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Authors: Kim Thuy

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Đông-Tây

East-West

IT TOOK SEVERAL YEARS
and countless photos of my two children to persuade Maman to join me. Unlike my boy, my little girl arrived very quickly, at the same speed as the multiplication of catering orders for private and corporate parties. My husband had bought the duplex next door to enlarge our living space. At the same time, Julie was building a large kitchen under the workshop and she turned the two apartments above us into a daycare for her daughter, my children, and now and then the children of friends who found themselves without a sitter. Two ladies from the Philippines took turns helping out during parties that ended too late or mornings that started before dawn.

In the kitchen, Julie had hired Philippe, a pastry chef, to reinvent Vietnamese desserts, because our traditions regarding cream, chocolate and cakes were limited to a few, very basic recipes. As a matter of fact, Vietnamese call birthday cakes
bánh gatô
, with
bánh
meaning “bread-cake-batter.” We had to import the word
gatô
because cake comes from a singular culinary tradition. We had to learn how to use butter, milk, vanilla, chocolate—ingredients that were as foreign to us as the cooking methods. Lacking ovens, Vietnamese women baked their cakes in a cauldron covered with a lid on which they placed chunks of blazing coal. The cauldron was set on a terracotta barbecue the size of an average cachepot so the mixture could be elevated and baked without
burning even if the temperature couldn't be constant or the heat distribution uniform. I was very surprised, then, at Philippe's thermometer as well as his stopwatch and his set of measuring spoons, not to mention implements as mysterious as they were impressive. I ran my hand over the contents of the drawers and shelves with the fascination of a child stepping into a cockpit.

Slowly, Philippe brought me into his world. He started with hazelnuts, plain, roasted, whole, ground—because I adore nuts. From Chinatown, I would bring him pandan leaves to share with him their intensely green colour and their scent: in Thailand, taxi drivers place a fresh bouquet under their seat every two or three days. As Philippe was already familiar with lychees, I offered him their cousins, longans, whose glossy seeds often serve as a metaphor for a pretty girl's eyes, and rambutans, with their red peel and hairy surface like a sea urchin, but soft to the touch.

My Vietnamese-style banana cake was delicious, but it looked frightening, sturdy and uncouth as it was. In no time, Philippe softened it with foamy caramel made from raw cane sugar. Thus he married East and West, as with the cake with whole bananas fitted into baguette dough soaked in coconut milk and cow's milk. Five hours' baking at a low temperature forced the bread to play a protective role for the fruit as the bananas slowly delivered up the sugar in their
flesh. Anyone lucky enough to taste that cake freshly baked could see, when cutting it, the crimson of the bananas embarrassed at being caught in the act.

màu

colour

PHILIPPE ENHANCED AND ENNOBLED
the desserts that the Vietnamese call simply by the number of colours in the ingredients:
chè
three colours,
chè
five colours,
chè
seven colours. Each merchant has her own interpretation of the dessert, which is usually eaten as a snack on the sidewalk at a corner, sitting on a small stool when school lets out, or between two destinations with friends. I think that meeting someone for
chè
usually means a date in a café, except that there it's made with blends of mung bean paste, tapioca in the shape of pomegranate seeds, red beans, black-eyed peas or the fruit of the nipa palm, all topped with a mountain of crushed ice. A good many secrets were shared between two spoonfuls of
chè
and a good many love affairs were born in that place, which often had no address.

In our workshop, when they tasted Philippe's creations, the clients' confidences scented the air, and sometimes they kissed passionately as if they were alone, set back from time. I had never seen people so much in love so close up before. Nor had I ever heard “I love you” spoken aloud, as Julie did every day. She never hung up the phone without saying “I love you” to her husband and her daughter. I sometimes tried to put into words my gratitude towards Julie, but I was never really successful. I could only show my affection through everyday acts, such as preparing for her, during her numerous appointments and before she even felt the urge, the lime soda she
adored, or by unplugging the phones in her office when I made her take a fifteen-minute nap, or by rubbing a turmeric root on a freshly healed sore to prevent it from scarring. I thanked heaven when I had the chance to look after her daughter for five, seven or ten days so she could join her husband in Turkey, Japan or Sri Lanka. I could offer her only my friendship, because Julie lacked nothing, she had so much to give and she gave everything to everyone. She was a merchant of happiness.

mùa

season

THEY SAY THAT HAPPINESS
cannot be bought. What I learned from Julie is that on its own, happiness multiplies, is shared, and adapts to each of us. It was within that happiness that the years accumulated one after another, paying no attention to calendar or seasons. I could not say at what moment exactly Hồng took the helm of the restaurant kitchen. I only know that, very early one morning, I opened my eyes and saw a world so perfect it made me dizzy. Beside me, my husband's face was pressed into the pillow, rested, peaceful, and wrapped in a nearly palpable film of calm and stillness. In the adjacent rooms, my children were fast asleep. I had the impression I could hear their dreams, where even the monsters seem playful or are transformed into gentlemen. Maman had chosen her domain at the end of the corridor joining the two apartments. She involved herself in the children's homework as rigorously as a substitute teacher. I often caught her smiling discreetly when they called her
Bà Ngoại
, maternal grandmother. During school hours, she insisted on helping Hồng in the kitchen and refused to join the Vietnamese community seniors' club.

And so Maman injected new life into our restaurant by adding recipes to our menu now and then, which continued to follow only our regular customers' wishes and the happenstance of our memories.

hồng

pink and sometimes red

HỒNG AND HER DAUGHTER
became members of the family when they moved into the apartment that had been used as the children's daycare. She had left her husband when Julie caught a glimpse of the bruises scattered over her body. Hidden by long sleeves and dark trousers, it was possible to forget them. The
bravo
s and the
thank you
s of the customers also erased the unwitting abuse and the oblivious insults that alcohol poured onto her. She pushed forward head-long, ignoring her nights, disregarding blows, using her body as a shield to protect her daughter from the threat of being sent back to Vietnam, where she thought she would no longer fit in. It was easy to close her eyes because the only two mirrors in the dark apartment reflected more the explosion of anger than her silhouette, which appeared there in fragments. She had forgotten what she looked like in one piece until the day she saw herself in Julie's eyes when she accidentally opened the bathroom door as Hồng was taking off her chef's jacket.

We went in a four-car convoy, two women and six men, to rescue Hồng and her daughter from a reality that had become a way of life, a habit. Her husband never put to the test the army that stood upright behind her that night and every night thereafter. Before we had time to sort through photos and arrange them in albums, Hồng's daughter had started her first year in medicine at university and we were launching the first cookbook from our atelier-boutique-restaurant.

sách

book

THE LAUNCH WAS GIVEN
a lot of media coverage thanks to our faithful and enthusiastic admirers, and above all thanks to Julie's network, which included radio and TV as well as print. A successful broadcast would generate a flattering review. Before the first newspaper article had been framed, magazines filled our precious rigid suitcase made of leather and wood that seemed to have crossed the Indian Ocean, trod the Silk Road or survived the Holocaust. It was set on a folding stand in the window, wide open, rich with all the praise that might come from as far away as the United States and France. In the
Weekend à Montréal
guide, our atelier-restaurant Mãn was among the essential addresses, while for Frommer's it was an experience not to be missed. Quebeckers' interest in Vietnamese cuisine was growing along with the increased opening of Vietnam's doors to mass tourism. That wave of enthusiasm turned our business into a home base, our book
La Palanche
(The Yoke) into a cultural reference and me into a spokesperson. Readers praised the recipes but often wanted to talk to me about the tales and anecdotes that had inspired our choices.

BOOK: Mãn
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