The reason I left Vietnam at a time when I was too young to be able to pass on recipes. I was unaware at the time that we were leaving, but I was informed that I was going to be studying at a summer school in Singapore and was expected to return at the time the season was over. I carried a few things along, including some well-worn clothes and a large collection of Doraemon,a popular manga at the time. At the age of 11, I’d lost my home country but not just the past but also forward all the time I’d have had with my grandparent or sitting around my nanny while she worked in the kitchen, cutting beef into smaller pieces using an oversized butcher knife for her, turning beans into yummy milk. and having her feed me a teaspoon of ground turmeric and bee pollen to treat to all my illnesses. Loss is in the future. It was all that was possible and a continuous state of being and the things I depended on to happen became memories.
My food memories are plentiful and abundant. However, it took until in freshman college that I began to cook. Vietnamese cuisine has always been difficult to cook, and intimidating for the novice. I was taught to make pasta shells stuffed with food long before I was able to tackle fish sauce, the most important ingredient in Vietnamese cooking. In the early 2000s it was still not commonplace to go to the Internet to find answers before having even had the chance to write the question. The blank search bar enables people to imagine of questions that we didn’t even realize we needed to learn. In the end, my pre-Internet self had recreated the recipe that I’m now giving you in complete detail through the quicksand of my memories.
While sitting at the stove I stir the stew using a spatula instead wooden chopsticks as my nanny would have used. I add a bit more than fish sauce and a large pinch of pepper, and a drizzle of coconut milk. Everything I’m doing is simple guess, with the smell is guiding me. Anywhere I am, whether in my dorm kitchen at college or in my home in Brooklyn The space is filled with memories of my grandfather, who was sitting right next to me, his perpetually brown tan, the aroma of the fresh, fluffy rice my mother handed us in large ceramic bowls and the sound of soccer playing in the background, with sports along with news as the two main networks my grandpa was keen on.
Above are long fluorescent bulbs casting a blue hue over us. It’s real and true that it is widely used in Asian households, in lieu of the warm yellow light bulbs that are popular in America. I’m the only one in the kitchen however that the simulacrum has enough to make me feel frightened. This recipe is a re-creation of the landscape, people also, of language, and of love as well. It has lasted through translation, but I have forgotten, my own underestimate of what I can remember. It’s the result of joy and despair I am teetering at an edge about what is it to be Vietnamese as well as what it means to achieve it.
The year 2013 was the first time I contracted an illness that stopped my digestion of sugar properly. This recipe, that does not contain that caramelized sugar was altered to meet my current life. It’s sugar-free and delicious. My husband encourages the preparation of this dish by participating in my joy, and buying my fresh pork belly straight from farms. The quality of the meat is exceptional and we never hesitate to savor the thick slices made of fat and skin from the pork. In our marriage, he’s typically the cook, but this is among the few things I can contributeto, a tangible means to let him in on an opportunity to revisit my childhood, without the need to speak and my mind wandering due to translation. I’m able to show him that I once was that, only this, these tastes as well as this lifestyle.
Loss is a future-tense word However, I benefit from being able to remember. Much of Vietnam will never be remembered by me, until I’m engulfed with the scent of home. In a brief moment, there is no space between the past and present, New York and Vietnam as well as love and absence, who I would be were I not to have left all possibilities that were present simultaneously. It’s not a perfect match that is occurring. No matter where I am I’m an innocent girl having a good dinner together with my grandfather.
Sugar-Free Thit Kho (Vietnamese Braised Pork Stew)
Ingredients 2 lbs Pork belly, cut in 2 inch cubes
6 hard-boiled eggs
3-4 cups of chicken/beef soup or bone broth
1 Tbsp coconut water
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
A pinch of pepper
One teaspoon of mushroom powder (optional)
1 yellow onion chopped into large pieces
1 minced 1 scallion
3 medium-sized potatoes cut into small pieces
InstructionsBoil eggs for 6 minutes. Drain, immerse in cold water, then peel. Cut pork into chunks. In a medium-sized pot cook the pork and onions for one minute. Pour the broth into the pot. If necessary, add water to submerge the pork completely. Add soy sauce or fish sauce, and coconut water, and so on to the pot. Increase the heat to high. Once it reaches the boiling point then reduce the heat and allow it to simmer unattended for around 2.5 hours. Be sure the liquid doesn’t completely evaporate. You’ll want an adequate amount of sauce by the final. You can add additional broth or water if required as the dish cooks. After the final 45 minutes or so of the cooking add potatoes and eggs that have been hardboiled into the pan. Sprinkle with scallion and pepper. Serve with rice and Kimchi or other fermented vegetable. Enjoy!