Our back yard was layered with many types of trees like a jungle, including fruit trees like mangos, and cashew trees. We often gathered up the mangos on the ground after a very strong wind. Later on in my college years when I travelled by train through the apple orchards in the Ukraine to Mondovi, passing trees with red, yellow, and orange fruit, those images always brought me home to our backyard with red, yellow, and orange cashew fruit, one of my beautiful childhood memories. Along the front and the sides of our house my parents planted crops like pumpkins, squash, beans, and cucumbers. In the very front my sister and I planted flowers. We also had another field, apart from our house, where my parents grew rice and peanuts. Although we never had much money, we were very lucky because we always had food to eat, resulting, of course, from our hard labor. These days, people talk much about being green. My childhood lifestyle could not have been greener.
In the back corner of the house was my mother’s kitchen. My father was a handyman. He was always thinking of doing something, improving things. He always told me, “You can’t use your strength because you are small, so use your wit.” Here is an example of my father’s wisdom. While most people in the village sat on their feet in front of their stoves to cook, my father built a stove top, the very first modern-styled one with wood and bamboo materials, where we stood upright to cook. The stove evolved from a triangle of three bricks, which my father improved time after time. The fuel for our stove was the tree branches and wood from the backyard woods. There were also some pots and pans and woks, bamboo baskets, pestle and mortar, chopsticks. The jars of sea salt, sugar, peppercorn, bottles of fish sauce, oil, were the only staples for the pantry. My father stored rice in the silo for use until the next harvest. Once in a while he carried large sacks of rice to the local rice mill. On the way home he brought white rice for us with the fiber layered between the white rice and the husk cover, which we named “cam,” for the pig.
My father was a devoted family man. He always got up before us and put the rice pot on the stove for our breakfast. We always had hot, fresh cooked rice, three meals a day. It made no difference if it was breakfast, lunch or dinner. And my parents always made sure we had enough energy for both studying at school and working in the field. Our other food came from our garden. The vegetables we ate had just a moment ago been on the vine or growing on the ground. My mother had her herb corner, where she grew mint, celery, basil, hot chili, and more. My father built an elevated bed with bamboo for my mother’s green onions. My mother showed me the slender stalks and told me its name: “Huong,” that meant scent. I could tell my mother’s taste was picky, that was the only green onion she used in her cooking. The protein was very rare. We bought river fish from the only fisherman in the village every day.
On special occasions, my mother went to the market, about ten miles away from our house, and came back with a full basket of food. That was when we had meat and ocean fish. I remember one delightful moment, eating a piece from the long loaf of French baguette, stuffed with meat, vegetables, carrots, and radish pickle and the sauce, like New Orleans po-boy loaf that she bought from the market.
Our life was quiet and peaceful, in harmony with nature. It gave my family the strength to endure the terrible Vietnam War. I was brought up the way that I appreciated nature and the value of hard labor. My taste for fresh food was established in my parents’ kitchen. I learned to cook at a very young age, and could make perfect rice when I was eight. When I compared the taste of a tomato sold at supermarket to the one I grew on our balcony, I felt the difference. The same is with seafood. It was easy to understand why I always preferred to buy smaller quantities of live shrimp rather than large bags of frozen ones. Like my father always said, “One live fish is better than a heap of dead fish.” During his youth my father boated along Mekong River to Cambodia and back with his stepfather to buy and sell fish. Early on, my father taught me how to scale, trim, and clean the fish beautifully. My mother made sure I mastered the most popular sweet and sour fish soup, the must-know dish for all the girls preparing to be married and live with their future husband’s family. Otherwise, the husband’s family could send the bride back because she did not know how to cook.
I was also taught all the old traditional values. One of these was remembering ancestors. Many people in our country never had birthday celebrations, but after they died, the same day next year became their first death-day celebration for their children. This meant that one of my mother’s duties was to celebrate her father’s death day each year. Meanwhile, my aunt celebrated their mother’s death day. The idea was remembering, but it was all about the food. The feast was put on the altar for the dead spirit to return home and enjoy the family reunion and good food that was served to invited relatives and friends. In my childhood those days were so special. On the day before the event, my mother prepared a lot of sweet mung bean and rice flour bundles, called banh it. Then she made the big glutinous rice rolls, stuffed with mung bean, meat, dried shrimp, cashew, and egg, called banh tet. They were placed on the altar and later divided into small bags for the guests to take home with them. My mother showed us how to make the bundles the shape of a pyramid and the glutinous rice needed to have the green color from pandanus leaves, with the stuffing bound together and not falling apart when cut. I am so grateful for my mother’s lessons in her kitchen. She taught me to try for the best, to stand up to life’s difficult challenges, and never surrender to fear. I have carried this lesson all through my life.
On the day of the death celebration, more women came, helping and cooking. Year after year I helped my mother prepare many dishes, which became more and more sophisticated and delicious. There was usually a banquet with five-course menus followed by dessert. One of her most popular dishes was “bi cuon,” which was the chewy spring rolls of boiled, then sear pork strips, boiled pork skin with ground toasted rice, garlic, mint, and some other vegetables, rolled inside rice paper. She gathered about 8 or 9 individual rolls to make a big roll then cut them into bite size pieces and placed them on the plate. It was a spectacular presentation.
Another event that had a great impact on me was our New Year “Tet” feast. In our tradition, New Year is the time for people to relax and enjoy a big feast to bring them a good year and a good ending. In preparation, we decorated our house with “Lucky” (mai) flowers and other things that were fresh and aromatic, and had nice colors. The children loved Tet, because they were given new clothes and a little lucky money. My mother prepared enough food to last us for the celebration that would seven days, and sometimes longer.
I loved the fried pork and vegetables that we used to make our own spring rolls. Their aroma and flavors burst when dipped in spicy lime fish sauce, accompanied by leek, carrots, and radish pickles. My mother also made a big pot of braised pork with eggs. If my father and brother could make the trip to visit my step grandfather on the day he harvested lobsters, we would have fresh lobsters in the pot as well. It was a true indulgence to dip my rolls into the orange tomalley fatty braised liquid. Another way to enjoy it was to pour it onto fresh cook rice, along with some tender meat, lobster, egg, and bean sprout, onion pickles. We also had a big pot of clear ham broth to which we added fresh cabbage one time, and bamboo shoots another time, to offer 2 fresh and different flavored soups out of one broth. One dish was stuffed bitter melon that I never liked when I was small, but I learned to love when I grew up.
Finally, I would like to offer you one and only one message from the bottom of my heart. If you set your heart on something, go for it. Even if you fail at first, you will gain experience and be better prepared for the next attempt.
In my mother’s and my own kitchen I have cut myself many times, but I never quit chopping. I hosted guests for my family and made cooking or etiquette mistakes many times, but I never quit hosting. All of the stumbling made me stronger, and made me the person I am today. I am not famous in the world, but I am a hero to my son and a beloved wife to my husband. This alone brings me great joy.
Thanks to my mother and father, I can cook, bake, sew, knit, embroider, arrange flowers, design rooms, and landscape our yards. I can do it all because I am passionate about life. I never hesitate to get my hands dirty. At the same time I am ready to wear fancy clothes and walk the red carpet. My husband always says: “You are so silly,” or “You are from outer space, where did I ever find you.”
Yes, husband, I am silly. I am your Silly Cook.