During the summer months, Paris dials down the city’s tempo to a languid pace. The city becomes a near ghost town, especially in August, when city dwellers leave en masse for their summer vacations. Many businesses also close up shop for the month, while work projects come to a halt, only to resume à la rentrée (back to school/work in September). While the Parisians flee the city in search of respite elsewhere, I prefer to stay behind, enjoying the quiet and revelling in the vacancy of the streets.
When Albert Camus wrote that “real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present,” I doubt that he imagined a world that is perpetually plugged-in like ours. Being fully present in any given moment has become a near impossible feat with the constant inundation of information and content enticing us to mindlessly swipe and stare at our screens. We’ve become a society that is increasingly tethered to our mobile devices, so much so that our attention span has diminished to less than that of a goldfish.
Growing up in California, we didn’t have to think twice about where our food came from. We lived in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley where the land is among the most fertile in the world. The state grows a staggering amount of fruits and vegetables, representing a considerable proportion of the produce consumed and exported by the US. California’s abundant sunshine coupled with its fertile land make growing almost anything possible.
Garnishes are indispensable ingredients that complement the symphony of flavors found in Vietnamese dishes. Fresh herbs, such as red perilla or basil, infuse our noodle soups, spring rolls and salads with a bouquet of flavors that scintillate our taste buds. More savory toppings like fried pork fat impart a crunchy succulence to dishes such as bánh bèo (steamed rice cakes) and cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork skin). Among the assortment of garnishes that dress our plates, I use fried shallots the most frequently in my kitchen.
Generations before me fled in droves from a war ravaged Việt Nam over 30 years ago following the fall of Saigon. The country was shrouded in panic and confusion during the final hours of the war as the Americans pulled out. In the midst of the mayhem, people in South Việt Nam scrambled to leave the country, which was the debut of a decade-long mass exodus. My mom and her family were among the fortunate ones who left by plane days before the borders closed after the south surrendered to the north. Many others left by boat and embarked on harrowing journeys at sea, where hundreds of thousands perished. Those who were lucky enough to survive the perilous journey settled in countries in all corners of the world.
New Orleans was my hometown during my early childhood. We only lived there until I was six years old, so my recollections of life in the Big Easy have faded into fragmented blurs. One of the few things that I do remember about Louisiana is eating king cake during the mardi gras festivities, which is as ubiquitous as strings of beads during that time of year. I actually wasn’t particularly fond of eating the cake, which was often topped too generously with icing and colored sugars. I was only interested in finding the tiny plastic baby buried within the cake, because whoever found the prized baby would be crowned king for a day.
Paris has finally shedded the thick layer of gloom that has shrouded the city’s skies in dreariness since the winter months. The sun is starting to peak out again, replenishing our much depleted vitamin D reserves. Days are becoming increasingly longer as we head into summer, with the sun setting as late as 10 in the evening these days. Warmer weather also signals the debut of the summer fruits season!
Open the fridge in any Vietnamese household and you are sure to find a jar of nước mắm. I’m not talking about the pure bottled stuff, but rather the mix that accompanies many dishes on our dining table. It is often served as a dipping sauce for chả giò (eggrolls) or as a sauce drizzled over dishes, such as cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork) or bánh xèo (savory crêpes ).