From "The Beauty of Aqua", Chapter 7 "Everything can be said in food"
Many of my favorite meals had been enjoyed at Thủy’s home. While street foods offered a singular and spectacular dish a family meal followed a different path.
A typical meal would start earlier in the day with chị Ngọc, sometimes with Thủy in tow, going to our local wet-market down the street that offered a fresh selection of fish, meat and vegetables. While some thoughts of what to cook that night were present what was being offered before her was what mattered. There was no need to cook a meal with subpar ingredients just because that’s what she had thought of making earlier. First she picked the best ingredients then thought of something to create.
Today she found what was needed to make tonight’s meal: fresh squid, duck eggs, water spinach, pumpkin and potatoes. While not popular in the past potatoes were becoming more common and offered a nice compliment to a meal. Chị Ngọc honored her traditions and knew how to be flexible. She returned home and later started preparing for tonight’s meal.
First she cleans the fresh ingredients, then assesses their strengths and weaknesses to take full advantage of the fresh bounty before her. Off to the side is a primitive electric rice cooker that, thanks to her many years of experience, yields a perfect bowl of rice every time. Soon with a plan she starts by boiling the duck eggs then with the same water she boils large chunks of pumpkin and potato. When done they are put off to the side in a covered dish to stay warm. She then cleans the squid by carefully removing the ink sack and cartilage, cutting into bite-size pieces then frying in oil and bird’s eye chilies.
Next comes the nước mắm which is Thủy’s job as her mother’s hands are full. She starts by crushing, using a traditional mortar and pestle, garlic and bird’s eye chilies into a fine pulp. Those flavorings are placed in a small bowl where sugar and the star of the night, nước mắm, will be added. She squeezes in a lime then adds about a half a cup of nước mắm base which at this point only contains anchovies and salt.
This flavor of the heavens started it’s life just a few kilometers northeast of us in the ward of Hòa Hiệp Bắc which is nestled between the scenic Hải Vân Pass and Đà Nẵng Bay and was locally well-known for this treat.
Countless tiny anchovies and salt are placed layer after layer in clay barrels to ferment for a few months or so. When finished what is yielded is the golden-amber nectar we love so much.
With the squid done chị Ngọc flash-cooks the water spinach in the same water used for the pumpkin and potato. When finished the spinach is removed and placed in its own covered bowl. The water used for cooking the vegetables or treasured “pot liquor” is poured in a large bowl for all to enjoy.
Thủy sees her mother is almost finished cooking so she moves the family Super Cub next to the staircase and rolls out a bamboo mat, where we’ll be sitting, that’s large enough for the family and the meal to come. First she places a large bowl of rice for refills in the center, next to it a smaller bowl of nước mắm and bowls of rice for each. Strangely there are four rice bowls instead of three. Then bowls of water spinach, potato, pumpkin and squid soon arrive. Everyone sits on the floor and the meal begins.
First I start by adding some pumpkin and squid to the rice already in my bowl, then a bit of duck egg that had previously been soaked in nước mắm and stir. The pumpkin and duck egg yoke coat the rice which creates an added dimension to the dish. After a few trips back and forth with adding what’s in front of me I find my way to the bottom of my rice bowl and know it’s time for the soup.
Tradition is to finish a meal with the pot liquor which was flavored from the vegetables it was cooked in and the nước mắm that is left in your rice bowl making a wonderful way to end your meal. You look at your clean bowl and smile as you lean back from your spot on the floor with a Super Cub as your backrest. Welcome to an everyday, family dinner in Việt Nam.
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