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. My grandparents and my aunties grew a variety of edibles, such as pomelo, persimmon, plums, pomegranate, asian pears, tomatoes, strawberries, chili peppers, lemongrass, and Vietnamese herbs. Being able to grow ingredients integral to our cuisine in our own backyard made preparing Vietnamese dishes infinitely easier, because we had very few Asian grocery stores within close proximity at the time.
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. I always have a jar on hand to top dishes such as, gỏi gà (chicken cabbage salad), bánh cuốn (steamed rice flour rolls), rice porridges or soups. Given how quickly we go through the shallots, I usually make large batches. Though Mark Bittman recommends cutting the shallots with a mandoline, I prefer to use a sharp knife to slice them. They’re a pain to chop, but well worth the effort. You’ll not only have a heap of crispy shallots to munch on or to top your dishes, but also a jar of flavored oil for cooking.
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.
Mass hordes of people and the incessant noise pollution that come with living in a densely populated metropolitan area can eventually fray one’s nerves. By the end of the week, my energy reserves are completely depleted by my daily commute and the city’s constant commotion. Once the weekend rolls around, I desperately need to let my brain and body rest. While my Saturdays are often spent running errands and exploring Paris or neighboring regions, Sundays are really the only day of the week on which I have the luxury of recharging my batteries without having to tend to any pressing obligations.
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. When I was In kindergarten, our teacher brought several king cakes to class to celebrate the Epiphany. Although I attended a private catholic school, the religious significance of the holiday was completely lost to me. I was too overcome with the excitement of being one of the kids who had found the baby and getting to wear the crown, which came complete with a scepter and cape!
When I was a kid, time seemed to have no end and waiting for anything felt like an eternity. Now, every passing year seems to come to an end more quickly than the blink of an eye. Already, this month five years ago, France became my new home country. A new chapter in my life was beginning, yet I was unprepared in every sense of the word for what was ahead of me. I had mistakenly assumed that migrating from one Western country to another would be a smooth transition. I was, however, in for a rude awakening.
The lazy dog days of summer came to an abrupt end as the French returned en masse from their annual month long respite in August. The concrete jungle is once again bustling and teeming with sharply dressed Parisians, while sightings of t-shirt and sneaker clad tourists have become few and far between. Everyone’s routine has eased back into its pre-vacation rhythm, and already, the daily grind has started to wear down many of the city folks. The sunny disposition that they came back with has long faded along with their over-bronzed tans.
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! Strawberries and cherries started to make an appearance at the fruit stands lining the outdoor markets as early as April, but I knew better than to be tempted by their fragrant scent and bright colors. April is a bit too early for strawberries and cherries to develop their sweetness and flavor, particularly in France, where the weather is a bit milder. Only a couple of weekends ago did strawberries started becoming sweet enough to eat, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
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). Though the base sauce is only composed of a few simple ingredients (lime juice + sugar + water + nước mắm), achieving a harmonious balance among these contradictory ingredients is not an easy feat for the untrained palate. Getting it just right requires a bit of finesse that comes with practice.