05 January 2008
Too hot to cook
As I looked across the river the sweat dribbled down the back of my neck. My face was red and blotchy with discomfort, my fingers swollen. Local women were dressed in long sleeves and trousers, socks, gloves and face masks under conical hats to prevent tanning. I felt hotter just looking at them.
The cold local draught beer offered temporary respite from the 80% humidity, 38degree C heat. While we waited for our White Rose dumplings and banana leaf grilled fish, I felt lucky. At least I was I was here, finally in Vietnam, the resting place of two of my great grandparents.
Last year in Hong Kong my paternal grandmother died aged 90. She had been born in China before the revolution and grew up in Vietnam, again before the revolution. As a teenager, after her mother died and her father remarried she was sent to live with her Aunts in Hong Kong in order to find a husband. She was one of the few lucky ones who escaped the deprivation, re-education and the horrors witnessed by family in both countries.
I was very close to my grandmother. She raised me as a baby - and later intermittently - as a child, in an intimate way that she had not had the chance to experience with her own children.
An elegant woman with a strong sense of style, manners and etiquette, she had a stare that could stop you dead in your tracks. The stories she told of her life were lush and exciting stories of a privilege in a wealthy Hong Kong Chinese family, under the care of the family patriach, my paternal Great Grandfather's older brother. Here they lived in a family community where her father in law, his wife and eight concubines, and the huge extended family resided on an enormous property and compound - with a swimming pool so large they used a row boat to get across it.
It was a life of indulgence where parties lasted for days and featured performances and fireworks. Where she had tailors and jewellers come to the house to service her needs and had her own particular perfume blended. When a new outfit was completed, she would go to a photographic studio and pose for a full length portrait in the ensemble.
She had five children and three nannies were employed to care for them. The household had numerous servants across three houses, one in Tai Po and one each on Hong Kong Island and Macau. When they took the yacht out a whole retinue of staff would accompany them and set up a picnic on shore wherever they dropped anchor.
She only ever once spoke to me of Vietnam and that was to say that she lived in a traditional Chinese house with a central courtyard, in an area surrounded by ethnic Chinese, where even the servants spoke Cantonese. Consequently she never learnt to speak Vietnamese.
Although I was hungry for information about her childhood, her memories were too painful to share. She had fought so hard with her father after my great grandmother's death, that she had never spoken to him again, and simply immersed herself in a new family with a husband who doted on her, erasing her years in Vietnam. I know she regretted her stubborness and it was that which later made her afraid of death and what may come in the after-life.
My grandmother was - in spite of having cooks and maids - a very good cook in her own right and directed the servants accordingly. Outside of the family, aside from in good restaurants, the Chinese food was never quite as good.
It hadn't occurred to me until last year that this was the one link to Vietnam that manifested physically in her. My grandfather laughingly had said the difference in her cooking was that she was partial to fish sauce. Because it's used in Cantonese cooking, it did not occur to me until later that he was inferring that this was a particularly Vietnamese affectation. She also refused to eat anything that she considered ugly - such as snake - in Chinese society this was considered very eccentric.
She kindly taught my western mother, who hung out in the kitchen with aunties and my grandmother's house keeper, and who went to the stinking wet markets in Hong Kong with them, gradually taking on the language and cooking skills.
Years later, it was acknowledged by Chinese family friends that Mum, although white, was the superior cook amongst their social circle and consequently she felt confident enough to set up a Chinese Cooking school. I too soaked up the techniques and recipes unconsciously, so much so that I consider Chinese cooking almost too easy and simple to serve to friends.
I had always had a compulsion to visit Vietnam. Two months after my Grandmother died I visited for the first time and felt instantly at home. These were more my kind of people than most of the 'fast lane' Hong Kong types that I had lived and worked with.
The Vietnamese I met had the same old Chinese Buddhist values loaded with Confucian philosophy and rituals of filial piety, that have shaped my nature. Their outlook was resilient, tenacious, cheeky and optimistic like my own. Their generosity under the circumstances was overwhelming.
The food in Vietnam was delightful and very much to my palate. In the moment that I learnt the difference between Vietnamese fish sauce and the pungent dark Thai version, I began to unravel the rationale behind my grandmother's fragrant cooking.
As I ate my way around the country learning as much as I could about the history, food and culture, I visited temples to pray for she and her mother. I felt it was my duty to make peace with the ancestors on her behalf.
Gradually the all encompassing grief which had paralysed my sense of hope and direction after losing her, slipped quietly away as a new understanding emerged. I felt like a hitherto unknown part of my psyche had hatched in Vietnam and new doors in my mind began to open. Even in death my Grandmother had found a way to broaden my horizons.
Occasionally when I was twelve, my grandmother would give me Banh Cuon for breakfast - when my Grandfather wasn't pushing thick, sweet toast with tinned meat or pate on me. Banh Cuon is similar to Cheung Fun served at Yum Cha, and although I hadn't seen it outside of the home, I had not realised that it is a Vietnamese dish until I saw it in a Vietnamese Grocery shop.
Essentially it is a steamed rice flour pancake which is rolled up with minced pork and shitake mushrooms. Alternatively a topping of reconstituted dried shrimp and pork floss can be used for a simpler dish.
In the south of Vietnam it is served with all the herbs they garnish many dishes with, but in the North where it originates, I believe the accompaniment is cucumber, bean shoots, the ubiquitous meat loaf that resembles Mortadella and Nuoc Mam sauce.
On our increasingly hot days when I can't be bothered heating up the house, I like to eat Banh Cuon in a hybrid Cantonese way with red roasted meats.
I just go down to 'Little Saigon' in Victoria Street, Richmond, where I procure Cantonese roasted meats - duck, Cha Sui (red roasted shoulder pork) and Sui Cheung (A thick, long coil of sausage made with the same red marinade). I can make all these things well, but am lazy and time poor. If I can't be bothered making the pancake I buy freshly made ones, from my favourite Vietnamese Grocer Huy Huy, which are plain and simply garnished with some ground dried shrimp.
What goes with the rolls is dependent on my mood. Sometimes I chop a selection of whatever roast meat I fancy, lay them on the pancake and roll it up and steam them. If I'm lazy I top a u-shaped pre-made roll and nuke it briefly. Once hot I add some finely julienned young ginger, finely sliced spring onion, torn coriander and Thai basil. If I have duck in the mix I'll add shavings of cucumber and a few dots of Hoi Sin sauce and dress with warm Lao Sei mix (the dark soy based sauce that comes with the roast meat) heated with a couple of drops of Canola oil, or I'll dress it with Nuoc Cham.
The slippery texture of the rice pancake is infused around the edges with the warm dressing and is a geat vehicle the richness of the meat. The herbs offset the richness and for a bit of crunch I throw on some fried shallots. Perfect for the kind of day when the sweat is beading on the brow, served with a chilled Aloe Vera drink.
Fresh Rice Paper Pancakes
1 cup of Jasmine rice (rice flour will not work)
Pinch of salt
2 cups water
1 extra long bamboo cooking chopstick or foot long skewer
Soak the rice overnight (7+hours). Wash the rice at least three times, thoroughly draining the water each time.
Mix 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water, plus a pinch of salt. Place in a food processor until a smooth, thin white batter forms. Rest batter for one hour. It will keep for four days maximum in this form.
In a small stock pot, place 7cm of water and then stretch a piece of white cotton or double piece of muslin over the top of the pot, securing with elastic. Bring the water to a rolling boil.
Using one ladleful of the batter, spread across the fabric into a disc shape, using the bottom of the utensil to spread it. Cover and steam for 1 minute.
Using the extra long chopstick, insert the length of it under the pancake and gently lift it up off the fabric and place wet side up on a plate. Add meat or shrimp fillings and roll up, bend into a u shape if it's too long for your plate. (Optional) Return rolls to steam for a minute before dressing.
This is also the wrapping for the very popular rice paper rolls. If you're making a heap that you would like to fill later, cut a small tab of banana leaf and attach one to each pancake. This will make it easier to separate them down the track when you're ready to use them.