Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Banh Canh

I am a little later than I should be. She said to arrive at 11am, which means to come at 10.30am. I come at 11.30, not entirely my fault. Maybe I slept in.

She hasn’t started yet, she says. Flustering around me, she pulls out two bags of rice flour (I’ve just been to the shops, it was so busy). Where did you go?, I say conversationally. With exasperation, she says ‘Inala’, as if there were any other shops nearby that she could go to to buy these bags of rice flour. They are each about 400g of fine bright white powder, in a clear bag with red writing all over. The writing is in a variety of languages: Viet, Thai, Chinese, English. I remember being little and being shown these bags, with careful instructions to come back with the right one (red writing for rice flour, blue writing for tapioca starch). I hesitate to tell her you can buy these at the local Coles; I don’t want to start an argument – today, I am being good. Minus the turning up late – she’ll forgive me for that.

I wander over to my father who is resting on his recliner chair, eyes closed. Shopping has clearly worn him out. Sitting down on the arm of the chair, I place light fingers on his knee. I used to sit on that knee but now I am too large, he too frail. He opens his eyes and I greet him - “Ba”. He acknowledges me with a grunt and closes his eyes again.

My mother (Um) has boiled some water and she pours some into a large bowl, into which both bags of flour had been emptied. With a large serving spoon, she mixes it in and tells me to ‘ne’ it – she will bring me the tapioca starch which she left downstairs. 'ne' is a word I had not heard before. She bustles off and I look down at a large tub filled with white dough. I have never done this part before. This has always been done before I arrive and my job is to turn the mountain of dough into large rice noodles. It is just like playing. I think about it and figure she must mean to knead it.

Um does not teach me to cook. She does not show me. I often ask her to cook things with every intention of coming by early to watch how she does it, to learn before it is forgotten how. She always starts too early for me. I have resorted to downloading recipes for Vietnamese dishes from the web. Tradition expects that my mother in law will show me how to cook, teach me how to look after her son. The notion is obsolete.

I am also the youngest. My mother had shown some of my elder sisters her cooking – they helped her in the kitchen. I did too but I did the odd jobs, the jobs you could trust the youngest kid – easily distracted and petulant – to do. You should never give the youngest kid a time consuming task, unless the reward was great. Something like “fetch me the butcher’s cleaver” was about what I could handle. Maybe rinse the vegies and herbs and sometimes, put the rice on. Nothing too involved. Beetles, praying mantis’ and lizards always needed to be found and homes built for them (they often also needed supervision so they would stay in the insect mansions). I could rarely be expected to stay in the kitchen long but I could always be called in for those urgent fetching errands.

There were exceptions. Fresh tofu was one: I could stand and curdle that tofu for happy, anticipatory hours; my taste-buds eager for the silken flavour of home made tofu, my greed overcoming my need to rescue unwilling insects or climb frangipani trees in the neighbour’s yard. Banh canh – today’s lunch – was another. The store bought noodles were nothing on the flavour and texture of home made ones.

Um comes back: “Where would you like to make them, on the floor?” No, I say. I’d prefer the table. Better for my back, used to sitting at computers all day. She looks at me strangely and says – it is easier on the floor. “Oh, I just prefer the table”, I say diplomatically. “That’s why your back aches, Um”, I don’t say.

I spread out the bowl, a chopping board, a plate and another serving spoon. I wish for music, but not aloud in case Ba hears me and turns the Vietnamese radio on. Um has gone again and it’s just me and a large bowl of dough. I put my whole hand into the dough, only to withdraw it and run to the tap. The dough is hot. After running my hand under cold water for a while, I come up with a plan. I go to my bag to get my book. Using the serving spoons, I turn the dough over, break it into bits and generally mush it. Then, as the steam rises, I bring the book to my nose and read. When the steam subsides, I repeat.

Is it ready to ‘se’?” Um says. I guiltily put the book down and say – no, the dough was too hot and I could not knead it. She looks at me again, to inspect whether I really am her daughter or some hopeless Australian who just looks like her daughter. I’m both, honest. She looks at the book. I show her my splotchy red hand – a hand that reads books more often than it plunges itself into hot dough. “You put hot water on it” I accuse. “Of course I did”, she says impatiently. Pity we came to Australia for a better life, education, opportunities. Look how I’ve turned out – unable to knead dough.

‘se’ is a verb. It is in the present tense. All Viet words are in the present tense. Yesterday, I se the noodles. Today I se the noodles. Tomorrow I se the noodles. It feels as if I have always se the noodles. You use the same word and it does not matter what the time structure is (although if you are my parents, early is best). Context is important to ascertain meaning. Context is all you’ve got to go on. Unfortunately for the dough, my context is higher education and a professional job. My hands weren’t toughened in the context of bonded labour (traditional Viet marriage). Context is also my family.

After about an hour of lonely ‘se’, my sister turns up, both kids and husband in tow. She sits down beside me, youngest kid on her lap and starts chatting. I invite her to join in the fun, but she declines. Her husband helps instead. They are a liberated family. In another hour, another sister turns up. This time, the kids are in the lead (they’re older). They too sit down. I invite them to join the fray – to speed up lunch. Luckily, they do with enthusiasm.

To ‘se’ is to roll small parts of the mound of dough into smaller, long, noodle-like parts. Picture yourself playing with playdough as a kid. Remember making worms? Just like that, only not colourful and hopefully hygienic. Repeat. Repeat some more. It is better, if you can manage it, to have family turn up and arrange themselves around you. They should start chatting, the louder the better. Some should join the ‘se’ and others can outright refuse to. For added interest, the kids could cry. Maybe one of them should be super cute, and say something precocious, preferably bi-lingually. Another is probably on the cusp of being an adult and she’ll want to talk about hair, boys and clothes. You will try not to be disdainful, but you won’t succeed especially when she tells you she is reading magazines instead of books. You will despair (even though you were that way yourself).

Um is downstairs, making the soup to accompany the noodles. I always miss out on this part because I am the person who ‘se’. As if telepathically connected to the mountain of dough, Um turns up with the soup when there is one tiny hill left. We divide it and ‘se’ in excited conclusion – the last few are thinner and less consistent, but made with more laughter.

The noodles are cooked in soup (it has crabs and prawns – we were fishing folk ‘back home’). Bowls are placed in front of flour dusted people, and we sit down elbow to elbow to eat. Fresh eschallots, coriander and pepper is added to your taste. Ba likes large pieces of pepper so he takes the lid off the grinder and places whole peppercorns into his soup. I mimic him and discreetly choke on one behind a cough. We have banh canh for lunch. Its flavour is enhanced by our work and the warm chatter.


sume said...

Wow, I enjoyed reading this. I can't ever remember my mother and I cooking together. It was my mother-in-law who taught me to cook her family recipes. Strangely appropriate but sad because my mother and I never shared those kinds of moments. She was just too tired from working.

So much is passed along in the kitchen and the family table. I've been googling up recipes, too. I have no idea if I'm getting the taste right though but wanted something to offer my daughter. Poor kids, sometimes my experimenting doesn't turn out so well.

Cee said...

What vivid pictures you make - I now feel as if I have this secret spyhole into your parents home, through your eyes. And I'm hungry for noodles.

OTT said...

thanks Sume & Cee! I'm glad you enjoyed. i'm a bit nervous about posting my more short-story-esque posts but won't prevaricate too much in future :-)

Sume - yes, the kitchen is very much a hub of family life. Preparing food is actually one of the few times I communicate well with my mother. and I just love working in a kitchen with a whole bunch of women, and gossiping and chatting. I've learnt so much that way!

Cee - you cannot get these noodles anywhere other than home made by me and my mum. I don't even see them on Viet restaurant menus ... but then, none of my favourite dishes are on Viet restaurant menus. Oh except for pho. That's on EVERY Viet restaurant menu!

honglien123 said...

This was such a great read for me. It reminded me of all the yummy goodness of banh canh, which my mom is too busy to make these days, as well as having my nose in a book whenever there was serious cooking done in our house. I too, end up looking for prized Vietnamese recipes online. Somehow, they just don't feel the same though, there's something about Vietnamese cooking that defies neat measurements and listed ingredients. Or maybe that was just my experience since it always seemed like my mom threw whatever into the pot using her own mental measuring system and made magic.

Anonymous said...

I write here because I don't know if you go back and read comments from your old postings. This is in regards to your Friday, May 19, 2006 and the comments to:
"Identity Crisis"

What is a mule? It is the offspring between a horse and a donkey. What if the mule looks mostly like a donkey, speaks "donkey" and was raised by donkeys, is he then a donkey? My mother was Vietnamese. My father was American. I don't have "Asian" features and was raised completely American. I do not know the language, or culture of my mother. Then what am I? Mules are animals. They are only interested in meeting their basic needs, food, water, etc.. Humans are different because they can think abstract thoughts and above their basic needs. Even though I was raised as without Asian or my Vietnamese culture and look "white", I too struggle with my identity. Just my humble ramblings.



OTT said...

Hong Lien - thank you :-) I use my found recipes as a guide - but I wish my mum would teach me :-( Last time I asked her to, she said: "Why? Just go buy it from the restaurant. Or tell me you want to eat it and come here and I'll cook it for you." All well and good but I want to know how! I'm hoping that if I pay more attention now, I might learn something ...

Rey -

I do go back and check for comments (actually, they get emailed to me because some time back I was completely oblivious to people commenting in the first place ... oops!).

Thank you for sharing your ramblings. I hope I did not give the impression in that post that identity crises are the preserve of an identifiable minority, or only have people who have an appearance of difference. I think we all have self-identity issues and that we all continue to engage with our self identity as we grow. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it's smooth.

and the answer to your question? No. It's a mule. Something unique and separate from the identity of its parents, but influenced by it. Good luck, Mule! (And good luck Rey!)

Rey said...


Your comments touched my heart........
the word, "unique" is so much better than "different"..it has a good feeling......You have my e-mail address, will you write me and let me tell you my story?


Wandering Chopsticks said...

Thanks for delurking so I could find you! :)

My mom and ba noi make their own banh canh noodles too. No one else I know does that. Unfortunately, I was never good at learning either. My mom's not much for teaching and yet she somehow expects me to just do it.

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