I am in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, holding a head of cabbage stable on the cutting board with both hands, while my mother thrusts a cleaver into it, slicing it in half. The leaves are densely packed in a squiggle of translucent white and green. She hands the knife to me, instructing me to cut the cabbage into thin shreds. When my slices are too coarse, she thwaps the back of my hand with a wet soup spoon and tells me to cut them finer.
We are making goi ga, which is a Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad. Most of it is just work: chopping and dicing, gathering herbs from the garden, where they grow in big ceramic pots along the driveway, pulling apart the steamed meat by hand. Have you ever cooked a whole chicken before? You can get at least two dishes out of it. The salad and then a soup that you make by boiling the bones. It’s simple kitchen things, but some of it requires finesse. When you make the dressing, if it’s too salty or spicy, you add coconut soda. “Normally, coconut juice,” my mother says, “but this is how we do things in America.”
I would be lying if I said that food is all there is of culture, but it is the thing that is the easiest to explain, the thing that is most physical and visceral. Is finding home just a matter of having the right hot peppers burn your tongue? The first weekend I moved into the brick house with the green porch on Howe Street, I went grocery shopping and stumbled into a tiny Chinese market about a mile down Whalley. I don’t know if I could tell you what it’s called, now. It had just opened, but already smelled familiar. It’s an open secret that all Asian-American grocery stores contain tiny, hidden portals to each other, as well as your childhood. No matter where you go, you will find the snacks you ate after school when you were eight years old; the plastic stool you used to sit and take baths on when you were a toddler; the pastel clothespins that your extended family use to hang-dry their shirts.
I wandered in, wanting to fill up my empty corner of the pantry. One thing no one tells you when are nineteen and preparing to move into a new house for the first time is that you will need to stock your kitchen with all the spices and pastes and implements that you were so fortunate to be born into, the silver spoon of the first-generation American youth. The spice drawers in the kitchen of the house I grew up in have a thin film of chili and curry powder on the bottom; that’s how lucky I was to be born.
Downstairs, the market was cool and smelled stale. Mangoes were ripening, stacked in huge flats; I picked one up in my hands, hefting its weight, smelling the goldening skin. There were bins of tea, dried fruit and fish and squid, impassive glass jars of pickled vegetables. There were two shelves devoted entirely to chili sauces, and it was there that I found the plastic jar of hot garlic chili paste that I only know—as I only know so many things—by its Vietnamese name. I bought it immediately, along with a hand of ginger. Ginger is good for taking care of yourself or sick friends, if you put it in tea.
When I got home—by home, I mean the house in New Haven, Connecticut, which has white walls that still emanate the clean brightness of fresh paint, and a kitchen so narrow that only two people can comfortably cook in it at once—I unscrewed the little plastic jar with its green cap, and peeled back the safety lid. I dipped my pinky in the red paste, feeling a little ashamed but mostly anxious to make sure I’d found the right thing. It was, so I ate it every morning on my eggs for the rest of the semester.
To make the dressing for goi ga, you take water, a little rice vinegar, a little fish sauce, that red chili garlic paste, and coconut soda, the kind that comes in a shiny emerald pop-top can, and then mix them in a blue ceramic bowl until your mother approves. Alternatively, you mix it yourself, put the entire salad together, actually, with the chicken and cabbage nestled under the chopped Thai basil and the mint and the lime juice and drizzle the dressing over it and turn it over and over with two forks and present it at dinner, a gleaming, white and green and oily-peppered offering. The dregs of salty shreds of cabbage left in the bottom of the big china bowl are the only sign you did it right, but it’s enough.
Over my last winter break, my brother and I went to a grocery store on 82nd, deep southeast Portland, to buy snacks. It’s something we do together; we’ve grown closer since I moved out. He dragged me over to the soft drinks section and put a bottle of Calpis in my hands. “It tastes just like the stuff we used to have,” he said. There was a yogurt drink—I hate never knowing the names of things, but I’m used to it by now—and it tasted sort of orangey, and came in boxes that you poked open with a straw. We bought it and he was right: it was the same thing, just in different packaging. Proust had madeleines; I have lychee gummy candy and yogurt drinks and rice crackers with tiny specks of white sugar crystallized on their puffed tops.
It feels like cheating, to write about culture by writing about food. But how else do I explain that it wasn’t until I left my mother’s kitchen that I learned I was always struggling to remember names? How do I explain the trawling, the sifting, the smelling, trying to decide: was this it? Is this it? I’ve spent hours in these tiny grocery stores, running heavy-bellied grains of rice through my hands.
When I told my mother I was writing this piece, she said, “You had better not write any more bad things about me.”
I said to her, “I can’t help it, I write about you so much.
We are so similar it hurts. When I was still in high school, I saw a picture of her when she was sixteen. She looked just like me, only prettier, her skin clear and bright.
A few weeks after my conversation with my mother, I got a care package from home. “Open it soon, they’ll rot,” she told me; calling me on the phone I am never without in case someone I love is sick. I cut open the box and found a dozen persimmons, nestled in paper towels. They glowed warm orange in the heat of the lamp of my kitchen, not so shiny and new anymore, with a thin film of spice dust building up in the cupboards, and I was heartsick for a moment, I missed home so much.
Not that I know where home is anymore, not that I don’t think both coasts and countries have a claim on my component parts, not that I can hardly remember the last time I picked persimmons off the tree in my family’s back yard, their skins shone over with a sudden frost. It would have been late October and I must have been seventeen. That batch was too bitter to eat raw; we made jam with cups and cups of sugar, trying to sweet the tannins in the fruit. Not that I don’t still linger in grocery stores, trailing my hands over fruit that’s marketed as lush and exotic, the things I grew up eating recontextualized and strange on this chilly New England rocky soil, not that I am only writing about food because I don’t know any other way to say the things that I am feeling.
On my street in New Haven, there’s a crabapple tree. I guess it’s the next best thing to the persimmon tree I grew up next to; the pears and plums I picked and carried around in my shirt. It flowers in the spring and snows pink petals all over the sidewalk; by July, there’s hard green fruit in the trees. In September, you can pick them. They’re yellow and red by then, blushing like you wouldn’t believe how sour they can be. I stole a basket of them off the tree with my best friend, soon after I moved in. We tried to make a salad of them: grated carrots and sliced avocado and chickpeas, topped with these halved crisp stone-less cherries. No matter how hard we tried, nothing would sweeten them. And though I kept taking bites, each one made my mouth pucker, rosy as a kiss.
Larissa Pham is an artist and writer interested in intimacy, new narratives, and the ways in which our lives intersect with modern media. She is a regular contributor at Full Stop Magazine and has been previously published in The Rumpus, Salon, Nerve, and The Ellipses Project. She currently splits her time between Portland, OR, and New Haven, CT. You can find her on twitter at @lrsphm.
[Photo: ValeStock / Shutterstock.com]