|Hồ Văn Hiền
This might be a cliché, but thinking about the small, secondary kitchen on the ground level of my parents' home leads me
straight to my memories about my mother. There is a Chinese story about a man who cried whenever he was served sweet leek soup
(canh hẹ), because it reminded him of his mother who used to cook that special soup for him.
In that small, secondary kitchen on the ground floor, we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all cooked from scratch by my mother.
The main kitchen itself was in an annex building connected to the main residence by a covered, tiled corridor about 20 meters
long. My mother did not have any electric or gas range. She had only a raised floor of concrete where two open fires were made,
pots and pans were put over a three legged support (kiềng) made of iron or a set of three bricks. Her maid had to keep
the flames alive by blowing air on them intermittently, through a hollowed segment of bamboo tree (ống thổi lửa),
or fanning them with a fan made from an areca palm frond (quạt mo cau). Rice was our staple. There were many kinds of rice.
Its taste, consistency and even its aroma depended on its provenance. In the fifties, we still bought paddy (unhusked rice,
lúa) from local farmers and had it decorticate by our domestics using a small manual grinding mill (cối xay). In
fact, that kind of organic rice, which still kept a vitamin B rich outer layer of bran, was much more healthy than industrially
processed rice that later became more and more popular. Gạo nàng hương and Gạo nàng thơm
were very sought-after domestic products, brought from the plains of the Mekong River, in the Southern part of the country.
Gạo Mỹ, imported American rice, although cheaper, was less well liked because its blandness. We occasionally ate
yams (khoai lang) and different tubercles like củ sắn (cassava) or khoai tía ("purple yam") that we grew in
our own field in the back of our house. At harvest season, after my brothers dug the beds for the tubercles, we just boiled them
and ate them without any added sugar but somehow, in their natural and fresh savor, they were so sweet and so appetizing. However,
once in while, we also had a special treat of very sweet cassava or purple yam porridge (chè sắn, chè khoai
For breakfast, we usually had bland rice porridge (cháo trắng) or rice noodle (bún) eaten with nước
mắm (fish sauce) or cá nục kho (scad fish cooked in fish sauce) My father liked to eat his porridge when it was
still steaming hot. He seasoned it with a fresh red pepper fruit just picked from the garden and crushed in fish sauce (ớt
dằm nước mắm), to the surprise of his five-year-old grand son Hòa, who, born in Saigon, was able to
notice it when we came to visit his grand father in Hue in 1978. Later, Hòa liked to recall this particular trait of my
father's eating habit, which was common in Hue area. Unlike people in Danang or Saigon, we rarely used soy sauce in our diet,
which was usually associated with Chinese cuisine.
We raised our poultry (chicken and duck) in our yard. My preferred dish was "thịt gà bóp rau răm" made
of boiled and shredded chicken meat mixed with salt, pepper and fragrant knotweed (rau răm) by squeezing them together.
This was different from the way chicken was usually prepared in the North, where it was boiled, chopped into pieces then dipped
in fish sauce. In the South, salted boiled chicken is usually eaten with soy sauce and ginger. "Rau răm," a pungent, long
leave mint herb, went also very well with embryonated eggs (trứng gà, trứng vịt lộn), (considered
"taboo food" in Western countries, also called "baluts" in the Philippines where they are very popular) . At night, street
merchants kept the baluts hot in a basket of rice husks and announced their fare in a loud voice: "Ai ăn trứng
lộn không?" (Who wants to eat baluts?). They carried the basket on their head or at one end of a pole, while the
other end was counterbalanced with bottles of ingredients, serving bowls, a basin of washing water and a kerosene lamp. The
latter served to light their path as well as a diagnostic instrument to assess to degree of development of the duck or chicken
inside the egg, to satisfy the different tastes of their clients.
The turkey was unknown to us. We had one or two pigs in a pen, which my mother and her maid fed with chopped slices of banana
tree trunks, spoiled or left over food like rice (cơm siu /thiu), and bran (cám heo) bought from the rice mills.
Pork usually was a special treat reserved for special occasions like New Year (Tết) or the celebration of the death
anniversary of one of our ancestors. Fish merchants carried their fare in baskets hanging on both extremities of a bamboo pole,
which rhythmically balanced on their shoulder as they went from house to house. I only remember a few dishes of fish that my
Canh cá was a kind of soup made of fish and a few condiments like hành ngò (onion and parsley), and eaten
mixed with rice; most of the times it was cá giếc (crucian carp), a fresh water fish the size of a child's hand.
It was an art to eat those small carps because they had tiny bones, and we had to dissect their meat carefully with our
chopsticks, lest we would choke on one of those bones.
When this type of accident did happen, a popular remedy was to have the victim swallow whole, without chewing, a bolus of rice
or of rau muống (a kind of water morning glory, very popular in Vietnam), in the hope that it would carry away the
impacted bone down your stomach. Running the fingernails of a child born in the year of the tiger along the throat of the
victim would also help, because the child was believed to have the spirit of the tiger, which, like cats, is considered to be
an antidote to fish bones. Recently, in an American movie (Prime), someone wonders why carps are never on the menu of
restaurants in this country. My Vietnamese-born son Hiệp, who apparently has an answer for everything, explained to me
that with a fork and a knife, Westerners would not be able to deal with all the bones of a carp. Is it interesting how your
eating instruments determine the food you eat?
Another dish was cá kho, fish stewed in nước mắm and brown sugar; it might be cá kho khô
(stewed until dried) or kho nước (still left with its delicious sauce) which I preferred. Most cá kho was
made of cá nục, a kind of salt-water fish that lacked the delicate taste and texture of cá giếc, but
was cheaper and easier to eat. Those dishes that my mother cooked were much simpler than restaurant food that, much later
in life, I had the chance to taste in Saigon and later in America. Its simplicity and its lack of high-calorie components
were characteristics of Hue's cuisine.
Another dish that my mother prepared on special occasions was bún bò or Hue's rice noodle soup. During my wife's
short visit in 1973, my mother managed to teach her how to cook that special treat of Vietnamese cuisine. My wife is from the
South and I am delighted that she inherited something from my mother's culinary heritage. Bún bò Huế later
became a favorite among my children too. My youngest son, though born in America, is very fond of bún bò and eats
it my father's way, very hot. My wife also taught a young Amerasian how to make bún bò. Raised in penury after
1975 in the South of Vietnam after the arrival of the communists, she had never tasted that dish from Central Vietnam before
(it was considered a delicacy under a communist "proletarian" regime where people ate meat only on rare occasions). Besides,
she was so foreign and "allergic" to Huế culture that she actually fainted whenever she was exposed to a Huế
dialect-speaking crowd. She is now the owner of a prosperous restaurant famous for its rice noodle soup specialty.
About my mother, I also remember the days preceding Tết, the Vietnamese New Year Festival, when I helped her make bánh
tét, special foot long rice cakes, wrapped in banana leaves and containing green beans, pork and bacon at their core. They
were tied tightly in thin ribbons of bamboo wood (sợi lạt or bamboo tape). We had to boil them a whole day, in large
tin cans that formerly were containers of petrol intended as fuel for cooking stoves (thùng dầu hỏa). We also
made "bánh in", cookies of sweetened, compressed glutinous rice powder, wrapped in colorful transparent wrapping paper
(giấy dầu trong). They would be dedicated to our ancestors on their altar or served to our guests during the first
three days of the New Year.