I left Brisbane in the last week of November to visit my family in Gainesville, Florida. During the four weeks away, I covered the distance from here to New York via Los Angeles, to Burke Virginia, to Gainesville via Washington DC, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia to Orlando, then back to NY to San Francisco, San Rafael, Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon and back to Brisbane via Los Angeles again. And, I am proud to say that I travelled the distance just to be able to kneel in front of the family altar at my brother’s place in Gainesville with all my siblings to say thank you to our ancestors, our departed loved ones and all the homeless souls.
So here are my little tales from this journey, to be added to my cultural ramblings and memories of taste.
The Vietnamese ‘Thanksgiving ritual,’ is performed on the last day of the Year. It is known as “Cung tat nien” (closing of the year ceremony) when we invite our ancestors and other departed souls to attend the Family feast to see the old year out and to welcome the New Year and to thank them for blessing us with our fortunes and misfortunes.
Traditionally this task fell on the shoulders of the eldest son and heir of the extended family. However, in my family, my third brother takes over this task. For this reason having a son is essential in traditional family.
On the last day of the Year, the family graves should be cleaned and decorated; prayers and invitations are offered to the departed to attend the end of the year feast. This is the occasion when all the females of the extended family gather together preparing food for the Feast and to catch up with all the delicious tales on family secrets and show off one’s specialties. Since we are now scattered all over the 3 continents of the world, we decided to celebrate it on American Thanksgiving period, i.e. last Thursday of November.
I turned up at the house of my Third sister in New York where we went out and ate at a Chinese Restaurant just across from her son’s apartment in Upper Manhattan. I was so eager to taste the sea bass, so I ordered the first sea bass dish on the Chef’s Special section of the menu - “spicy crispy sea bass”. My sister however, was trying to be vegetarian so she ordered braised tofu with vegetables. The Sea bass tasted soft and mild. Unfortunately it was served in a sea of gluey sweet and sour sauce with diced red capsicum. The tofu suffered the same over-gluey sauce. But since I had not eaten for the last 12 hours, I enjoyed the richness and the real overseas Chinese taste. I would not do it too often though.
We got on the bus at Chinatown at 11am. We settled in for the long bus ride. My sister stayed up until 2am that morning to prepare food for the journey, so we ignored the notice saying “NO FOOD ON BUS”, and managed to consume a large quantity of yellow rice and fried pork paste …without being caught.
The Thanksgiving week end traffic kept us at a standstill for over 30 minutes and so 6 hours later we arrived in Washington DC and into the welcoming arms of my Second sister and her husband.
We went home to Burke Virginia. We had “Bun Bo Hue” for dinner but without the signature ingredient “chili oil”. My sister Judy said: “now all the American Vietnamese are avoiding eating fatty food so no chili oil”. Oh the tyranny of vanity!
After dinner, we launched into making the New Year Rice cake.
The origin of this cake is pre-historical. The beautiful story goes like this:
The cake is a result of the efforts to find the right person to inherit the Royal throne during the reign of the Emperor Hung Vuong the 6th. His youngest son who won the contest using all the local products to produce a rice cake that represented the Earth; this was when they still believe the earth is flat.
In Vietnam we use “la giong” to wrap the cake but here we use the broad bamboo and banana leaves instead. A wooden square mould helps to make a perfectly shaped cake. The ingredients are simple: Salt and pepper seasoned steamed mung bean, glutinous rice and pork belly.
The ingredients were arranged in layers and wrapped in banana leaves, with the four corners reinforced by bamboo leaves, secured with strings and boiled for 8 hours, then pressed overnight.
Below is the whole and cross section of the rice cake after it is cooked
I love eating rice cake but most Westerners find it a bit too gluey. It is an acquired taste. Mixed pickles are used to serve it with to dilute the richness.
These pickles were made by a person from Hue; they are salty and sweet. She used green papaya, carrot, red capsicum and chili.
The next day I made prawn and egg omelette rice paper rolls. I used the omelette instead of the usual pork because my niece and nephew in law do not eat meat.
We also ordered some home made Vietnamese crepe to test out the ca cuong essence from Switzerland; this is the closest to the banh cuon Thanh Tri from Hanoi: It is a simple rice flour steamed pancake brush with shallot oil and dipped in fish sauce, vinegar and ca cuong essence.
Ca cuong essence is a natural essence extracted from under the wings of the male flat wing beetle; its powerful aroma helps diverting strong fishy smell and adds another dimension to the dish.
For the rest of the day, my sister taught me how to make “banh khuc”:
1. First blend up a bunch of chrysanthemum leaves with water and salt.
2. Mix Chrysanthemum water with glutinous rice flour to make a paste
3. Make the filling with steamed mung bean seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked pork mince or cooked cubes of pork fat
4. Wrap the filling in the paste
5. Roll in soaked glutinous rice
6. Steam until the rice is transparent.
They are great for breakfast in Winter.
We were invited to a special function organised by the Hue community of Virginia at a Chinese Vietnamese restaurant, the Harvest Moon. The food was mediocre based on a Chinese cheap banquet, and the entertainment was outrageously clumsy. I forgot my camera so there was no record of this menu, which had the normal run of gluey soup, sweet and sour fish, fried chicken etc. We shared the table with an ancient poetess who tried to defy time with layers of foundation and false eyelashes. She presented everyone with one of her poems on Hue.
Some of my old pals from Trung Vuong High now live in Virgina; they invited me to have lunch at a new upmarket Vietnamese restaurant which specialised in fusion Thai Vietnamese food. It was a bit strange that I did not recognise many of them. Time has a lot to do with this.
We had warm chicken salad, beef salad, which were straight from a Thai recipes, and the crispy green rice prawns were interesting. It is a variation of crispy prawn in mung bean vermicelli but less elaborate, the steamed snails with lemon grass leaves is another variation of a Hanoi traditional dish but they used the shells of the French snail and instead of ginger leaves they used lemon grass leaves. The fancy crispy rice noodle dish was done differently from the original “Pho xao ron.” The rice noodle was moulded into a base like a pizza base, crispy fried, cut into slices, then topped with stir fry beef. Prawn and salmon were used for the sour seafood soup, unfortunately the delicate flavour of the salmon was lost in the strong soup. The grilled chicken and beef on sticks were ordinary and a bit dry to the taste. In general it was a pleasant meal, the food was tasty, the presentation was good. It was such a change from the normal environment of the normal ethnic restaurants overseas which always have the same menu, the same kitsch decoration as a rule. Apparently, the owner lived in Thailand before coming to Virginia.
We prepared for our long drive to Gainesville, after 4 days in Virginia. Both my sisters were a bit distressed at the thought of abandoning their grand-children for a few days, I realised what a free person I am but in exchange for incredibly lonesome life.
We drove southeast past Washington DC, Richmond, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and finally to North Florida. My brother and his family live in Gainesville about 150miles south from Jacksonville. The scenery was very pleasant with clusters of late autumn colours ranging from golden yellow to plum red toward brown.
I was amazed at the beauty of changes, which is not very obvious in the all year round summer of Queensland.
I always fascinated by the food obsession of the overseas Vietnamese. Every household ‘s refrigerator was choked full of new and old food. I took the liberty of cleaning out my Second sister’s, since all her spare time after work is reserved for baby- sitting her two grand sons. The freezers are also full to the brim. My theory is that the experience of being on the escaping boat from Communist Vietnam in 1975 without food and water was so horrific that they will make sure that they always have plenty of food. They would all think that I am a stingy person if they came to visit. My empty fridge! I just hate leftovers and being a cook I know exactly how much any body can eat in one sitting.
As soon as we drove, off my sisters started munching on snacks even though we would make regular stops for rest and lunch in North Carolina; I learned a bit about local history and natural history at these stops from the information desk at the Rest Area while my companions enjoyed the prepared rice loaves, eaten with roasted crushed sesame seeds and a variety of Vietnamese cold meat like fluffy meat (ruoc), pork roll (gio lua) and cinnamon roasted pork roll (cha que).
By 6 o’clock my Third sister took over the driving. She is a competent driver and I learned that she used to do long distance drive in Calgary, where she usually lives.
We arrived at Gainesville, Florida just before midnight. My brother and his family waited up for us with a full table.
My Third brother is married to a Hue Lady, whose family is devoted Catholics. My nieces Tina and Tini were both born in VN and grew up in the US. Tina is a graduated dentist and an accomplished pianist. She represented the triumph of my brother’s determination to win the battle when she suffered from polio. And she did. Tini is graduating in Pharmacy this year. This will be her second degree, she decided to change her career from Business Communication. My nieces were busy frying up spring rolls for us at midnight! I really enjoyed the dried smoked bamboo shoot with belly pork. This is one of the 4 traditional wet dishes for any banquet. We would make the other 3: braised chicken with shiitake mushrooms, thang (rice vermicelli soup with 4 treasures) and asparagus and crab meat soup for our family reunion banquet.
The next morning we launched into preparation for American Thanksgiving to welcomed my 4th sister and her husband who came from Montreal via Jacksonville. I was given a 9kg turkey to deal with. I boned the turkey and stuffed it with a mixture of cooked sticky rice, red date, lotus seeds, shiitake mushroom and black fungus. It was a very awkward job handling a giant turkey on a small working space, however, with my brother’s surgery skill, we managed to get the turkey back in one piece. It was then baked and glazed with honey and soy. It turned out OK except we slightly singed the top of the poor bird. I also made Japanese style braised daikon & shiitake mushroom and stuffed tofu with tomato sauce for the vegetarians. Even with 11 of us we only managed to eat 1/10 of the turkey. The rest was to be recycled into three different dishes. I used the filling to make two big Hanoi style omelettes, the white meat and the bones for bread rolls and rice vermicelli soup.
Our old friend Tuan, a classical guitarist entertained us with his music, food preparation to the live music was very pleasant and meditative.
One can see my brother’s surgery skill on my turkey. But I was a bit mean on the filling and it looked a bit flat!
For the braised daikon dish, I used coconut juice instead of dashi. To be completely vegetarian, I also used palm sugar for the caramelising flavour. This dish when cooked to the perfection is a heavenly beautiful dish and I was lucky I made a perfect daikon that night.
The filling for the tofu is steamed mung bean, mashed tofu, vermicelli, mushroom and black fungus seasoned with bean sauce. The tofu cubes had to be pre-fried.
My Fourth sister and her husband walked in just as we were ready to sit down.