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Authors: Kim Thuy

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“Nice day.”

“It's hot.”

“It's hailing.”

“It's snowing.”

“It's windy.”

“It's raining.”

câu hỏi

questions

IN SOUTH VIETNAM
, we never talk about the weather. We never make comments, perhaps because there are no seasons, no changes, like in this kitchen. Or maybe because we accept things as they are, as they happen to us, never asking why or how.

Once, through the little square opening for serving the plates, I heard some lawyer clients say that you should only ask questions to which you already know the answers. Otherwise, it's better to be silent. I will never find answers to my questions, and that may be why I've never asked one. All I did was climb up and down the stairs that connected my oven to my bed. My husband built the stairwell to protect me from the cold in winter and the vagaries of life outside in any weather.

ăn hàng

street food

WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED
, the restaurant menu was very basic, like those in street restaurants in Vietnam: one dish, one specialty. In Hanoi, the old district was criss-crossed by streets that specialized in a single product: Vermicelli Street, Tombstone Street, Metal Street, Salt Street, Fan Street … Today, bamboo ladders are sold on Sails Street and silk clothes on Hemp Street. As before, craftspeople still set up next to one another, offering the same goods as always. For a while, Maman and I lived on Chicken and Medicinal Herbs Street in Hanoi. Of the two rows of
gà tần
restaurants, we preferred the one with the second-floor patio that wrapped around a big banyan tree.

đắng

bitter

WHEN MY HUSBAND
fell sick for the first time, I prepared a dish for him that involved gently cooking chicken with lotus seeds, ginkgo nuts and dried goji berries. According to certain beliefs, a portion of eternity stays behind in the lotus, while the ginkgo strengthens the neurons, since its leaves are shaped like brains. As for the goji berries, books attesting to their medicinal virtues have existed since the days of emperors and princesses. The benefits of the dish are likely due to the attention devoted to its preparation. In addition to the long hours of slow cooking, the shell of the ginkgo must be cracked firmly but with restraint, to protect the whole of the tender flesh. And the green germ must be removed from the lotus seeds to get rid of their bitter taste.

It's rare that bitterness is totally eliminated, because it's often found in foods considered to be cold, those that don't inflame us— unlike mangoes, hot peppers, chocolate. It's believed that we should cut back on tastes we enjoy too easily because they're bad for us, while a bitter taste restores the balance. I could have avoided separating the lotus seeds in two to eliminate the germs, which may be drunk in infusions to bring on sleep. But I wanted to avoid extremes: extreme tastes, extreme sensations.

cạo gió

scratching the wind

DURING THE THREE DAYS
of my husband's fever, I fed him, a mouthful at a time. In Vietnam, when we don't know what has caused a death, we blame the wind, as if catching an impure wind could kill us. That's why I asked him to take off his shirt so I could chase away the bad wind by scratching his back with a porcelain spoon moistened with a few drops of tiger balm. I had never looked at a man's skin so close up. I drew his skeleton on it by rubbing between the bones and the length of his spine. Dark red blotches emerged on the surface, eliminating the heat and perhaps all the pains that had never been felt. I repeated those ancient movements to care for a stranger who had become my only anchoring point. I would have liked to know how to comfort him, run my hand over his skin. All I could do was warm him with the blanket that still smelled of the long journey from the Chinese factory to our apartment.

cà phê

coffee

AS SOON AS HE
was able to get back on his feet, he resumed serving Tonkinese soups to his customers. Many were bachelors waiting for their Vietnamese wives or to have the fare needed for plane tickets. Most came for a bowl of soup three or four times a week. They would arrive before opening on Saturday or Sunday morning for a filter coffee with my husband, and compared the length of time they had to wait with that of the drops of coffee that dripped onto the condensed milk in their glasses. I served the same breakfast to everyone, but I changed what was on offer every morning to the rhythm of my virtual visit to the streets of Vietnam.

I read once that in Japan each town specializes in one kind of cake. Men travelling on business often bring home a box of desserts from the town where they've been. Sometimes a man doesn't leave the town where he lives, only his wife, temporarily, to be with his mistress. The men allow themselves now and then to withdraw from their real lives, to take a vacation. In that case, there are shops that, anticipating those sorts of absences, offer men cakes from different towns.

As in Japan and maybe everywhere else, Vietnamese towns and villages have their specialties too. So I only had to go back mentally to Chợ Lớn, the big Chinese neighbourhood in Saigon, to get the idea of preparing pork meatballs wrapped around a small piece of sparerib, steamed in a trickle of tomato sauce. This dish is unfailingly served with a baguette, as if
France had always been part of Sino-Vietnamese culinary traditions. Week after week, clients who were friends of my husband received their plate or their bowl with ever-greater anticipation.

One of the men came from Rạch Giá, a coastal town where a meal-in-a-bowl—a poached fish with vermicelli, embellished with shrimp eggs and caramelized pork—had been invented. Tears ran down his cheeks when I sprinkled his bowl with a small spoonful of pickled garlic. Eating that soup, he murmured that he had tasted his land, the land where he'd grown up, where he was loved.

On busy weekend mornings, customers who were also friends were content with a bowl of rice covered with an
óp la
(fried egg) salted with soy sauce. This way they began their day off with a certain feeling of quiet happiness.

muối

salt

WITHIN A FEW MONTHS
, those clients who'd come on their own in the beginning began to turn up with a colleague, a neighbour, a woman friend. The more people waiting in the entrance and then outside on the sidewalk, the more nights I spent in the kitchen. Fairly soon, clients stopped ordering
soupe tonkinoise
in favour of the plat du jour, even if they didn't know what was on the menu before they arrived at the restaurant and read the blackboard hanging in the window. Just one dish per day. One memory at a time, because it took me a lot of effort not to let my emotions overflow the plates. And yet every time the salt shaker fell accidentally and covered the floor with white grains, I had to restrain myself from counting them, as Maman always did when her daily ration was limited to thirty grains. Fortunately, the growing number of clients kept me from losing my focus.

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