The Vietnamese Chef
Until she was 25, my grandmother had never had to cook. In her parent's house, there was a "Thi-ba" (nurse) for each child and a cook. She said that while she had never made anything herself, she would spend hours watching the work of the household cook and learning from it.
Whoever this cook was, he was brilliant and must have deeply impressed his art on her because while growing up, I always believed that my grandmother was the best cook in the world. She was especially well organised and would think nothing of preparing 5 course banquets for twenty or so guests or family members. For example in Senegal, whenever my grandfather invited work colleagues, she would prepare 300 Nems, well in advance, just for the entree.
When I was little, my grandmother, rather than my mum, ruled the kitchen. This means, apart from frequent Senegalese and Lebanese dishes, I grew up on Vietnamese food. On our dinner table, there was usually a bowl of nuoc mam sauce. To be exact, there were always two bowls present: the kids' nuoc mam and the adults' chili nuoc mam.
Well before I had turned 9, I had already tasted a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes, prepared exclusively by my talented grandmother. I was familiar with Ban Cuon (usually stuffed with beef or shrimp and dipped in Nuoc Mam), Chinese steamed buns which were my very favourites, Hue stuffed pancakes, caramelised pork, pineapple chicken, crab & asparagus soup, shrimp fried rice, Vietnamese spring rolls dipped in a sweet potato & peanut sauce, stuffed cabbage leaf soup, fish and pineapple soup...the list goes on.
Nothing compared to my grandmother's steamed buns. I loved the smell of the yeasty dough when it was left to rise. I equally loved watching my grandmother knead a sample of dough into a tiny flat pancake inside which she would delicately place a rolled pork ball, a morsel of Chinese sausage and a portion of chopped boiled egg before her agile fingers sealed the dough ball and placed it on an aluminium disc in preparation for steaming. My duty was to cut the aluminium into little circles and hand these over. Whenever I could, I'd eat bits of Chinese sausage. Or if she was making Nem, I enjoyed dipping each rice paper sheet into the water, watching its crystal surface soak up and grow limp before I laid it out on a moist cloth so that my grandmother could fill it with pork, shrimp and greens. One of my favourite dishes was Mi Xao Don Do Bien (crispy noodles and seafood). But I was never a fan of Beef Pho.
When we lived in Senegal, my grandmother was the best Vietnamese chef. Everyone who knew me at school had heard about her Nems. During school fetes where parents contributed by providing international food to sell, my grandmother prepared hundreds of Nems. Hundreds. During our almost weekly visits to the restaurant at the Pointe des Almadies (Dakar) whose owners were also Vietnamese, we'd expertly examine the Nems there and compare them with my grandmother's. Each time, my sister and I agreed that her Nems were better and we proudly told her so.
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