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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

CU CHI, VIETNAM (continued)

June 27, Wednesday

I had always hoped to write about Vietnam without falling into the clichés of the Vietnam War. Although I avoid infusing my food stories with post-war regret or tragedy, I've come to accept that the war has left its mark too deeply for me to ignore in my writing. Perhaps learning more about my family and its role on both sides of recent wars has changed my mind. In particular, I've listened to the stories of my great-uncles.

Meeting my parents and me at the death anniversary of his uncle, Ong Hai (Great-Uncle 2, or the oldest son of my great-grandmother's sister, to be exact) insisted that we visit his farm nearby. Although he lives and works in Saigon, Ong Hai visits his orchards and orchid gardens every weekend here near Cu Chi. We were looking forward to tasting some fruit. But as we left behind the dragonfruit vines, gauva trees, and areca palms for the fields and forests, our casual walk quickly became a history lesson.

Ong Hai shows my parents how his land still stretches to a small stream in the distance, the same one that my mother as a child navigated to visit his mother. This land was originally a gift from my great-grandmother to his branch of the family, back when she was so land-rich she could just give large parcels away.

His family and mine have been distant for over 50 years. With my own great-grandparents supporting the French, my great-uncle working for the CIA, my mother marrying an American soldier, and Ong Hai's family fighting for the Viet Minh and then the NLF, our family has long been deeply divided. It is only on this trip, my third back to Vietnam, that I have even learned about and met this side of the family. Like many Overseas Vietnamese, my mother still harbors a deep hatred of Ho Chi Minh and his followers. Years ago, while still in my militant college phase and before I had actually visited Vietnam, I made the mistake of telling my mother that if we had stayed, I would have fought for the NLF. We never spoke about Vietnamese politics again. On this trip back, she finally set aside her fear and anger, at times reluctantly, to talk again with Communist family members.

On his land, Ong Hai showed us one of the first tunnels dug for the Viet Minh. He also took us to the tomb of our ancestor who was born before the US constitution was drafted. Most importantly, I finally heard stories about my mother's father, who my mother rarely mentioned despite all the stories she told of Vietnam. My grandfather watched the French colonists shoot his own father in front of his eyes when he refused to cooperate with them. He was tortured and executed just before my mother was born. My family now believes that he helped found the underground Viet Minh newspaper. Knowing so little about my grandfather, this small suggestion takes on great meaning for me.

A large shoot from a "Chinese bamboo," a variety that makes particularly good eating.

Ba Tu (Great-Aunt 4) also took me on a short tour of her land. It's much smaller than Ong Hai's land, just one corner of the main estate where my great-grandmother once lived. Our family's land is now only a fraction of what was once owned, before both the French and the "American War in Vietnam" (as it's known here) whittled away the fields. The property is just enough to be home to six of my uncles and aunts, along with their families and farm animals. 

But the neighbors have been encroaching on all sides. Official land rights are easily subverted in a de facto claim of a few more feet, when a neighbor builds a new shed or extends his kitchen. To try and hold back the neighbors, my youngest uncle has been trying to replant the old bamboo fence that once circled the main estate. Decades ago, a swath of bamboo trees created an impenetrable, living wall over thirty feet tall and ten feet thick. Bamboo is now extremely expensive in Vietnam. Although my uncle plants a few every year, we all know that lush fence will never stand again.

My great-great-grandmother once owned rice fields that stretched for miles in all directions from her home. The people who worked her land would give her one-quarter of what they grew. Greedy landowners could demand up to half of a rice field's harvest. Although they asked for less in payment, my family required the farmers to grow a specific variety of jasmine rice with low yield, for its fragrant perfume and nutty flavor.

After two weeks of eating in their home, I finally had the courage to mention to my aunts and uncles that the quality of the rice was not what I expected. To my relief, my great-aunt agreed. Then everyone began talking about how once the smell of rice filled the home as it cooked, about how they remembered rice grains that were long and white, delicate yet unbroken in the bowl.

I must admit that rice I've eaten here is of very low quality. In fact, the best rice I've had in Vietnam is significantly worse than the worst rice I've tasted in the US. I once bought a bad bag of rice in San Francisco, which I promptly returned to the store along with a sample of the cooked rice. I was given a better bag without any questions. That rice I returned would be considered excellent now in Vietnam.

My uncles, who once tended the family's rice fields, offered various reasons for the discolored, broken, flavorless, mushy rice we'd been eating. The government requires farmers to grow new strains that double the yield. The new rice also matures in half the time, too quickly to create the aromas and flavors of truly distinctive jasmine. While in the past, rice farmers harvested twice a year, now they can plant three, even four times. The land is not allowed to rest. As they've learned, all the fertilizer in the world cannot compare to well-tended land. Furthermore, export-quality standards guarantees that the best rice is shipped to other countries. This reminds me of an early issue of Saveur, in which the writer gives thanks that India ships its best-quality spices to western countries. Then, I was outraged by the thought. Now, I'm only sad. My family reminded me, though, it's meaningless to talk about quality when a poor country needs to feed its people.

Ba Tu sweeps in front of her home.

Every morning and afternoon, my great-aunt sweeps her tiled courtyard. If the family still grew rice, it would be spread here to dry. Now, the chickens like to nap on the tiles in the shade of the house. On special evenings, after the sun has settled behind the bamboo trees, the family will open a table and set out blue plastic stools for guests to enjoy the breeze over dinner. On the porch is a hammock, though sometimes it's tied to one of the nearby trees. No Vietnamese home is complete without a width of green fabric draped somewhere in the shade. There are even roadside cafés along Highway 1 where groupings of hammocks replace chairs.

My uncle points out that when a khoai ban is not buried completely, it will be stunted instead of growing elegantly long and slim.

Cau Nga carefully bends and snaps and tears a stem of the plant to make the decorative chain…

…of a beautiful necklace for my mother.

As we walked around my great-aunt's home, my mother and her cousin, who I call Cau Nga ("Uncle Nga"), told me stories about playing outside all day long. When my mother saw a small plant with star-shaped leaves and red stems, she began laughing excitedly. Growing wild everywhere, these greens marked the location of khoai ban. This tuber is similar to sweet potatoes but has a drier, starchier texture and a pale yellow color. While adults dig up the tubers for stews and snacks, kids can make jewelry with the plant's stem. Wearing her leafy pendant, my mother gave one of her "back in my day" speeches about how much more creative children are when they don't have toys.

Why chickens never run away.

There's a straight run from my great-aunt's kitchen door through her house to the front door. My great-aunt's chickens like to race through the rooms from door to door, a startling sight for me even after a week in the country. A parade of hens or a mother and her little chicks would dash through, dodging our legs if we happened to be in their path. When I wondered aloud about their loyalty--why don't they just all wander away completely?--my mother showed me a large, overturned basket. Placed in a shed outside the kitchen, it keeps a mother hen rooted to one place for several days. While her chicks can hop through the basket, they stay close to her during her confinement. When she's released, all her chicks will have identified with this area and will always stay near their home.

A tiny starfruit.

A starfruit tree behind my uncle's house sports both buds and baby fruit. Thin slices of green starfruit, or khê, appear frequently on vegetable platters. The unripe fruit adds crunch, tartness, and moisture to many rice-paper wrapped dishes. Its complement on the vegetable plate is always green banana, sliced with a thin layer of the inner peel. The banana adds a slightly dry tannic bite, filling out the sweet, sour, salty, minty, bland-green, and spicy flavors that these Vietnamese dishes blend in each mouthful.

An admirable example of scooter-stacking skill. The candy seller was eating breakfast, but that didn't stop the kids from looking.

One morning, we walked across the red dirt road by Ba Tu's house to eat chao for breakfast at a neighbors' stall. I usually make this thick rice soup with fish, chicken, or tofu. If I'm sick, a bowl of plain chao will always make me feel better. This local version had little chunks of pork liver, kidney and blood. Bean sprouts and fresh lime rounded out the flavors and textures. We had to order a special bowl without the internal organs for my father, but my mother and I enjoyed all the little flavorful bites. While we ate, curious neighbors dropped by. Everyone had fun testing my mother's memory, daring her to remember them after thirty years. She always did. Old stories and new gossip helped stretch my breakfast out to two bowls. Nearby, a candy scooter distracted kids who were quickly bored with reports of marriages and breakups, adopted children and recent deaths.

For my last weekend in Cu Chi, my uncles caught mice for me from the rice fields. They planned to prepare a big feast of chuôt to help celebrate my stay. They were insulted when I mentioned that I saw a rat in Saigon. These mice only feed on rice grains in the fields, they assured me. The wealthy Saigonese will come all the way up to Cu Chi to eat rice field mice. In the city, the real things command an outrageous price. The flavor of mice fattened with rice is an instantly recognizable delicacy.

The men--for preparing these dishes is apparently a man's job--all wait until I return from touring Ong Hai's land to begin. The mice were caught by hand with the help of the family's dog and then were carried back home in a cloth rice bag. One of my uncles laid the large bag on its side, then separated each mouse into its own tunnel-like fold of fabric. Once each mouse was isolated and quieted, he felt for each little neck and then broke it with a quick, firm press down. He arranged the mice on a pile of rice straw, where they were charred for easy removal of their fur and skin. The cleaning of mice ranks as one of the smelliest kitchen jobs I've ever experienced. For such tiny creatures, they have a remarkably strong smell. Cleaning requires much water and even more trust in the final product. With everyone extolling their flavor, I knew the dishes would be good. But I for once was glad to be excluded from kitchen prep.

The stalk of a new leaf on a young banana tree serves as a basting brush for the field mice. On the far left is a single, really big critter. I opted to nibble on the little ones.

One uncle chopped lemongrass and chiles. It was the only time I saw a male family member pick up a kitchen knife, but he minced the ingredients more finely and effortlessly than anyone else I've seen. Another uncle prepared the fire, patiently fanning and turning the coals. Half the mice would be fried, half would be grilled. The seasonings for both were pretty much the same: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, chiles, fish sauce, black pepper, and turmeric. The wok-fried batch would have a little coconut juice (as in the clear water of a young fruit, not the white milk) to make a sauce. 

An uncle cut thin skewers from green bamboo, then threaded the mice through their legs and sides. One mouse was unusually large, but the others were small enough to fit four to five per pair of skewers. One of the men hacked out a length of a nearby banana tree trunk to hold the skewers at the right height over the coals. Another started frying in the kitchen. The men gave each other advice, from how far to space the mice for a crispy finish to which bamboo tree had the most moisture to withstand the grill's heat. The smell rising from both grill and wok banished every last bit of doubt I had about eating mice.

They are sweet and tender, better than quail or frog. I would definitely eat rice field mice again. We ate them with slices of French bread. Unlike much of Vietnamese food that can be served at room temperature, the mice are best when hot from the grill, my uncles emphasized. Someone mentioned that we should have just set up our chairs next to the coals and eaten them from the skewers. Still, I enjoy both dishes immensely.

For dipping in the wok sauce, my cousins had gathered a large plate of a green they simply called he or "grass." A slender plant that grows in the waters of flooded rice fields, the deep green, transparent leaves have a subtle crunch and fresh, sweet flavor. My uncles showed me how to take little tufts from the pile of field grass with my chopsticks and then roll them into a neat, bite-sized packet for dipping. Though simple compared to the many feasts I attended in Cu Chi, this meal was one of my favorites.

More Saigon >

June 2001