Saturday, November 6, 2010

Homesickness & Vietnamese Food

The idea of home is simultaneously a complicated and a very simple thing for me.

While I was born in the United States and I've grown up all my life knowing the same suburban area and the same house, I never really felt American per se. I was taking trips to France before I even knew how to spell my own name and when I was growing up, I honestly thought pâté was the French version of peanut butter. Because my grandparents lived in the Paris, I spent many summers in France, and I often felt that I was culturally more French than American. But I had been raised in a Vietnamese household, and when I was thirteen, I went to my parents' homeland for the first time, and I quickly fell in love. There was a raw beauty in the humid, hot country which called to me and which brought me back again and again.
These mixing cultural dynamics made it so that it has been very hard for me to claim a home anywhere. I am by nationality American, but ethnically Vietnamese, and my heart is split between France and Vietnam. So a home in any particular country, really, is a complicated idea. I could never choose.

But home home, the place I can always come back to, the place I grew up in, that has always been the same. I have always known the same house, the same walls, the same rooms, the same beautiful kitchen and backyard and neighborhood. And the food. I have always had Vietnamese food. It has been a part of my life, a part of how I was raised. And when I am homesick, even though I don't always have a clear idea of where exactly I am homesick for, I always know what it is that I ache for.

I am homesick for Vietnamese food not just because of how it tastes, but because of how it makes me feel. There is something in my mind which always connects Vietnamese food with love and care. Perhaps because I have seen, while growing up, how much work must be put into many dishes. Traditional Vietnamese dishes can be very involved and they can require many different ingredients or many steps in the process of cooking. And for all my love of food, I have never truly made Vietnamese food on my own.
Of course, when I am home, I often make banh bao with my mom and I will help out in the kitchen, and sure, I can make the simple rice gruel we call chao like my mom and I can marinate meat in nước mắm and I can stir fry just like my dad, but I could never put together a truly traditional meal without help.
So now, as it is getting cold and I am starting to feel homesick for something that is missing in my life, I can't help but think of Vietnamese food. I think of my mom's mi vit tiem and my dad's plantain, eggplant, and tiá tô stew. I think of things that we go out to eat, Vietnamese food that we order casually, as though it were nothing special to find such things in the states, and fully expecting to be satisfied.

Here, where I am now in this not-very-diverse part of New Jersey, it has proven impossible to find Vietnamese food, authentic or not. I mourn the loss of what I had before, when I was living in the D.C. metropolitan area. Oh dear Vietnamese restaurants, when I return this winter, I will not take you for granted.

Nem nướng cuốn. This can be described as a spring roll, with grilled pork and fresh herbs wrapped in thin rice paper. Delicious and yet also very healthy. My sister and I love it when we come home and my mom sets up some kind of gỏi cuốn for us to make.

Bánh bèo chén. This is the central Vietnamese version of the dish (the South Vietnamese version is not normally served in these little bowls, and it is served with mungbean paste on top). It is hard to describe, the little bowls hold a glutenous kind of semi-pancake, which is topped with dried onions and ground shrimp paste. It is eaten with nước mắm, or fish sauce.

Bánh khoái. As my mom says, this is the Central Vietnamese version of our South Vietnamese bánh xèo. I love the crunchiness of the "pancake," as Americans often translate it. This is really nothing like a pancake though. It is thin and crispy on the edges, although the middle is somewhat thicker and wetter and more "cake-y." The inside of this one, as you can see, has mushrooms and bean sprouts. Often there is pork or shrimp. We eat this with lettuce and other fresh herbs, as you can see from plate piled high with leafy greens.

Bún hến with bánh đa mè đen (black sesame rice cracker). This is a noodle dish with little clams, bean sprouts, herbs, and a chili paste, and can be enjoyed with broth on the side and, again, nước mắm.

Funny enough, all these things which I had just described for you are Central Vietnamese dishes, but my parents are not from Central Vietnam. My dad is actually from the North, and my mom is from the South. The cuisines of north, central, and south Vietnam all differ, and yet the best images I could find to share with you were from Central Vietnam. In the future, I will have to honor my parents by sharing foods from north and south Vietnam. I am homesick for it all.

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