As a child, I ate Vietnamese food with my family every day. It was a shock to me to learn that not everyone had chopsticks in their drawers at home. Vietnamese food was part and parcel of my daily existence – the clinking of chopsticks on china, the liberal application of nước mắm (fish sauce) to everything (seriously, everything), the methodical rhythm of helping my mother make pastries and rice paper rolls, hands moving like a tiny factory.
Sometimes my mother would pack Vietnamese food for me to take to school. The other kids would scrunch their noses at the smells emanating from my lunchbox – my giò (pork sausage) sandwiches, my perfectly packaged containers of leftover mì xào (fried noodles). I began to dread being asked what I was having for lunch. Even as an adult, I sometimes flinch when someone asks what I’m eating. I feel my defenses prickling quietly, dormant but ever present.
I became pescetarian at 14, vegetarian at 22, vegan at 24. At every step of that journey, I waved goodbye to some of the foods that had been such a crucial part of my upbringing, but my mother ensured I could still taste the comforts of home by lovingly recreating vegan versions of those dishes just for me.
When I was a child, I never found myself craving Vietnamese food. It was laid out before me every night, so I never felt like I needed it. When I moved out of home and interstate in my early twenties, suddenly I found myself yearning. I would ride my bike up to Victoria St in Richmond, the first Melbourne suburb I called home, and order myself a bowl of my childhood favourite dish, bún riêu (crab and tomato vermicelli soup), and slurp it up, dreaming of home. When I visited home, my mother would cook huge feasts for me, sending me back to Melbourne with Tupperware containers full of old favourites so I never felt alone.
This year I resolved to start cooking these dishes for myself, and my mother has been teaching me how.
She talked me through how to pickle carrots to make my own đồ chua, so that my bánh mì has that irreplaceable crunch. We made gỏi chay together, and when I went home to Melbourne, I cycled to the Vietnamese supermarket to pick up the tía tô to give it that lovely purple splash, and made it myself.
She told me over the phone how to make the best vegan phở broth, and nearly a thousand kilometres away, I scooped all the ingredients into my shopping basket and brought her words to life in my little kitchen, letting the soup warm me from the inside out.
I texted photos of my creations to my parents, and my dad texted me back saying it looked delicious, and that he was proud of me.
Food has always been a major bond in my family, and learning how to make these dishes has made me feel closer to my parents and my culture. I know that my parents will not always be here; that there will come a day when the taste of my mother’s cooking will be a faded memory on the tip of my tongue. We are using the opportunity, now, to talk to each other about these traditions, to pass them on so that they will not die with the generation before them.
Vietnamese food is my mother holding my hand from across state lines, my father’s stoic presence comforting me just by existing.
It’s my older sister, who now lives tens of thousands of kilometres away in Canada, and the time she told me that muối mè (sesame salt) was made out of wood, so I wouldn’t eat it all.
It’s my younger sister sitting with me as we helped our mother carefully destem greens before watching her weave them into elaborate dishes.
It’s every Tết, when my whole family gets together and I laugh and eat with my cousins and uncles and aunts over a spread of special foods we only see once a year.
We are seeing a surge in popularity for my traditional cuisine, and it makes me happy when a friend wants to go out for phở, and I order in Vietnamese and the waiters smile at me and I feel like a part of something bigger.
It makes me happy to learn how to make these dishes all on my own, with recipes that have been in my family for generations; to think about my mother dreaming up ways to make vegan dishes of my childhood favourites; to share these dishes with my friends.
It makes me happy to think about maybe one day showing these things to a child of my own.
So come over for some homemade phở, or gỏi chay, or gỏi cuốn any time. I’ll cook for you, and we’ll eat, and I’ll tell you all about growing up Vietnamese in Australia, and the role food played in that, and how I went from being ashamed of my heritage to so, so proud.