Babies and food. It always brings people together.
My family gathered on a recent Sunday to eat pho and delight over my 2-month-old twin nephews. I thought I’d leave with a camera full of shots of the babies from every angle, instead, I captured memories of a different kind.
I’m usually expected to help out in the kitchen when visiting: peeling carrots, chopping vegetables — that sort of thing. I saw my mom shuffling back and forth in the small kitchen, a shower cap draped loosely over her short hair. (Some readers may recall the explanation why my mother wears shower caps while cooking. As kids, we complained of finding hair in our food. What can I say, my mom’s practical.)
“Chao me,” I greet my mom in Vietnamese, kissing her cheek.
“Yeah, ok. We make pho today,” she says without missing a beat. “Look, this is the broth. Pork bones, water, seasoning, so easy.” I nod dutifully. “Cut up those cucumbers for the ‘goi cuon’ (spring rolls),” she says.
Before I can finish slicing the cucumbers, my mom abruptly asks, “This is for ‘ca ri ga’ (Vietnamese chicken curry). Do you want some?” She’s standing over a tray of raw, cut-up chicken pieces, picking them up and letting them drop back into the tray. “I thought we’re making pho and goi cuon?” I ask.
“Ca ri so easy! We make now,” she says decisively.
From that moment on, we set aside any thought to the rest of the family waiting to eat pho and launched into our new menu item.
My mom watches as I pry apart garlic cloves, loosening their paper-thin wrap. I toss them in a pot, drizzle a little olive oil (“That the best oi. Oli oi,” she says.) and sautee the chicken.
We pour enough water to cover the meat and add five spoonfuls of yellow curry paste.
“Lily,” she calls me by my childhood nickname, “you should apply to Boeing. Lots of different kind of job there. Not just to make plane.” She has been trying to get me to apply to Boeing for ten years. It’s her solution for everything — global warming, the economic downturn, you name it, Boeing can solve it. It doesn’t bother me; the conversation makes things feel normal.
A stalk of lemongrass, a quarter of an onion, and two pieces of rock sugar — they all go into the steaming pot.
She carefully pours a handful of dried red chili peppers into my hand. “Take out the seeds inside,” she says. I’m noticing her shower cap is sinking lower, almost covering an eye. She’s too busy to notice. We cut the stem, shaking the seeds inside loose. She collects the peppers.
“Make spicy, not too spicy. Hard to eat then,” my mom says dropping the peppers into the pot. Like a witches brew, with that drop, the ca ri came to life, bubbling and shifting in the pot. It smells of lemongrass and curry, spicy and pungent. My brother enters. “What are you guys making?” “Ca ri.” “I thought we’re eating pho?” “We are.”
A dash of salt and pepper.
“Now, this!” My mom exclaims. “Japanese. Sweet. Potato,” she says, emphasizing each word. “Best for ca ri.” She impatiently brushes her drooping shower cap aside. It reminds me of how I brush my hair away from my face. She impulsively takes one of the “best for ca ri” sweet potatoes and heats it in the microwave. “Watch!” she points excitedly. Ding! She opens the door, playing hot potato with a vegetable that looks like an elongated purple yam. She snaps it in two. “Eat! Try! Tell mom how good!”
I slowly bite into a piece, the steam burning the tip of my nose. It tasted of heavenly sweet mash potatoes. “Wow.” “Mom tell you!” she says triumphantly. We cut up the rest of the potatoes and add them to the ca ri, gently stirring the pot. With each turn of the ladle, chunky, delectable parts of the ca ri unearth from the soup.
One can of coconut milk. A few sips for taste-testing. Now our ca ri was the right color, thickness, and sweet spiciness.
We linger over the pot, satisfied. Then we rush to complete the pho. For the next several minutes, we are in a frenzy, cutting up thin slices of beef, dropping meat balls into boiling water, and laying out a plate of assorted vegetables and herbs.
We finally sit down to eat. The only noise being herbs snapped apart and sprinkled over hot bowls of noodles. “Ma, we’re not going to eat the ca ri?” I ask. “No, that for Lily to take home. Just for her.”
My husband and I ate that ca ri for three days straight — forgoing all other foods. And every time, I tell him this story of how my mom and I made ca ri together one Sunday afternoon. “That for Lily to take home. Just for her.”