Cooking and healing in my mother’s Vietnamese kitchen
In the midst of misunderstandings and estrangement, one woman and her mother found solace in making spring rolls.
Advice for the market
- Gather your list and your courage. You must be prepared to haggle. Do not accept the first price they give you.
- Choose wisely. Your eyes can deceive you. Smell everything. Pick things up. You do not really know something until you have held it in your own hands.
- Do not be greedy. Do not take the last item on the shelf. Save something for those who come after.
- No matter what, be grateful. You do not know what you will have tomorrow.
It is an all-day ritual that I cherish, making spring rolls with my mother.
It is a signature dish of her native Vietnam, and the dish she always made for my father, brother, and me, in our otherwise typical American household.
It is the dish that I learned to make at my mother’s side from a very young age, and that she learned to make with her own mother: A savoury concoction of diced vegetables, meats, and seasoning rolled up in rice paper and fried to a golden brown.
It is the dish that connected my mother to her homeland when it was lost to her, and that has connected me to my mother, when she has felt lost to me.
A future they could not see
May Day, 1970, dawned bright and warm in Broome County, New York. My mother dressed carefully, choosing a sleeveless white shift dress with a patterned red and blue belt, and a multistrand red-beaded necklace. Her black hair was in a fashionable shoulder-length bob, and her figure was trim, despite having given birth only five months earlier.
My father, wearing his omnipresent heavy-framed eyeglasses and a dark suit, was at her side, his hand on her waist. Together, they walked up the steps to the court and entered the airless, crowded courtroom where my mother and 23 other people – hailing from Italy, Germany, Canada, Spain, and Vietnam – would become US citizens.
When they emerged afterwards, my mother carried a small American flag. A newspaper photographer caught their picture as they paused on the steps, looking into the distance, gazing into a future they could not see.
Six years earlier, my mother, born outside Saigon, had been hired by the US Army to teach Vietnamese on the military base in Okinawa, Japan, where she met my father, a white American man fresh out of the University of Wisconsin.
After a whirlwind courtship, my parents married on base, and my father brought his new bride back to America, settling in upstate New York in 1967. Two years later, I was born, my skin as white and my hair as nut brown as my father’s. I was too young to understand, back then, the hardships of leaving home, and the effect that had on my mother.
“No single story can capture the diaspora’s experiences,” writes Vietnamese author Viet Thanh Nguyen, speaking of the mass exodus of refugees from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, a process that would swell the Vietnamese population in the United States from about 15,000 to nearly 300,000 within five years.
A facsimile of home
In the last days of April, 1975, my mother was about to have her second child, my brother. Two years earlier, my father had moved us to a split-level house in Maryland, where he could easily commute into downtown Washington, DC, for his new job with the US government.
On Wednesday, April 30, her contractions began. My mother has told me that she tried to avoid the news from Vietnam and focus on the birth, but it was impossible. That day, as she lay in the maternity ward, The Washington Post ran a banner headline above the fold: “Saigon Surrenders to Vietcong; Withdrawal Ends Role of U.S.”
Beneath that story was Dutch photographer Hubert Van Es’s iconic black-and-white photo, soon to become synonymous with the last moments of the Vietnam War, of an Air America helicopter on a Saigon rooftop with a long line of evacuees crowding a ladder leading up to it.
The next day, my baby brother was born, his eyes squeezed shut, his hair slick and black.
I do not remember much about my father bringing me to the hospital to meet my new brother, but I know I was wholly unaware of my mother’s pain. Now that I have carried and delivered two children, I understand the strange and sudden emptiness after a child is born, the exhaustion and the elation, the discomfiting sense that things will never again be the same.
My mother felt doubly empty. Refugees often hold onto hope that they will one day return home, or if they cannot, they strive to recreate some facsimile of home in their new land, creating ethnic enclaves where they can speak their own language and see people who look like them.
My mother was not a refugee, but in that hospital room her life bore no resemblance to the one she once knew. As she saw images of Saigon in flames, she understood with certainty that she could never return to her old life. As she nursed her newborn, her tall, handsome husband and young daughter stood in the parking lot below her hospital window, waving up at her as we left for the evening. And yet, her country was lost. As I waved, what I could not see was my mother wrapping her arms around herself, unable to stop the tears.
Advice on chopping
- Prepare your tools and ingredients. Wash and sharpen your knives.
- Peel your onions and carrots. Expose the fragrant flesh beneath. If the onion makes you cry, bite your lip and look away. The feeling will pass. Be strong and start again.
- Begin to chop. The first cut is a leap of faith, a point of no return, so you must be brave. Do not get complacent. That first cut is actually the easiest. Things get harder afterwards, as the thing you are cutting disappears right before your eyes.
- Make your cuts uniform and fine. Wield your knife with precision and grace.
Even on a map, Vietnam makes me think of food. To me, this thin, s-shaped country resembles a twisting, nubby gourd, or maybe an eggplant, hanging on the edge of Southeast Asia.
This land is fertile and wet, productive, maternal. The low-lying marshlands are flat and fecund; the uplands are thick with impenetrable forests and cultivatable plateaus.
When I was a child, my mother worked hard to give me a typical American upbringing, but she told me stories about her country, too, mostly related to food. I loved hearing how she would help her father sell ducks on the street, and how her mother would make soup and grilled meat.
Some of my earliest memories involve watching my mother make fluffy rice and fry it up with egg and a liberal amount of soy sauce, which we sometimes even ate for breakfast.
Making spring rolls, my mother’s favourite dish, was a time-consuming affair, but one that I relished.
Beginning in the morning, we would go to her favourite Asian market where my mother would pore over the produce to choose the best vegetables – onion and carrots and bean sprouts and red peppers. She always chose two kinds of protein, usually pork and shrimp – and asked the butcher to grind them fine. Rice paper for wrapping the rolls, lettuce and basil for garnish, and fish sauce – Vietnam’s famous pungent dipping sauce – rounded out our shopping list.
Back home, we would dice and mix and season everything until it was just right, and then set up a factory of sorts on the dining room table.
This was my favourite part: scooping a heaping lump of filling into the centre of a sheet of rice paper – softened with water – which we would then roll up like a mini-burrito until a pile of rolls was ready for frying.
Working in batches, my mother would fry up dozens of rolls, until the scent filled every corner of the house. When she was finished, she usually made me wait half an hour for the rolls to cool before I could eat them.
But these idyllic scenes did not last. My parents divorced only 10 years after their marriage on Okinawa, with my father receiving primary custody of my brother and me.
My mother moved out, and we grew more distant. As I became a teenager and young adult, we often butted heads. As an American child, I was always too blunt, too white, and too different from her. As a Vietnamese woman, she was too demanding, too strict, too ill-versed in American culture. We argued more and more.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, we were completely estranged. She did not come to my wedding.
But even when we were not speaking, I kept making her spring rolls. I messed them up so many times – adding too much salt or not enough, wrapping the rolls too loosely around the filling so they fell apart, and burning them black in the sizzling oil. But I kept making them.
With every batch, I got a little better. And with every batch, my empathy for my mother grew. I became increasingly interested in understanding and connecting with what it was that made me Vietnamese, just as I began to understand how hard it was for her to become American, all those years ago. How could we honour and reconcile these parts of ourselves? And how could we reconcile with each other?
Advice on Mixing
- Mix the filling thoroughly.
- Resist the temptation to avoid the mess by using a large spoon or electric mixer. Get in there and mix by hand. Feel the ingredients combining between your fingers. Mix until a bit of every ingredient can be seen in every palmful.
- Do not overmix, though. Overmixing takes the life out of food, whether it is bread dough or spring roll filling. This is not a puree. This is not fondue. The whole cannot obliterate the parts.
A note of apology
When my first child, a son, was born in 2006, I had not spoken to my mother in nine years.
One day before my son’s first birthday, my father arrived at my doorstep with a handwritten note. He handed it to me silently, and I instantly recognised my mother’s elegant handwriting.
My father explained: Having heard about my son’s birth from my brother, my mother drove to my father’s house, asking for his help. Together, they sat at the dining room table, the one they had purchased together as newlyweds, as my mother asked for advice on how to word a note of apology.
Picturing my long-divorced parents collaborating this way, their heads bowed together over a pen and paper, staggered me. She wanted to know my son, the note read. She wanted to know me.
Later, when I called her, after we cried and apologised and vowed to do better, she said: “Let’s get together. Let’s make spring rolls.”
We did just that, and we have done just that, many, many times since, in both her kitchen and mine. It has not always been perfect, but we have tried to understand each other better.
My mother was with me when my father died unexpectedly in 2010, and she was with me when we laid him to rest. (Recalling their years together, she said losing him was the worst day of her American life. It reminded me that she had, in fact, had two lives – an American life and a Vietnamese one.)
I was with her in turn a few years later when she got word that her own mother – my grandmother – had died back in Vietnam at the age of 102. Together, we prayed at the Buddhist temple, placing oranges at the Buddha statue’s feet in her mother’s memory. Bowing our heads, my hand on the small of my mother’s back, we both asked the Buddha for forgiveness. For allowing an ocean to divide us, and for being imperfect daughters. We did not bother to wait for an answer. There, on the floor of that temple, we gave that forgiveness to each other.