Discovering Cơm Hến (Clam Rice) in Việt Nam

Hen clams with rice noodles

Eating hến rice at home in Huế.

Feeling quite chuffed that my short essay about a lesser known specialty dish from Việt Nam (called cơm hến, clam rice) has been shortlisted for the Third Annual I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest.

The essay, Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam, is now posted at I Must Be Off! together with three photos I took in Huế. (Wish I had some better photographs of this multifaceted dish.) Many thanks to contest host and organiser Christopher Allen and to this year’s judge, Catherine Sweeney. All winners and honourable mentions will be announced on September 30.

Posted in Creative Non-Fiction, Food, Memoir, News, Viet Nam, Writing Contests | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Travel Essay “Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam” Shortlisted!

I’m thrilled to have my essay Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam shortlisted for the Third Annual I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Contest.

Writer, traveller, and I Must Be Off! blogger Christopher Allen unveiled the longlist on July 27, but revealed the titles without authors’ names because judge Catherine Sweeney was still choosing the finalists and winners. I was excited to find my essay on the list, and to learn that the semifinalists were chosen from over three hundred entries from 43 countries. It was tough keeping the news quiet, as requested by the contest organisers. And then my essay made it into the finalists! Woohoo!

The shortlisted essays will be published at I Must Be Off! During the month of August. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners will be revealed on September 30. One essay will win a Readers’ Choice Award, based on hits and comments.

My essay will be published on the site on Aug 14. I’ll post the link when it’s up.

Thanks, Chris and Catherine, for moving my essay into the final ten, and congratulations to my fellow finalists. It’s great to be in your fine company. Best of luck to you all!

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A selection of News from a Literary Life

dac san magI’m pleased to announce the publication of Sống Chung với Mệ in the 2015 issue of Đặc San Văn Lang Boston. This piece is my translation to Vietnamese of my essay Life with Mệ, which appeared in the 2012 Writers Abroad anthology, Foreign Encounters.

my story in DSLife with Mệ, a piece from the collection I’m currently working on, is a reflection on living with my Vietnamese Grandmother-in-law in Huế, in Central Việt Nam. (That’s not her image in the magazine; the editors chose a stock photo.)  Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of sharing this story with a small crowd at the opening ceremonies for the Pointe Claire Public Library’s 50th anniversary celebration. Mệ (Grandmother) told me she feels a little embarrassed but pleased to know that so many people have read about her.

Đặc San Văn Lang Boston is a special issue celebrating the  seventeenth year of the Văn Lang Boston Vietnamese Language Center (Trung Tâm Việt Ngữ Văn Lang Boston). The volunteer teachers at the centre offer language programs with the goal of preserving the Vietnamese language and culture for Vietnamese American children in the Boston area.

My thanks goes to the director of Văn Lang Boston for the invitation to contribute an essay to this special issue, and to the previous one (2012) as well. It is an honour to do so. Thanks, Hiếu!

cnftweetI’m also honoured to have Creative Nonfiction Magazine choose two recent mini essays for publication. A #cnftweet about my father appeared in the micro-essay section of the May newsletter. (Scroll down about 2/3 to read the winners.)

Another one, about vegetables, appears in the Tiny Truths section of issue #55, the Memoir Issue (Spring 2015). You might like to hurry over and grab one of the last few copies of this special double issue before they sell out.

Also in the #cnftweet department, Vivian Wagner’s latest article for Easy Street Magazine features an old one of mine that appeared in Creative Nonfiction’s The Human Face of Sustainability issue (Spring 2014). Vivian has also quoted a #cnftweet by Anika Fardjo, whose micro-essays consistently please me. Have a look at Vivian’s article, Short-Short-Short Stories: A Look at the #cnftweet World.

If you can tell a true story well in 140 characters, tag it #cnftweet to enter Creative Nonfiction Magazine’s daily micro-essay Twitter contest. If the @cnfonline folks like it, they’ll favourite and retweet it, and maybe even publish it in the newsletter or magazine. Note that the character limit includes the tag.

In older news, I was quite chuffed when Slow Writing, a craft essay I wrote for QWF Writes,  was a WordPress editors’ pick featured on Freshly Pressed. The steady flow of readers and commenters, most of them writers at various stages in their careers,  amazed me, and the comments were a pleasure to read. One person said “I almost feel like I just attended a support group for writers”. I took this to mean not only the essay but the many thoughtful, insightful comments too. The feedback from readers and other writers is one of the best parts of writing.

Posted in Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Memoir, News, Publications, Viet Nam, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award


Thanks, QWF Writes, for nominating me for the “Very Inspiring Blogger” award.

QWF Writes is the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s monthly online column. The QWF does a lot of great work promoting writing in the community. Have a look at their post (linked above, in the first line), to see a list of seven great ways they do this.

The award is a promotional chain for bloggers, a pay-it-forward way of sharing websites bloggers admire.

Here are the guidelines for accepting the award and nominating other bloggers:

1. Thank the person who nominated you and add their link to your blog.
2. List the award rules so your nominees will know what to do.
3. State 7 things about yourself.
4. Nominate other bloggers.
5. Contact your nominees and provide a link to your post.
6. Display the award logo on your blog, whether on your sidebar or about page, or special award page.

Right. So, here are 7 things about me:
1. I’m always grateful for these awards, and what I like most about them is nominating other bloggers. It’s always a challenge to choose just a few blogs from the many great ones out there. What I like least is listing seven things about myself.

2. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I only just this week joined a writers’ group. They are four women, all talented published writers who, like me, write nonfiction. I felt honoured when they invited me to join them. We met a few days ago to discuss and critique each other’s essays and chapters from WIPs. Each person brings a different strength to the critique table, and this promises to be a rewarding experience.

3. Mostly, I write nonfiction, especially about Việt Nam, food, and nature. I do write some short stories, and hope to eventually put a bunch of them together in a book.

4. My current project is a book of personal essays about living in Việt Nam. This may sound familiar, because I’ve been working on the same project for a very long time. A few years, in fact. When I first began, I had a different plan for the book’s setup and style. Then, I wasn’t sure what direction several of the essays should take. Most of them are ready now; eleven have appeared in various literary and travel magazines and anthologies, three are still in the final polishing stage and one of these may get broken into two separate but linked pieces. I’m almost ready for agent-hunting!

5. The book I’m reading now (and enjoying immensely) is  Boundless (Anansi, Cape), Kathleen Winter’s travel memoir about her trip through the Northwest Passage.  The Guardian has a great review, complete with a link to a video of Nathan Rogers performing his father’s song The Northwest Passage.

6. I sometimes write quickly, but usually, slowly, and then spend a long time editing, rereading, editing, polishing, letting it rest, polishing. . . I call it slow writing, and I mused about it in a recent QWF Writes column.

7. I’m relieved to reach the end of this list of facts about me, and will celebrate by making some bread, because I love baking. After that, it’s back to work on the book.

I nominate these blogs:
1. Food, food writing, food photography: Micha’s Food Blog:
Michael Pokorra tries out wines and recipes and writes about them on his bilingual English/German food blog. (If you don’t read German, just scroll down because every single post has an English version.) He accompanies his posts with his own mouthwatering photographs of his beautiful presentations. I hope he collects his recipes in a book soon.

2. Writing, submitting, reading, photography: Margrét Helgadóttir’s blog:
Margrét is a Norwegian-Icelandic expat and writer who writes in English. Her debut book, The Stars Seem so Far Away (Fox Spirit), is out on Feb. 13, 2015 . Margrét is the editor for one published and two forthcoming Fox Spirit anthologies. She is also a talented photographer, and here and there on her blog, you’ll find some real gems, from art photos to street and architecture photography.
(Disclaimer: I was the stylistic editor for this book. )

3. Việt Nam, culture, writing: Michelle Robin La’s website/blog:
Michelle grew up in the American Midwest, while her husband grew up in Việt Nam. They met in college. She writes about their culturally blended life together, and about her husband’s childhood years in the Mekong Valley. Michelle’s book Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands (ViewPort Publishing) just came out at the end of January. The book is a memoir of her husband’s childhood, as told to her by him.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, Pointe Claire Library! – 50 Years of Inspiration

50th anniversary Pointe Claire Library-posterThe Pointe Claire Public Library is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015. The opening ceremonies on January 24th included readings by local authors, live music, and cupcake decorating workshops. I was delighted to receive an invitation to take part in the events and read from my work.

We were blessed with mild weather, and when I arrived at the library, the coat racks were already bursting, children and parents were choosing books to borrow, and the cupcake workshops, hosted by Pointe Claire’s own Crazy About Cupcakes, were in full swing.

In the teen section, Duo Jaï (Stewart Grant, oboe; Joanne Grant, cello)  were setting up their music stands. They opened the afternoon programming with a mix of baroque, popular and contemporary classics, including some lovely Bach partitas, and Gershwin and Beatles tunes. Following the literary programming and a coffee and cupcake interlude, they returned later with their terrific interpretations of more Beatles tunes, including a personal favourite, Come Together. When Stewart introduced the piece, I wondered how they would pull it off with cello and oboe, but the arrangement was outstanding.

Award-winning authors Mark Abley and Joel Yanofsky held the floor for an informal chat on the theme of inspiration. Mark, also a Gazette columnist, poet, and the library’s first Writer-in-Residence, emphasised the importance of libraries when he mentioned what a major role the Pointe Claire Library played in his decision to live in Pointe Claire. They discussed the capricious nature of inspiration, and the ways in which they each find it. Joel, a frequent book reviewer for the Gazette, talked about the struggle to find inspiration while working on his most recent book, Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism (Viking Canada, 2011).

Mary Jane O’Neill (the library’s section manager of audiovisual and adult programming) then introduced several local Pointe Claire writers, who read from their work.

Karen Zey is an emerging writer who worked for thirty-five years as a teacher, consultant and administrator in the Quebec public school system. Now a part-time educational consultant, she writes whenever she can. Karen read an excerpt from Tough Talk, a personal essay forthcoming in the spring issue of Prick of the Spindle. Karen is working on a collection of school-based stories. (One of her stories, Jake, appeared in the December 2013 issue of Hippocampus, a magazine of creative nonfiction.)

Claire Pelletier devotes her time to her two passions, writing and travelling. She read an excerpt from her second book, Les dé boires de la veuve (Première chance, 2013), a fanciful and rather surreal collection of allegorical stories in which some of the characters are garden vegetables, others, bottles of wine.  Claire takes inspiration from her travels and from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Her first book, a collection of poetic prose entitled Le voleur de sourires (Première chance), appeared in 2010.

I took my turn in front of the audience to read Life with Mệ, one of the essays in the collection I’m currently working on, about living in Việt Nam. (Life with Mệ also appeared in the 2012 Writers Abroad anthology Foreign Encounters.

Francine Marcil, who writes about the hidden treasures on the library’s bookshelves at Il y a Tant à Lire, gave us a few examples of these treasures and read a passage from her top pick, Marie-Claire Blais’ Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Michelle Payette-Daoust, fluently bilingual and an avid reader, hosts both the library’s English online book club blog and French online book club blog. Michelle gave us a bilingual presentation, and spoke about the challenges of writing her posts in two languages. She read from some of her posts, which include book suggestions and literary musings, and thoughts about books and films, posted under a category called “Should I Read it or Watch it?”

Many local writers, including Karen Zey, Claire Pelletier, and I, had benefited from the one-on-one meetings with the library’s Writers-in-Residence, Mark Abley in 2010-11, and David Homel in 2013.

As the library’s first Writer-in-Residence, Mark Abley worked with local writers (both published and aspiring), reading their work and offering valuable critique. He also put together and edited a bilingual collection of 35 local authors’ writings about Pointe Claire, The City We Share / La Ville que nous partageons (Shoreline Press, 2011). I was lucky to be one of writers he mentored during that time, and to have a nature essay, Seasons of the Lake, appear in the collection. Mark has a new collection, The Tongues of Earth: New and Selected Poems, (Coteau Books) coming out this spring.

We had hoped that David Homel, who took up the reins as the library’s second Writer-in-Residence, would be present, but he was unable to attend. During his tenure, he wrote a series of thoughtful posts about writing, all archived on the Library’s blog. He is an award-winning writer and translator, editor, journalist, filmmaker and teacher. His children’s book, The Traveling Circus (Groundwood Books), coauthored with Marie-Louise Gay, is forthcoming in April, 2015.

Section manager Mary Jane O’Neill is one of the Pointe Claire Library’s most valuable resources. Always on the lookout for something new to foster the love of books and literature and to keep the library vibrant, she’s doing an outstanding job! Mary Jane co-organised the library’s Writers in Residence program (Mark was chosen by a board consisting of Pointe Claire library staff, the Conseil des Arts de Montréal, and the Quebec Writers’ Federation). In 2011, she set up a human library event, where people could borrow a living book, as part of the City of Pointe Claire’s100th anniversary celebrations, and she worked with three other libraries to set up OverDrive, a system offering free downloadable eBooks and audiobooks to their adult members.

Thanks so much to the amazing Mary Jane for putting this event together!

The Pointe-Claire Public Library was established as a municipal service in 1965, but the history of the library goes back to the end of World War Two, when the Valois Citizens’ Association established the first library in a tiny wooden cabin in Valois.

The library offers a huge and varied collection of books, and much more. Throughout the year, cultural activities include readings by both award-winning and emerging writers, and conferences, lectures and films. Also offered are a variety of workshops, from Computers for Seniors, and Family History Research, to Creative Writing with Tim Fain, and knitting and crocheting clubs and more.

Special services include home delivery of books for people with limited mobility or physical disabilities, and large-print books. Then there’s the handy Ask a Librarian service, the career-search database, the Mango Languages database, and a teen space, with work stations, a sofa, and chairs, where teens can read, do their homework or relax at the library.

The library will host many more activities to mark its 50th anniversary this year. Follow the library’s blogs or visit the library in person for more information, to become a member, or just to relax, read a book and enjoy the natural light and marvellous view of the woods from the picture windows.

Address: 100 Avenue Douglas-Shand, Pointe-Claire, QC, H9R 4V1
Phone: (514) 630-1218
Adult Blog:
Teen Blog:

Posted in Literary Events, News, Readings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Slow Writing by Chris Galvin

I’ve a new essay up over at the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s monthly online column. Have a look, and then read some of the other writers’ essays too. The QWF Writes column “provides an arena for writers to share and discuss ideas, experiences and opinions relevant to our unique writing community,” but pretty much all of the posts are relevant to the wider writing world as well, not just to Quebec writers.

QWF Writes

Chris bakes muffins too

Like bread dough, my writing seems to require time to rise in a warm, draft-free place. The long proofing period is necessary; turn up the heat to hurry the rising, or don’t leave it long enough, and I get a stodgy, dense loaf.

Under ideal conditions—solitude, free time and excitement about what I’m writing—the words pour forth quickly. It’s exhilarating. But normally, I write when I can. I like to have control over an essay or story as it forms, and I edit as I write, considering each sentence as I put it to paper—does it say what I want it to say, or does it imply something else? I read what I’ve written aloud—does it have the right rhythm? Is my translation of Vietnamese dialogue as true to the original as possible? Does it sound natural?

The second proofing of the dough is as important as the first. Even…

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New Monster Story in A New Anthology of Monsters

European Monsters - cover art by Daniele Serra

It’s here! European Monsters  is now published and available as a paperback coffee table book. This is the first of a planned series of Fox Spirit Books of Monsters.

When I received an invitation to contribute a monster story for a this anthology, I was excited and honoured. And then I had to choose a monster to write about. It had to be a European monster, which helped to narrow the choices. I made a list of fiendish beasts of myth and legend, and noticed that the north of Europe seemed less well represented on my list.

I researched some more and considered writing a kraken story, but there are already many of those. Everyone knows the kraken, a monstrous mythological squid creature said to live off the coast of Norway, but fewer are familiar with Hafgufa, an Icelandic giant sea monster. Iceland is rich in myth and has a long history of reverence for nature and the elements, much evident in their tales of huldufólk (hidden folk, i.e. elves). While the stories of elves and of Grýla, a child-eating, mountain-dwelling ogress, have gained a wider following, Hafgufa seems still to be shrouded in mist.

Hafgufa (Icelandic: sea mist), and Lyngbakr (heather back) were two sea monsters in the Greenland sea, disguised as a pair of islands, or  some rocks and an island, first “reported” in an Icelandic saga* from the late 13th century. The hero, Örvar-Oddr, and his crew spotted them while sailing. In the saga, Hafgufa is the biggest monster in the entire ocean, and Lyngbakr, a giant whale. Oddr’s ship sails past the islands, and later, Oddr orders his men to turn back to investigate further, but when they return to the area, the islands are gone. One of his men explains that the islands were most likely the two sea monsters attempting to lure the crew to their deaths.

While often described as a huge fish, some say that Hafgufa was the original kraken. Indeed, Olaus Magnus,  a Swedish historian of the 16th century, described the kraken in his Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus,  as a beast that was “a strange mix of fish and squid . . . quite different from those we find later in the literature, suggesting that his monster is likely a confusion of many sightings, including not only the giant squid but perhaps whales and cuttlefish as well.”

Hafgufa’s method of luring prey, both sea creatures and fishermen, was to swallow a huge mouthful of fish and then belch them out. The kraken is also said to lie in wait, disguised as an island, or to wait in the depths of the ocean, its location often marked by large schools of fish swimming above it. Either way, it tempts the fishermen to come closer.

While I was jotting down notes about Hafgufa, the anthology editors, Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, told me they needed stories of water-dwelling monsters. Perfect!

Coincidentally, around the same time, news was coming out about the first ever live footage of the giant squid in its natural deep sea habitat, caught on film by a three-man crew led by zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera. They filmed the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) near the Ogasawara archipelago about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, in July of 2012, using a specially-designed camera system called The Medusa. The system, designed by oceanographer Edith Widder, involves using dim red light, invisible to giant squid, and bioluminescence to attract them.

The near-infrared light and silence of their submersible as the team drifted down appear to have been the secrets that allowed them to view the giant squid. Kubodera said: “If you try and approach making a load of noise, using a bright white light, then the squid won’t come anywhere near you. That was our basic thinking.”

The Japan Broadcasting Commission (NHK) and the US Discovery Channel funded the mission, and broadcast documentaries afterwards. While researching giant squid, I came across a fascinating TED Talk with Edith Widder, in which she explains her system. It includes some of the footage of the crew during their first sighting of the giant squid via the Medusa, and some even more exciting footage from inside the submersible, when Kubota shines a bigger light on the squid; instead of fleeing, it continues to hold onto the bait they used to tempt it into approaching their camera.

My contribution to European Monsters is a story entitled Hafgufa Rising. The setting is a tiny fictional island, called Hafgufa, off the eastern coast of Iceland. Between researching Icelandic food, culture and myth, and learning as much as I could about the real-life giant squid and the myths surrounding it, the story was a great pleasure to write. I leave you with this gorgeous illustration by Daniele Serra, which accompanies my story in the book.

HAFGUFA-illustr-daniele serra

European Monsters, published by Fox Spirit Books, was released on December 18 and is available on Amazon. Several of the authors have prepared special blog posts about their stories, collected under Fox Spirit Books’  European Monsters tag. The Table of Contents is also posted on their website, and includes a photo by Margrét Helgadóttir of a fantastic piece of Oslo street art featuring a giant squid.

*The Örvar-Odds saga is available here, collected by Dr. Zoe Borovsky, for those who can read Old Norse.

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J is for Jackfruit (Mít)

Jackfruit grow on short stalks right from the trunk and branches, and they are the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, bigger even than the durian. While a typical fruit might weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kg, they can reach up to 35. Most of the ones I see in the market are almost a metre long.jackfruit growing near tu duc

Jackfruit has a few unusual attributes. All those pimply bumps on the outside and the many arils on the inside are actually the result of hundreds of female flowers growing and fusing together, so each fruit is actually many fruits. Cutting one open exposes an inedible central core and hundreds of arils nestled amongst many flattened, somewhat fibrous filaments, often called rags. These rags are unfertilized flowers. The fruits grow on short stalks right from the trunk and branches, and they are the largest known tree-borne fruit in the world, bigger even than the durian. While a typical fruit might weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 kg, they can reach up to 35. Most of the ones I see in the market are almost a metre long.Though some people say the fruit are stinky, the bad odour mostly comes from the very large or overripe ones.

jackfruit close-up

My mother-in-law slices immature jackfruit flesh and uses it to make a soup, canh mít, flavoured with lốt leaves and ruốc (shrimp paste). Sometimes she adds shrimp to the soup. I love her cooking, but this isn’t one of my favorites. Although the unripe jackfruit has a meaty texture which makes it popular for preparing vegetarian dishes at pagodas and on meatless days, I find it bland and starchy. This is a people’s dish, sometimes called a dish for the poor, unlike many of the local Huế specialties that find their roots in the imperial kitchens. Still, the popularity of jackfruit in Huế does have imperial roots; during his eleven-year reign, King Minh Mạng issued an edict ordering people to plant jackfruit trees everywhere that the land lay uncultivated.

Sometimes we buy a chunk of fresh jackfruit (never a whole one—they’re usually just too big!) and we invite family members who live in neighbouring houses over for a feast. We cut the fruit into smaller chunks to make it less unwieldy, and then we sit plucking the fleshy arils out from the surrounding stringy filaments and eating them. The seeds pop out of the sections easily. To me, the aromatic, crunchy, sometimes waxy sections taste like a banana-pineapple fruit salad. We are careful to oil the knife before cutting the fruit, because it exudes a sticky white latex that gums up everything it touches. Children even smear the latex on sticks to trap dragonflies in flight.

The multitude of arils in a single fruit makes the jackfruit perfect for sharing, and typical of Huế people, my family loves to get together for a fruit feast. (Even a single mango, cut properly, becomes a joyous impromptu gathering for several siblings and cousins.)

Although the rags, called xơ mít (jackfruit fibres) are edible too, many people don’t eat them. Some cooks prepare them kho style (stewed in fish sauce and caramel sauce) with fish during the flood season. They’re also popular in vegetarian kitchens to make dishes like xơ mít sautéed with lemon grass and chilis.

jackfruit salad -mit + bun tron

In the afternoons, the silence of our lane during the siesta hours is punctuated only by the sounds of cicadas and birds until, one by one, people open their eyes, stretch, and open their shutters and doors again. The last stragglers are awakened by the calls of itinerant sellers hawking various delicacies that are popular late-afternoon snacks.  One of the women arrives in our lane, yoke bouncing on her shoulder, with trays of assorted Huế specialties, including mít trộn, a sort of jackfruit salad with glass noodles, lettuce and herbs.

One of the many sellers of chè (sweet soupy snacks) offers a jackfruit chè laced with coconut milk, but this chè seems to be more common in the south. I don’t see it very often in Huế.

Two main varieties of jackfruit are grown in Việt Nam (as well as a few others), both bearing starchy fruits that sweeten as they grow and ripen. Mít  ướt (wet jackfruit) has a softer, sweeter flesh with a deep golden hue, while mít ráo (dry jackfruit) tends to be a little drier and crunchier, and rather pale. The huge seeds of all the varieties (except, of course, the seedless kind) have a nutty, creamy flavour and texture, but they require lengthy cooking, and they induce flatulence. A friend of mine nicknamed her son Mít, the Vietnamese name for jackfruit, because of his childhood fondness for the seeds, and the malodorous results.

Việt Nam is a major producer of jackfruit, both for local consumption and for export (fresh, frozen, canned, and made into crunchy chips). The wood is prized for its resistance to rot and splitting, and is used to make furniture and doors. Craftsmen in Huế are known for their beautiful, high-quality jackwood Buddhist statues and mõ, the wooden fish used to keep the beat while reciting sutras or during rites. In 2010,  Huế craftsmen built Việt Nam’s biggest drum for Hà Nội’s thousandth birthday. (Sadly, they used three trees, all over 500 years old—collectively older than the city of Hà Nội—and I think it would have been nicer to leave the trees growing.)

jackfruit growing from trunk

The jackfruit tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is a member of the same family that includes mulberries and figs, and grows in most parts of the tropics. They grow as tall as 30 metres, with a thick growth of shiny oblong leaves that offers a lovely cool shade on a hot day.

If you want to grow one from seed, you’ll need both space and enough patience to wait several years for the first fruit, although the trees grow fairly quickly. The seeds are only viable for a short time and must not dry out, so you have to plant them right away, preferably in their permanent location. Jackfruit trees are easy to grow, and have few demands, but they have very long and delicate taproots and do not take well to being moved. It takes about eight months from flowering to harvest time.  The trees do best in the tropics, with lots of sunshine, heat and humidity, but will tolerate a very brief and light frost.

jackfruit at the market

The giant fruit are low in calories but rich in protein, vitamin B6 and potassium. And according to an article from the Guardian, jackfruit may be a miracle crop: “Researchers say the large, smelly fruit grown could be a replacement for staple crops under threat from climate change”.

If you can read Vietnamese, you might like these two articles I referred to while checking to make sure I had my facts straight about jackfruit dishes in Huế:

Ẩm thực Huế trong vườn Huế

Cây mít trong dòng chảy văn hóa Huế

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In a Việt Kitchen

Hồng Ngự outdoor kitchen

One thing I have in my kitchen that neither my husband’s mother nor anyone in his family even owns is cookbooks. My mother-in-law has never followed a written recipe. She cooks according to what’s in season, what’s suitable for the season and what’s freshest at the market. She cooks the way her mother taught her, adds her own flourishes, and measures with an old tin can, a soup spoon, and her eyes.

Until just a few years ago, a two-burner gas stove, a water filter and a rice cooker were her only kitchen appliances. Now she has a fridge, but she still buys fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs, and meat, fish or tofu almost every day. Sometimes twice in one day.

My husband remembers that when he was little, Mother and Grandmother did all their cooking over a coal pot. These braziers still see a lot of use when it’s too hot to cook inside (though Mother surprises me with her ability to stand in an airless kitchen on a 38°C night, frying tofu while a pot of soup boils beside her and heat shimmers up from the orange flames spouting from both gas rings. I would just make a big salad on a night like that. But it’s Việt Nam and people expect their rice and soup.) The coal pot also comes in handy during Huế’s damp, chilly winter, when Grandmother sets it up near the open door and we all sit in a circle and hold our hands over the embers.
frying vegetables outside

A decade ago, Mother’s kitchen was a tiny rectangular space with a counter that had an open cupboard underneath it to store dishes, the rice bin, and the gas canister for the stove. A small unpainted cement room to the side served as both a shower and a space to wash dishes and vegetables in large metal washbasins. Mother did and still does much of the food preparation on the floor (in bowls and pots, and on chopping blocks, of course—not directly on the floor!) Our neighbours and relatives do the same.
preparing a meal

The equipment in my in-laws’ kitchen hasn’t changed much; Mother still uses the same pots and pans, knives and chopping blocks, chopsticks and ladles, and a rainbow collection of strainers. A press for lime juice and a wooden mortar and pestle sit unused in a corner. She finds it more practical to squeeze limes by hand. I always wondered why she pounded garlic and chilis in a ceramic bowl, which I feared might break at any moment, especially once she passed this task on to me. Now I like the alternating ringing and dull sounds the bowl makes depending on how I hold it.

One year, my husband’s family renovated the kitchen. Along with the new tiled counter, they put in metal-framed cabinets with glass doors, and much to my delight, a real stainless steel sink, though still with cold (or rather, tepid) water only. The plumber lacked experience installing modern kitchen sinks and rendered the faucet practically useless by having it poke out directly from the wall, extending over the back of the sink by mere centimetres. The water pours out high above the sink, and when anyone tries to wash dishes, it bounces everywhere except down the drain.

I try to tilt dishes and pots to keep the water aimed into the sink, and use a towel to soak up the puddles, but Mother just keeps on using the old knee-high water spout on the wall. Like before, she squats in front of it and cleans the vegetables and the dishes in her wash basin. There’s a drain in the floor below it, but it takes dexterity not to get the whole floor wet. At least it’s now just a kitchen spout, because the shower was moved to a proper bathroom.

Kitchens in Việt Nam vary from simple rooms with space for storage and food preparation and a fire pit or coal pot to fancy, expensive ones with every convenience (dishwashers, fridges with ice dispensers, and so on). With the surge in numbers of upper middle class and very rich people, expensive kitchens are more and more common in the big cities, but most country kitchens remain the way they’ve been for decades. I’ve been in ones so dark I wondered how the cook could see what she was doing, and in airy ones where the sun twinkled through chinks in woven grass or bamboo walls. I took this photo, and the one of the open-air kitchen at the top, in Hồng Ngự district in the western region.
Hồng Ngự kitchen

Vietnamese restaurant kitchens vary as much as or more than home kitchens. At some restaurants, all the food is cooked on a simple brazier on the sidewalk. At others, the food preparation takes place in shiny, spotless stainless-steel kitchens like the one my friend Chef Shane ran so efficiently at the Pullman Đà Nẵng.
Shane's Da Nang kitchen

Often, people will do smoky or messy jobs, like cooking over a coal pot or cleaning fish, outside. Sometimes, we set up our chairs in the lane to peel piles of onions or peanuts, rather than have the papery skins drifting around the kitchen. On really hot days, when the kitchen becomes unbearably stuffy, the breeze makes food preparation a lot easier.
preparing fish

The most important item in Mother’s kitchen isn’t her rice cooker, stove, or water faucet. It’s the kitchen gods’ altar. And taking care of the altar is the one kitchen job that falls to Ba, my father-in-law. He lights the incense for the kitchen gods every morning, and again in the evening. Ba is happy when I take the evening shift, but the morning is just for him.

Whenever the family holds an offerings ceremony, whether for a death anniversary, the twice-yearly cúng đất (offerings for the earth deities, wandering souls and souls of the original Chăm inhabitants of the province), or Tết, Ba and I clean the altar and put fresh sand in the incense pot. During the Tết, when the kitchen gods travel to heaven to make their annual reports, Ba is the one who organizes all the necessary preparations for their departure and return.

The kitchen gods will make their next reports in February, 2015. My in-laws will do their best to keep them happy so that they’ll give a favourable report and bring another good year for the family. I’m looking forward to all the activity in the kitchen to prepare the Tết food. And as always, I hope to learn how to make a few more of my mother-in-law’s specialties.

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H is for Hạt Dưa: Watermelon Seeds (and also for harmful and hazard)

melon seeds in the Tet tray 2

Crick, crack, snick, ptooi.

The sound of a group of people cracking seeds brings to my imagination a pack of squirrels let loose at a bird seed factory.

Tết is the season of melon seeds. Snacking on them practically becomes a national sport during the Lunar New Year holidays. In every Vietnamese home, people put out trays full of the roasted seeds, along with candies, preserved ginger and other dried fruits, biscuits, and nuts for their guests.

Most visitors to Việt Nam wonder why; the first time you try to crack one, the shell shatters into shards, and the tiny seed inside breaks into bits—just an unpleasant mouthful to spit out.  But it creeps up on you. The next thing you know, you are cracking seeds with everyone else.

Everyone in my husband’s family, having eaten the seeds since childhood, can crack them and extract the contents in one swift combined movement of tongue and teeth. They amass huge quantities of perfect half shells in no time at all. Beginners struggle with the shells, spitting out slivers with bits of seed still stuck inside.

The shells, red on the outside and tan on the inside, are everywhere: on the road, in piles on tables in houses and cafes, and scattered on floors, where they fall when scooped off tables to make way for more.  As soon as they are cleared away, more take their place.melon seeds on a café table

The watermelon seed frenzy continues unabated after Tết, but eventually peters out, only to start up again when people are in the mood for a treat, or any time there is a large gathering. They’re often available in tiny sacks at cafés and drinking establishments. During betrothals, weddings and wakes, the hosts put out saucers of seeds and pots of tea for the guests. The sound of cracking shells blends with the buzz of congratulations or the sombre mumble of condolences and prayers.

Both the fruit and the seeds of watermelon are popular during Tết because their red colour represents luck, but the seeds are from varieties bred for high seed production, not for sweet fruit.

Melon seeds and tea 1

Back in my first year celebrating Tết in Việt Nam, all the watermelon seeds on the market were a deep red colour that stained fingers and tongues. People told me to avoid buying brown-coloured seeds because these were considered not fresh. They were much cheaper, sometimes hadn’t been dried properly, and tasted musty. I now think the colour difference was because they’d been processed with a cheaper dye. Yes, dye. Back then, all watermelon seeds for Tết were dyed. But I didn’t know that, and I didn’t figure it out right away. “That’s their colour,” people told me. “They come from a special kind of watermelon.”

Several years later, the first reports came out that some seeds on the market were dyed with rhodamine B, a carcinogenic compound. In 2009, Chinese watermelon seeds were pulled from the Vietnamese market after news got out that the Chinese seeds were contaminated with it. Vietnamese food producers have also been found to use rhodamine B in spices, particularly chili powder and satay powder for local use, and also for export.

For a couple of years, my husband’s family put out hạt bí (pumpkin seeds) and hạt điều (cashew nuts) and only a small amount of watermelon seeds. I’ve seen hạt hướng dương (sunflower seeds) at some people’s homes, and hạt dẻ cười (pistachio) which, even more than cashews, are a luxury in Việt Nam. I love the name, which means “smiling chestnuts”.

Now, watermelon seeds tend to be a much duller shade of red, or even brown, and the colour is no longer uniform, with speckles and shade variation instead.

melon seeds

I remember people who consumed watermelon seeds heavily would often complain of scratchy throats. My husband could go through a kilo a day and back then, always had a pocketful of the red seeds during the Tết holidays. He always blamed his sore throat on beer, but I noticed that I too would get a scratchy throat when I ate a lot of seeds.

In 2013, another big fuss arose, and many local print and online journals and newspapers published articles about how to choose watermelon seeds that wouldn’t endanger peoples’ health.

In one article (in Vietnamese) the reporter quotes a worker in the watermelon seed industry as saying “If the seeds aren’t soaked in bleaching agents and then dyed, they don’t look beautiful or shiny.” (My translation.) The reporter spent some time in a hạt dưa factory in Tây Ninh, where he watched workers soak the seeds in a chemical that he calls xút , which he explains is used in the fabric-dying and soap-making trades. When I looked it up, I found out that xút is sodium hydroxide. In other words, lye, which isn’t so bad if they use food grade lye.  But then the reporter describes practices in two different factories that involved using motor oil to make the seeds shiny, because apparently, food-grade oils won’t do. I guess they aren’t viscous enough.

Sadly, in Việt Nam, these scary stories, sometimes rumours and sometimes true, come out all the time. Often, Chinese producers are blamed, partly because of the non-stop barage of food scandals coming out of China, and partly because Việt Nam imports a lot of food products from its neighbour, but locally produced foodstuffs are just as likely to be contaminated. Everyone is tempted by the whitest, bounciest rice noodles, the  shiniest, reddest watermelon seeds, and so on, until yet another fuss arises and then everyone stops buying the evil product of the month altogether.

Sometimes the problem is agrochemical residues on produce, and sometimes it’s whiteners, colouring agents and preservative chemicals added to products before they’re sold at the market.

My husband’s relatives make and sell bún noodles, but in 2013, they couldn’t sell for any price. Huế’s famous noodle soup and favourite breakfast dish, bún bò Huế, was no longer on the menu anywhere, because several kinds of noodles all over Việt Nam had tested positive for tinopal, an optic whitener. The relatives never added tinopal to their noodles, as theirs is a tiny village industry, but their business, and that of the entire village, suffered for over a year. Noodle sellers and anyone making or selling bún bò Huế had to find other work. Even now, sales are still not what they used to be.

A decade ago, many of my friends, both in Canada and in Việt Nam, were refusing to buy Chinese products. At the time, I didn’t take it so seriously. That has changed. But I still buy Vietnamese food products. Sometimes I wonder how smart that is. Sometimes I just want to ignore all the food scandals and enjoy my food. Việt Nam cuisine has so much to offer.

People in other countries have worried about imported shrimp, basa fish, chili powder and other Vietnamese products that have tested positive for various contaminants and subsequently been pulled from markets, but the problem is much bigger. It’s worldwide.

Sometimes the problems are caused by carelessness or laziness. People not bothering to wash their hands, or people lying and not bothering to report test results, like the brothers responsible for the E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada. Sometimes the cause is people simply not aware of the dangers, or people thinking that by not eating what they’re growing or selling, they’ll be safe.

I cannot understand why the people who use illegal and toxic additives to “improve” the look, texture or shelf life of foods don’t ever stop to think that these contaminants might be in their own food. That big melamine milk fuss in China that seriously sickened 300,000 babies a few years ago  . . . did the big bosses of those factories think they would just never drink milk and therefore never be affected? Didn’t it occur to them that maybe their own children might drink the melamine milk at someone else’s house? At school?  Or that if they eat at restaurants, they themselves might be served products containing the toxic things they make in their factories?

I understand that in many countries, including Việt Nam, profits can be slim and people are trying to do what they can to make their products most attractive to customers, but this is not a good excuse for endangering public health. And there’s no excuse at all for the people who are supplying chemicals with promises of better looking, longer lasting foods if only you use “this magic powder”, which is often sold in unmarked bags in Vietnamese markets. Worst of all, it’s not the poor farmers and itinerant sellers who make the most profit from the use of illegal additives and pesticides, but they are often the ones who get poisoned first, from primary contact while handling the products without sufficient safety equipment or clothing.

Crops are over-sprayed with pesticides and produce is over-treated with formalin and other preservatives, the farmers and the people who eat the fruits and vegetables get sick, or the produce is so tainted that it can’t be sold at all and lies rotting in the fields, like the precious langra mangos of Bangladesh did this summer. But it doesn’t end there. As Tahmima Anam writes in her New York Times article about Dhaka’s produce woes:

“The practice of spraying fruit with formalin is one problem, but more worrying is that the entire food chain is compromised — the soil itself contaminated by toxins that are almost impossible to eradicate.”

This blog post has wandered somewhat from the topic of watermelon seeds. I’m glad to say that people no longer desire the shiniest, brightest, reddest seeds, and they are once again easily obtained on the market. But I wonder sometimes about the future health of my husband, who breathes in hạt dưa at Tết as if the seeds were air. At least, unlike people who haven’t grown up with the seeds, he cracks them between his teeth without even getting the shells wet. I probably absorbed as much rhodamine B during my early attempts to perfect my watermelon-seed-cracking technique as he has in his entire life. One thing I can be glad for is that watermelon seeds in Huế always had a matte appearance; the fashion for seeds with a high gloss, achieved by coating them with motor oil (with the belief that it was safe because it stays on the outer shell) never seemed to catch on the way it did in Saigon.

Posted in A to Z, Cooking, Food, Viet Nam | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments