For nearly a decade, I have lived far, far away from my family. But in my own academic writings about food, I consciously avoid evoking or examining the role of nostalgia, a theme I find rather cliche in my research. Now, and especially since the recent passing of my father, the absence of Vietnamese food in my kitchen seems more apparent than ever.
I took my parents’ cooking for granted. Lunches and dinners centered on steamed white rice and multiple plates of food, all well-prepared by never flawlessly presented. Food, for my parents, is just a vital source of nourishment, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they were keen to dine in their home rather than at restaurants. Their daily routines simply involved cooking in the kitchen. All of the missed opportunities to learn how my mother makes banh xeo or pho. Countless Vietnamese cookbooks, and even more pho restaurants in my city’s Chinatown, exist, yet the taste is just not quite what I yearn or need.
Despite my many aspirations to make hu tieu or canh chua, a telephone call to my mother never materializes into a recipe. She quickly rattles off a brief description, simultaneously reprimanding me for not observing her in the kitchen. ‘It’s so easy,’ my mother says in her native tongue, between vague details of soup seasoning. ‘Make a big pot and store it in the freezer.’ And, yet, despite her encouragement, I forgo the experiment to make another simplified fried rice. I can't quite explain this sudden loss of ambition - it is not because of fear of failure, nor is it the lack of time. The dried tamarind cubes she gave me are still hidden in a drawer, untouched.
Thinking about the tastes of home and based on my last few visits, there is a change in my mother’s cooking. She has gotten older and she, by her own admission, can no longer taste many flavors. What I remember as a robustly flavored bowl of pho now seems tastes like slightly salted water. ‘It’s hard to make a vegetarian broth,’ my mother offers, shrugging.
Nowadays, I rarely eat Vietnamese food. There is an occasional walk to visit my neighborhood banh mi shop. But I find myself constantly craving the comfort of noodles. My husband and I made a special trip to Pho Saigon in Montreal’s Chinatown, only a few days ago. I ordered a vegetarian pho with tofu and, he, a chicken and sugar cane wraps. The orders came out, and the pho resembled my mother’s current version - a big dish with rather watery-looking soup. Instinctively, I topped the bowl with a generous amount of bean sprouts and basil leaves, and then added a small amount of sriracha and hoisin sauces. I took my first sip. Bland, but with a small hint of sweetness and vinegary spiciness from the condiments. I gradually added more seasoning, but each time it never tasted ‘right’. By the end of the meal, the remains of my soup were of an odd reddish brown shade.
Meanwhile, my husband had been enthusiastically preparing his wraps, marveling at its flavors. He asked me if I liked my pho. ‘It tasted like a tofu pho,’ I responded, nearly imitating my mother’s sentiment. I may have not lost my sense of taste, but I worry I’ve forgotten the tastes of a homemade meal.