When I announced my plan to adopt a baby from Vietnam, friends recommended child-development texts, Vietnamese language tapes, and travel guides. The volume of information overwhelmed me almost as much as the prospect of first-time motherhood.
But in my family, we don’t read. We cook. Just as important as the Passover Seder ritual is the matzo ball soup. When my mother says, “I’m visiting a friend in need,” she means: “I’m baking a coffeecake.” If I’m fretting, I layer sheets of fresh pasta with homemade marinara sauce and bake until I smell Napoli.
So, facing the arrival of my daughter, I followed friends’ advice and went to the local bookstore. I unfolded maps of Hanoi, glanced at grammar tapes, and riffled through child-rearing tomes.
And came home with a Vietnamese cookbook.
I started with appetizers, spring rolls, and dipping sauce. At the Asian market, I looked for vermicelli and banh trang (round rice-paper wrappers), only to find shelves stocked five high with rice-noodle products. This was worse than the bookstore.
The shopkeeper appeared. “May I help you?”
I wanted to blurt out: “Tell me how to honor my child’s heritage while raising her in a Caucasian-American community. How to love her completely yet understand when to say no. How to be a good mom. Sell me a product. Show me a recipe.”
Instead, I simply said: “Spring rolls.”
“First time?” he asked.
I nodded. He handed me a package. “This brand is easier to work with when you’re not experienced. You’ll need nuoc mam,” he added, leading me to rows of tawny-colored fish sauce. “This is best for dipping.” He handed me the largest bottle as if to say, You’ll be doing this for a lifetime.
At home I laid out my ingredients. To soften the rice paper, the recipe told me to dip the edges in warm water and twirl it until it is submerged. I then placed the rice paper on a flat surface and stretched out the wrinkles, dutifully following directions.
The first one disintegrated. I’d left it underwater too long. I dipped the next one more rapidly, but when I piled the stuffing on top, the paper was too stiff to roll. I wished for a Vietnamese aunt who could train my hands to know the correct temperature and consistency, the way my mother taught them to model matzo balls lighter than clouds.
But I was hungry. I dipped another paper and stretched it out. On the lower third I placed barbecued meat, red-leaf lettuce, mung bean sprouts, and mint leaves. I topped that with a tiny pile of cooled vermicelli, folded up the bottom, tucked in the sides, and continued rolling until I held a translucent cylinder in my palm. I took a bite: clean yet pungent, flavors both strange and familiar.
I got cocky, paid less attention to the next ones, and wasted four in a row. I realized that only with a balance of concentration and relaxation would my fingers find the right amount of heat, the correct texture, and the perfect amount of pressure.
I invited friends for dinner. Some of the spring rolls had torn edges, which I tucked under and laid, ragged side down, on the platter. Others bulged in the middle. One fell apart in the dipping sauce. But no matter how flawed, each one tasted delicious.
Since then I’ve served pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) in deep bowls, with green onions and chicken. I’ve mastered fish, sticky with caramel sauce, in a clay pot. I’ve stir-fried spicy vegetables and steamed banana tapioca with coconut milk. The shopkeeper now nods when I enter the Asian market. He leaves me alone unless I ask for help.
I still make mistakes, but I’m improving with practice.
Although fearful at first, I allowed curiosity, perseverance, and hunger to lead me to a foreign place. Upon arrival, I found something zesty and piquant. Now it is as if I have known these flavors all of my life.
As I await my daughter’s arrival, I will continue to familiarize myself with her culture by way of its cuisine. And when she gets here, I hope that by making these Vietnamese specialties, I can help ease her transition.
As a neighbor, who borrowed my recipe and then invited me to share the pile of spring rolls he’d made, aptly put it: “You know, this is what you’re going to be eating from now on — until she gets old enough to say, ‘Enough of this, Mommy. I want a hot dog.'”