Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue is a noodle soup from the region of Hue, the old imperial capital of Viet Nam. When in Hue with my sisters, we completely forgot to order any Bun Bo Hue from anywhere to eat. We were much too excited by the vegetarian banquet put out before us, and at another restaurant, distracted by the flags that they gave to each table of Viet Kieu. They gave us the Stars and Stripes of the US, before we had even said anything. I looked at it for awhile wonderingly, and then, while the waitress was out of the room, got up and went over to the display of flags and exchanged the Stars and Stripes for the Australian Union Jack and Southern Cross combo. I plonked that flag down on our table , and my sisters affectionately shook their heads at me. Another table watched my progress and then did the same: exchanging their Stars and Strips for the red and white maple leaf affair of the Canadian flag. We all giggled conspiratorially together when the waitress came back and looked from our table, to their table, and then over to the flag table. But she neither frowned nor smiled, so what we had done must have been a neutral act.

It also rained the entire couple of days that we were in Hue, so we did not wander the streets very much; we were chaperoned by our grumpy tour guide from monument, to temple, to imperial palace grounds, to hotel, to market, to restaurant. I found our tour guide extremely difficult to understand: the Hue accent is mellifluous, gentle and musical; the words flow together. I need sharp distinctions in my Viet words to know what is being said. After all, my family speak Viet in sharp ringing tones, like the fishwives they all once were, or were descended from. Initially, I frowned at our tour guide, listening as hard as I could, and then I would look over at my eldest sister, who also looked like she was struggling to understand. If she was struggling, I had no chance. Eventually, I gave up. I wandered away from our guide a number of times to read signs in English, and I don't think she liked that very much. I also had my lovely red raincoat, so the rain was but minor hindrance to my explorations. She did not like the rain, and she would rush us from one shelter under turned up eaves to another, or from the van door to the inside of temple grounds. I wanted to wander and explore the grounds themselves, not merely the inside of buildings. So I did. My sisters tried to tell her to leave me be, but she would try to call me in to listen to her guiding. I told her that I was happy exploring on my own and that I had trouble understanding her because my Vietnamese was very poor. It was easiest for me to surreptitiously tell my sisters that I would see them shortly and wander away, into the rain, where she would not follow.

As we drove away from Hue, shortly after lunch, I cried out, "Oh no! We did not eat Bun Bo Hue in Hue!" My eldest sister said, "We can stop." I replied that I was much too full. Her response? "Eat it in Sai Gon, it will probably be better anyway." And we all chuckled, suspecting this to be true. I was not overly impressed by Hue, but I think that was the fault of our guide, and not of the town, which has much crumbling imperial and colonial granduer to recommend it. Another time, I will visit and I will not be shackled by no grumpy tour guide!

I decided to try to cook Bun Bo Hue recently. So, it being roughly three weeks since the last time I had spoken to my parents, I telephoned my mother. I informed her of my intention to cook Bun Bo Hue and asked her what the ingredients were. I had done a brief internet search to try to locate a recipe, but failed.

I did find some interesting information, however. A number of sites (don't ask, when I google, I open loads of links and then close them again. I only remember the ones that were useful, and sometimes, not even them) referred to Bun Bo Hue as 'spicy pho'. I thought this was odd, and much pleased when I read Wandering Chopsticks' comment that Bun Bo Hue is not pho. I like her comment a lot:-

Mini-rant here. No it is NOT pho. Calling bun bo Hue a variation of pho is like saying fettucine alfredo is a version of spaghetti. Sure it's easy to reference a more popular dish when trying to describe it, but in both cases: different noodles + different flavors = different dishes entirely. OK?

Tangentially, I also found this and this. The first is a recipe from Khmer Krom Recipes for a soup remarkably like Bun Bo Hue, but of Cambodian origin, and the second is an interview with the author of the website, Mylinh Nakry, by another blogger on Cambodian food, Phonmenon. I am probably going to get myself into trouble here. Oh well.

Mylinh Nakry, of Khmer Krom Recipes, says:

Vietnamese people loves this Khmer Krom soup so much that they changed Khmer Krom recipe name to Vietnamese name *Bun bo Hue*, and never gives us any credit which is no surprise to me since they also took our land. On 6-4-1949, French government illegally gave *Kampuchea Krom*( now know as South Vietnam) to Viet Nam. Hue (now know as Central Vietnam)was part of Champa that Khmer Empire was once ruled Champa and most of South East Asia.

She also makes this claim of Bun Rieu and pho, and probably some other dishes as well, except that I don't know; I was looking, and then started to feel a bit silly. I cannot speak to her claim about the origin of Bun Bo Hue, or Bun Rieu, or pho. I do not know enough about the history of food and politics in Viet Nam and Cambodia / Kampuchea. I am prepared to accept that the borders of the region of what is now known as Viet Nam that borders what is now known as Cambodia were porous, and that cultural exchange, including inter-marriage, linguistic exchange and food exchange would have occurred. Perhaps one cuisine influenced another; more likely, the exchange was both ways. I am not prepared to accept that when Kampuchea Krom and Champa existed, one culture and one people and one food type existed and then continued, unchanged, to now, or to 1949. Nor am I prepared to accept that the Vietnamese people who first made Bun Bo Hue appropriated a Khmer Krom dish, and renamed it, in the same way they appropriated the land. It's just not that simple.

Maybe they made something like it. Maybe the Cambodians used a spice, or herb, that the Vietnamese had not before and they thought, "Gosh, that's tasty. Why don't I chuck me some of that into this here soup I be making?" (Although perhaps not in a fake Aussie/Irish brogue.) Probably, the people who lived in the Champa kingdom are the ancestors of the people who live there now and their diaspora. As now, there were some indigenous and some not. But eventually, if you just keep living there, you belong there. Who were they? Cambodian? Viet? It would be fiendishly difficult to disentangle what 'belongs' to one culture / ethnic group or another. And for what? A claim to authenticity? Nationalism? Parochialism? To what end?

I'm very pleased that Mylinh Nakry feels strongly about her cultural / ethnic identity (however she would describe it) and applaud her attempt, via her website, to bring some attention to how Cambodian cuisine has languished in the shadows of its neighbours. But not in this simplistic way, that is so potentially damaging. I also don't condone the hateful, and hate-mongering, and indeed contemptuously ridiculing, comments posted to Phnomenon's site about Mylinh Nakry either. I got myself kind of lost in it. First I was mildly amused, and then outraged, and then, just saddened.

Whatever its origin, it's a delicious dish. And I, because of my ethnic background, know it as Bun Bo Hue.

Back to my story.

When I spoke to my mother, to ask her the ingredients of Bun Bo Hue, she asked me if the local Asian grocery store stocked stock cubes. Perplexed, I said that I thought they did. She told me to find the one for Bun Bo Hue, and to use pork feet instead of beef bones in my stock. I said, "But don't you make it from, you know, lemongrass and chilli and other things?" She replied, "No. I never cooked you Bun Bo Hue. Or if I did, I probably made it from the stock cube. Ask your brother-in-law. He knows how to cook it." I was flummoxed. Had I never had Um-cooked Bun Bo Hue? I wracked my memory, and decided it was probably true. I had eaten Bun Bo Hue with my family, but rarely. More likely, we would have had Bun Rieu (which is on my list of things to work out how to cook). If we wanted to eat Bun Bo Hue, we would ask my sister in law to cook it. After further miscellaneous chit-chat with my mother, I rung off.

I then telephoned my brother in law, to ask him. I did not telephone my sister in law because she is more difficult to track down. After a chat with my sister, and telling her the true reason for why I had called, I spoke to my brother in law. He is the pho cook in the family. He also used to work in restaurants and can roll spring rolls at an alarming speed. We competed once (I'm a mean spring-roll-er myself, from way back) and he won easily; he rolled four for every one of mine. "So you want to cook Bun Bo Hue?" he started. "Yep", said I. "With pork or with beef?" "With beef!" It is, Bun Bo Hue after all (bo means beef). "Okay. Well make sure you have oxtail then. That's the best meat. Nothing from the shoulder, okay?" I made agreeing sounds although I was already going to disobey him. "Next, if you go to the Asian supermarket, you can buy stock cubes. You can get Bun Bo Hue stock cubes." "What?" I burst out. "That's what Um told me to do! I don't want stock cubes. I want the ingredients!" "Oh, okay," he conceded, "I just wanted to make it easier for you."

Stock cubes! I can't believe my family use stock cubes.

And on that note, this post is long enough already. Next post will be the recipe. Promise.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Instructing barristers

What's with the pink ribbon tied round a bundle of documents? I thought it was a quirk of Queensland lawyers, but the ribbon has turned up in the UK as well! I guess we inherited more than the queen, our political and legal system, a good smattering of our education ...

I recall being the junior solicitor in a matter that I had done quite a lot of work on - prepared the witness statements, the bundle of documents, the brief to the barrister. I did not attend the first day of the trial because the partner in charge wanted to see how the new barrister we briefed performed, and because we expected it to settle. After the first day of what was looking to be a lengthy trial, she asked me to attend the rest of the trial as instructing solicitor instead. She had guaged the barrister's ability and had given him the nod.

So I turned up on day two, having read through the partner's scrawled notes of what happened on day one. No settlement offers made - barrister on the other side had suggested we withdraw. Partner in charge had politely declined. I introduced myself to my barrister and went to introduce myself to the instructing solicitor on the other side and his barrister. As I stepped from my side of the bar table, both opposing solicitor and barrister turned away from me. I raised an eyebrow at my barrister who looked a little taken aback; I did a half shrug and took my seat. I had a whispered conference with my barrister and then left the courtroom to go find our client.

When I came back from my short and harried lunch, only the opposing barrister was seated at the bar table. I smiled at him and he ignored me, so I sat down at my seat conscientiously rifling through my papers and re-organising the mess my barrister had made of our bundle. The opposing barrister was struggling with his own bundle, tied with the lovely pink ribbon that seems so popular in the legal world. He finally turned to me and said, "Miss, Miss?" I ignored him, pretending to be engrossed in my own bundle. He slid his chair over closer to mine and said, "Sorry to interrupt -" right up close. No more ignoring. I looked up and said, "Yes?" He passed over the bundle, lovingly bound, and asked, "Could you untie this? I don't have any nails." "Neither do I." I said, flatly, holding up both my hands. "Sorry." I said, not meaning it. "My name's Oanh, by the way. Sorry I did not have the opportunity to introduce myself properly this morning." He shook my hand and said his name. I then proffered the pair of scissors that I had in my briefcase.

Some barristers need instruction on simple courtesy, and a little feminist tutoring, too.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bullets of Spring

  • When ever I read another blogger's bullets, the They Might Be Giant's song, Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love, starts running through my head. Specifically (Freudian?) this bit runs through my head:-

Bullets from a gun

Bullets through the atmosphere

Here they come

John, I've been bad

And they're coming after me

Done someone wrong

And I fear that it was me

Sapphire bullets

Bullets of pure love

  • Actually, that's pretty much the entirety of the song.

  • It is spring! There are yellow daffodils and purple and white crocuses everywhere. Blackthorn is out, magnolias are budding and the robins, with their proud orange chests, are back.

  • Even though it is spring, it is still bitterly (according to me) cold. It still looks like winter outside my office window becuase the sawn off tree has no buds and the tree beside it looks like whoever waters it has been doing a rather poor job.

  • Our herbs on the kitchen windowsill are, however, very pleased to greet spring. My oregano leaves are almost a centimetre in diameter, the mint is growing new shoots everywhere and my laxoleaf's leaves are the biggest I have ever seen them. My Hungarian black chilli also has lots of new, pretty purple flowers.

  • I am trying to ascertain the effects of Bokashi juice on my herbs. They've been watered with Bokashi juice twice in the last three weeks. Unfortunately, the watering coincided with the arrival of (ever-so-slightly) warmer weather and sun, so I don't know to what I should attribute the enthusiastic growth.

  • I'm inlcined to attribute it to the Bokashi juice, except that I know the herbs did this last year too, sans juice.

  • The Bokashi is otherwise going swimmingly, thanks for asking. We have almost filled our first bucket, and will need to move onto the next one.

  • It only took us three weeks to fill our bucket. We are obviously not your average family. My partner hypothesises that our accelerated filling of the bucket is because we prepare almost all of our meals from scratch (i.e. no pre-packaged stuff). I think it is because we are greedy and eat too much.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Um & Soy Sauce

Recently, it was my mother's birthday. But I did not call her, because I forgot. Luckily (for me), my family don't really celebrate birthdays - at least, not on the actual day. Birthdays occur when they're celebrated, so when they're not celebrated, they don't occur. Make sense? I think so!

I call my mother Um. This is not a common thing to call one's mother, even if one is Vietnamese. It is more common to use Me or Ma, or even Vu, which really puts your mum in her place because vu means breast.

When I was young, I knew I was different from the Aboriginal, white, Greek, Italian and Lebanese kids at school, but I did not realise that I was different from other Vietnamese kids, until we talked about our mums. Or asked for soy sauce. These were the two greatest differentiating factors between me and other Viet kids. Perhaps there were a few others.

Um is pronounced like Oom. Or like mmm, but you start with your mouth open. It is sometimes used by Chinese/Viet kids as a title for distant older relatives, the same as Bac in more mainstream Viet. It's a term of distant filial respect. In my father's family, Um means mother. This is to avoid confusion with my father's mother, who was the supreme ruler of my father's (rather extensive) clan. Everyone called my paternal grandmother Ah Ma, and calling anyone else Ma or even Me would have been just too confusing. I guess. Now, my mother is Ma to all her grandkids and Um to all her kids, in-laws included (well, the ones who speak Viet at any rate).

I have a strong recollection of my first "but you're Viet and you're different from me!" experience. I would have been about 6 years old. My Um had sent me to the corner shop to buy some soy sauce. I knew the particular bottle like it was a close friend. (It kind of is, actually. Soy sauce, that is. Steamed white rice and soy sauce, now that's comfort food!) I wandered around and around the narrow aisles, looking for the particular bottle my mother preferred. Eventually, I gave up and went to the counter and asked where they kept yi tam. The woman behind the counter looked at me. There was another woman with a young girl at the counter. The young girl was about my age and she looked over at me like I was some strange specimen, speaking another language.

The woman behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I repeated, yi tam. The other woman said, I think she's Uncle #5*'s daughter. She's after si dau. Si dau is the more common term for soy sauce, but I did not know that at the time. I said (because it was true), I don't know what si dau is. I want yi tam. The other woman's daughter looked at me aghast. You don't know what si dau is? I said to her, No. Why should I? The other woman went and got me a bottle of soy sauce - it was just the bottle I was after. The daughter said, That's si dau. And smartarse me said, No it's not. It's yi tam. We both just looked at each. I thought the girl was very stupid. She must have thought the same of me.

(*Uncle #5 (Bac Nam) is what everyone who knew my dad, except people who were actually related to him, called him. Actual relatives called him by whatever the family relationship was. He was not any Viet person in Australia's fifth uncle, because very few of his extended family emigrated from Viet Nam.)

I took that bottle of yi tam home and showed it to my family and told my story about how strange the people were in the corner store. Um laughed and laughed. So did most of my older siblings. Ba too. Everyone laughed at me, and I honestly had no idea why. I learned, shortly afterwards, a salty lesson in diversity.

Um told me all the different names for yi tam and I was astounded. In the north, they tend to call it nuoc tuong (which is rather confusing because it literally translates as sauce water, or if you're being pedantic, water sauce). Some call it si ieu and some si dau. Me? It's yi tam and nothing else (although I will no think you're stupid if you call it si dau. Swear.)

NT and Wandering Chopsticks both expressed curiousity about why I call my mother Um. I'm no good at being brief in my answers, so this is my answer. I am also no good at staying on topic.

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