What a Vietnamese Misses when Abroad?

Liz Vu
There is a Vietnamese idiom that goes love through the stomach, traditionally which means that women can win men's hearts with their cooking skills. The idiom does hint, however, that food means much more than a source of nutrients or pleasurable sensations on the tip of the tongue. Indeed, food can say a lot about who we are. As a Vietnamese girl who studies abroad, I slowly realize that the food I miss the most also reveal so much of my cultural, social and personal identity.

All the foods that I associate with my family members and which I terribly miss are unmistakably Asian foods. The dried Chinese dates that always remind me of my grandfather are what Vietnamese people eat every Lunar New Year. Every family buys various kinds of fruits and serves them on a colorful dish to guests during the two-week holiday. Since Lunar New Year is the occasion when everyone visits each other, the Vietnamese takes great care to choose the best products. Traditionally, my family's favorites are dried coconuts, chocolate-dipped nuts, and dried mango. We get to try many kinds of fruits, though, since my grandfather, being a respected doctor, receives numerous gifts from his patients every New Year. The first time I tried dried Chinese dates was when I was seven years of age when my grandfather gave me some of the wrinkly, savory fruit in a red wooden box after a cancer patient's visit. It immediately became my favorite and part of our family's New Year traditional fruit repertoire.

The dish that I associate with my grandmother, meanwhile, is that that she cooks at home for the whole family. The soup made from snails, fried tofu and unripe bananas is her best dish. Snails and bananas are cleansed in several steps, then sauted separately with additives. Everything is then put together and cooked as soup. It is requested by my father and brother so often that she cooks it whenever we come over. It is such an elaborate and delicate dish that you can guess right away that she is an extremely attentive and dedicated cook.

The fact that I associate my grandmothers with homemade dishes and my grandfathers with dishes bought elsewhere reflects the way Vietnamese families are constructed. While men are expected to work outside to earn a living, women are always the ones to take care of the family, especially by cooking a variety of nutritious and tasty foods. The preferences of the men and children in the house are always the priority. In fact, I never learned about my grandmothers or my mothers favorite dish, since they only cook the dish that the other family members like.

When I did an assignment for my Anthropology of Food class, which asked me to describe my family recipe, I had a hard time singling out a specific recipe that represents my family, simply because we eat such a wide variety of dishes, each signifies a different occasion, time, and place. When I tried to come up with a dish that I could associate with each person from both sides of my extended family, the first thing that came to mind was spring rolls, which we eat at every special occasion. When I was in primary school and my mom was doing her Master's degree in Japan, my family's dish would be caramelized pork since it was the only dish my dad ever learned to cook. However, the one that stays in my family's weekly menu the longest time, also the dish that I miss the most, is boiled pork.

Boiled pork is too simple a dish you do not even need a recipe for it. The name says it all you take a piece of pork, boil it, slice it and it is done. The whole thing takes probably less than five minutes to prepare and twenty minutes to be ready. To achieve a delicate and satisfying flavor, however, it requires a high level of skill and taste. You have to buy just the right type of meat, with the right distribution of meat, fat and skin. Industrially raised pigs will never do, since the meat part would taste dry, and the fat part would taste fatty. It does not have to be pricey, however; we, as a middle-class family, only shop at the nearest market, which is extremely sketchy and reasonably priced.

The pork has to come from a farm, which is not a problem since only a tiny proportion of meat in Vietnam is industrially raised. The pork piece should be medium-sized; it would not boil evenly if it is too large, or lose all flavors if it is too small. With the right type of meat, you have to boil it the right way. The meat has to be completely soaked in water. You should take all the bubbles out with a spoon and keep the fire at medium so that the broth does not turn dark. You have to know the right time to finish boiling so the pork is neither raw nor dry. My mother must have a hundred little tips to perfect the dish, enough to prove the attentive, careful person she is.

That is precisely why I love boiled pork. It is simple yet authentic, quick yet tastier than all the fancy dishes in the restaurant. To my parents, two diligent university professors at work with two children at school fifty hours a week, boiled pork is the perfect choice. My mother only needs to invest half an hour at the market every morning and ten minutes preparing for us to have a tasty dinner every day. It also marks my first cooking attempt at the age of seven on a Sunday noon when both my parents were away and I ended up burning my mom's favorite pan. The experience taught me to be attentive in the seemingly simplest thing I do.

Boiled pork is the food I miss the most when I am abroad. The meat is not the same it never has the thin patch of fat in the middle of the meat and the skin that tastes indulgent yet delicate. Indeed, it is like my family, simple and easily overlooked, yet essential. However, that realization did not come immediately when I left home for the foreign country. Only after the initial excitements, the culture shocks and depression, when my taste buds somehow sensed emptiness and began to yearn for the familiar, tender taste did I realized how dear the seemingly plain dish had been to me. With the neediness of my tongue and my stomach, my heart also ached in remembrance of the peaceful days at home with my family.

Indeed, to think about a specific dish is to think about all cultural traditions, social implications and personal experiences attached with it. Food shapes me as I am today, a Vietnamese middle-class girl, who enjoys the business and simplicity of modern everyday life. By being part of what our family share together, it also tightens our relationships, becomes a symbol of love and care, hence shapes our collective identity as part of the family, of the community as well as the larger tradition.

Written By: Liz Vu, United States (A Vietnamese)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

Disclaimer: The suggestions in the article(wherever applicable) are for informational purposes only. They are not intended as medical or any other type of advice