into the lane, where my neighbors nibbled their pork chops, while children and puppies tumbled like miniature circus acts and a trio of women sat propped against the wall outside their home doing piecework, sewing bindings for schoolbooks.
Teaching six separate classes a week meant that I had more than one hundred students, and it was inevitable that at least one would befriend me. A few years older than I, Dung was slim, pretty, and serious about making sure that I was taken care of, a single young woman so far away from home. One day she invited me to her family’s house for lunch, where I met her parents and two sisters. From that day forward, we became four sisters. Six months later I moved again, this time into a little house affectionately called The Cave, just around the corner from Dung and her family.
Often after my classes, and before I wrote in the afternoons, I went to her house for lunch. Her mother's cooking was the best I'd had in Vietnam. Even the fresh vegetarian spring rolls she served for my first meal were memorable, laced with roasted rice powder, which gave them a hint of being toasted over an open fire. Occasionally, though, we sisters would forego our midday habit of lounging and gossiping around the house, climb onto a pair of Honda motorbikes, and venture out into the city. I always sat behind Dung, one of the worst drivers I have ever met, so I was busy hanging on and praying, and I couldn't begin to remember how to get back to any of the little cafés we visited, especially the tamarind crab shack in Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown district.
The heart of Cholon is a warren of winding streets that look the same, lined with similar-looking shops conducting the same type of business. Our tamarind crab shack was surrounded by a dozen others, all crowded with customers, and all sticky with tamarind sauce. Somehow, the sisters knew that this shack was the best of the bunch, and we sat around a table with a mound of unshelled crab on a plate at the center and one cold beer to share, because even though two of the sisters didn’t drink alcohol, you "had to" drink beer with tamarind crab.
Once I started in on the crab, I was committed. I could not even tuck an annoying strand of hair behind my ear, because my fingers, my hands, and even parts of my wrists were coated in the sweet, tangy sauce, which is made from the pods of the tamarind tree. The crab was fried whole in a wok with garlic, sugar, and the tamarind paste, and its thick chunks of meat preserved the briskness of the sea within a warm caramelized glaze. We cracked the shells and tossed them, as everyone else was doing, on the crunchy, sticky floor. Conversation wound down as our attention was absorbed with slurping and gnawing, and the chilly comfort of the beer, whose bottle eventually felt as if it were slathered in honey.
By the time my first year in Vietnam came to its end, Dung had moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, in an arranged marriage with a Chinese-Cambodian, and I had quit teaching to write for local newspapers and magazines. I was still spending a lot of time with the oldest sister, Duyen, but I had made a new friend, Huong, who, although ten years younger than I, was a kindred spirit. I had also fallen in love with a handsome Australian, so my meals were divided. Lunches were spent with my Vietnamese family or Huong, who introduced me to my favorite soup joint behind Ben Thanh Market, where at least twice a week we drizzled lime juice and chili paste onto steaming broth and savored the soothing swirl of chicken and noodles. Dinners were spent with Sam, the Australian, after he got off work, at the little French steakhouse at one end of Le Thanh Ton Street, or the Vietnamese café at the other end, where the deep-fried chicken wings were one of our many guilty pleasures. They tasted as if they had been bathed in butter, a flavor I now know comes from a cook who understands how to use fish sauce.
From teeny tubs of homemade yogurt after morning walks in my local park to midnight pho at an old Viet Cong hangout on Pasteur Street, food nurtured every aspect of my life in Vietnam. It cradled my relationships, not only with people, but also with the country, no matter how simple the dish. Among my favorite meals was one I often indulged in when I woke early. There is a particular quiet in Vietnam that can be found only just before the day starts up with its motorcycle engines and chit-chatting street vendors, and I would toss on a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops and walk out into it. First, I went next door, to the rickety wooden lean-to attached to The Cave, where a very old man lived, his only furniture a hammock that he slept in most of the day. To support himself, he sold small, fresh baguettes from a basket each morning. Soon enough he got used to me, and he did not even bother to roll over in his hammock for our exchange of a thousand-dong note (about eight cents) for a warm loaf of bread.
Carrying the bread rubber-banded in newspaper, I shuffled the two or three steps across the lane to the corner shop, which was not a shop in any sense I had known before, but a niche in a wall where a woman rolled up a wooden awning and squatted on a shelf, surrounded by household necessities and a tray of eggs that had been gathered within the hour. I bought an egg and returned to The Cave, where I fried it, tucked it into the warm bread, and splashed it with soy sauce. Then I wandered to the shelf of cement that separated my house from the lane, squatted down across from an ancient woman squatting in her own doorway across from me, ate my sandwich, and watched as another day in Vietnam began.
During those four years in Vietnam, even though I consider myself a foodie, I did not learn how to cook a single Vietnamese dish. It wasn't for lack of interest. It's just that my mind and heart were preoccupied. I was writing a novel. I was navigating a relationship. I was building friendships. I was torturing myself with unsuccessful stop-and-start efforts to learn the language. I was discovering myself as an entirely new person living in a foreign land. Also, I could just walk out my front door at any hour of the day and trade a few cents for an amazing bowl of beef noodle soup spiked with cinnamon and star anise, or wander around the corner for the best home cooking in Vietnam.
Not long after I returned to America, I felt the ache that accompanies missing something very much. I missed the food of Vietnam, and the casual, conversational, make-yourself-at-home lifestyle that revolved around it. Although I was enjoying more than my share of wonderful meals with family and friends, I longed to sit down over a great big Vietnamese meal with those who were closest to me. Having settled in Los Angeles meant that I was just north of Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, where Duyen, the oldest of my Vietnamese sisters, had recently moved with her new husband. We would meet up for a banh cuon breakfast (minced pork in rice paper) or bun thit heo nuong for lunch (grilled pork on a bed of noodles), but because of typical L.A. freeway traffic, it was usually an hour-long drive each way, rather than just a quick, entertaining jaunt on my bicycle, and the restaurants were always tucked into strip malls, not wide-open to the busy, noisy streets like they were in the real Saigon. As my hunger grew, I began to realize that in order to get what I wanted, I needed to learn to make the food myself.
I bought cookbooks. I tried recipes. Things tasted fine, but nothing satisfied me. I even took a Vietnamese cuisine class at the New School of Cooking, but although I now knew how to make barbecued beef wrapped in rice paper and sea bass broiled in banana leaves, the yearning remained. Finally, it hit me. It wasn't any old Vietnam from a website or L.A. cooking class that I wanted to share with my loved ones. It was my Vietnam, and so that was where I had to go. I didn't plan on becoming an expert chef. Just expert enough to create a meal that I could serve in my own home in America.
I started researching cooking classes in Vietnam, little knowing the consuming curiosity this would induce. The more I researched, the hungrier I grew, not just to learn to cook a Vietnamese meal for my friends, but to know everything there is to know about Vietnamese food. I devoured books whole in one sitting and spent hours online. I learned the names of chefs, restaurant owners, winemakers, and even poets dedicated to the pleasures of the Vietnamese table. I grew fascinated with Vietnam's culinary past — the way that the country's food reflected its complex history — and curious about its future. Through its food, I realized that I could understand more than just the country’s flavors. I could understand its culture, traditions, geography, and people. I wanted to gather everything I was discovering and put it all in a book. And I continued to crave more of the meals that had caused me to fall in love with Vietnam in the first place.
I began plotting a trip, which would begin in the north in Hanoi and wind down to my former home of Saigon in the south. I contacted chefs. I made lists of markets. I discovered a regional dish called com hen (clam rice) in the former imperial city of Hue and added it to my "must eat" list, along with ragu in the old French hill town of Dalat. One contact led to another, and I scheduled a class with the "Julia Child of Vietnam," dinner with the granddaughter of the chef of Vietnam’s last emperor, a fish sauce tasting in the small beach town of Phan Thiet, and an entire day with my own Vietnamese mother, who would teach me to make the very spring rolls I had eaten for my first meal in her house. I decided that my younger sister, Julie, who had already photographed one book for me, should come along and take pictures. What better person to accompany me than the one I had eaten more meals with than any other in my life? Then it worked out that my dear friend Huong would join us for much of the trip to help translate. What better person for this than the one I had eaten countless meals with in Vietnam?
My first four years in Vietnam were a grand adventure, and I never thought I would be lucky enough to have such an experience there again. But ten years and four months after I first arrived in Vietnam, I returned to renew my relationship with the country I loved so much. More than one hundred years ago, in The Physiology of Taste, the gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." As I stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac in Hanoi, I lifted my face to the familiar humid air. Tell me, Vietnam.
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