By Y Vy Truong, Guest Writer
“Did your mom ever teach you how to cook phở?”
I have always wanted to learn how to make phở, and whenever I asked my mom if I could watch her cook, she would brush off the question. She would mumble about how cooking is hard work, try to shoo me out of the kitchen, and then quip about teaching me once I married a man. This is funny if you knew how unmarriable my mom thinks I am.
Unlike my dad, there are no photographs of my mom from when she was a young girl. Sometimes an auntie would comment about how I have grown to resemble my mom more and more. I thought that maybe if I looked at myself hard enough I could make out the small details that could trace me back to her childhood. My mom doesn’t talk much about what it was like to grow up in Vietnam anymore, and I’ve come to accept that this is a part of our history. When I was young I used to be so curious about what my mom’s childhood was like, how she spent the days during humid summers in Hue, and if she still remembered what her school days were like. Because I was a child, my mom would sometimes indulge me with details that I savoured like candy.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I started to realize that the bits and pieces of her story didn’t always fit inside a logical timeline. And it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the bits and pieces of her story were the parts that she managed to salvage. The details that my mom offered were ones that existed outside of the Vietnam War where she could remember herself as just a child, but her childhood quickly lapsed into the responsibilities of suddenly being a woman and then a refugee all before the age of twenty-one. My mom didn’t learn how to make phở from her mother, but she was taught other things. She learned how to bargain for enough white rice to feed her family, and when there wasn’t any white rice to be sold she learned how to steam sweet, purple yams. She was taught how to make clear soup with bones, how to pick out root vegetables for pickling, and how to measure nước mắm using just her eyes. But other than whatever my mom’s family could ration, phở was never something my mom grew up eating when she lived in Vietnam.
This essay excerpt by writer and researcher Y Vy Truong was commissioned as a part of What Artists Bring to the Table food series being held at the Oaklands Community Centre once a month from July to November.