I looked for Tram, but the only person I could see standing outside the baggage claim was a lanky figure with short hair, black skinny jeans, and dramatic red lipstick. Definitely not Tram, I thought, squinting into the distance. Last time I saw her, she had glossy black hair all the way down her back, and, like me, she wore cardigans and boot-cut jeans, no makeup to speak of. I checked my phone to make sure I hadn’t missed a message. But then the creature with the hair and the jeans and, as it turned out, some towering high-heeled sandals, looked up and called my name. “Lucy!” She rushed toward me from across the street and gave me a big hug. “I barely recognized you!”
It had been two years since we’d lived in the same city, and suddenly I felt shy. Tram and I had spent most of our waking hours together in high school, but after graduation I left the Maryland suburbs for college in the Midwest and she went off to live with relatives in France. On her own she’d had European adventures, eaten all sorts of exotic foods whose names I couldn’t pronounce, and possibly dated dozens of sleazily sexy Eurotrash guys. She had chopped off all her hair into a sophisticated pixie cut. I, on the other hand, had eaten a lot of bad cafeteria food and entered a mild depression. What if she had outgrown me? What if things were different between us now?
“I almost didn’t see you!” I said.
“Is it because I look like a boy now?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you look amazing. I love your hair.”
“My hairdresser only charged me for a man’s haircut,” Tram said.
“What should we do?”
“What we always do,” I said. “Let’s eat.”
T here were seven of us piled into a rented Honda Odyssey, edging slowly toward the front of the line where blue- uniformed agents awaited us. Not us, specifically, but people like us, hardened criminals with questionable morals and no regard for the law, people who smuggled illegal goods into the United States of America. As our minivan inched toward the border checkpoint from Canada into the United States, we passed official signage that warned of the penalties we would incur if we committed the exact crime we were trying to commit. The signs started off politely enough (they were Canadian, after all), with a casual, “Hey there, don’t bring drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband across the border, yeah?” It escalated quickly with every passing kilometer, until the final one read: “WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO DO. CONFESS OR WE’LL DEPORT YOUR ASS TO VIETNAM.” I am paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.
I was fifteen years old and had a permanent scowl etched across my face — an expression enhanced by my overplucked, perpetually angry, ’90s Kate Moss–inspired eyebrows. I should have been spending the summer with my best friend, Lucy, baking cakes and reading trashy magazines, not wasting two weeks traipsing across all of the Chinatowns in Canada with my eternally embarrassing family. And now we were about to get arrested at the border for smuggling in hundreds of dollars’ worth of illegal contraband.
I was horrified by my family’s blatant disregard for the law. I was a rule follower, an indoor kid. My life until that point was about maintaining the appearance of being the perfect, obedient, grade-grubbing, piano-playing Asian daughter. I discovered early on, that if you are a small Asian girl with a serious demeanor and can pull off Moonlight Sonata passably well, most people just assume you are a musical prodigy and there’s no need to learn another song ever again. But not practicing piano was as far as my disobedience went. At fifteen, I’d suppressed any inkling of a rebellious nature, neatly stashing it away for a later date in the not‑so‑distant future.
My sanctuary from the pressures of home was Lucy’s house. Well, more specifically, Lucy’s room. I’d have to make it past her parents first. Through no fault of their own, I was absolutely terrified of her parents. Jane and Chris were exceedingly polite to me, always graciously offering me a place with the family at dinnertime. On the table, there would be pasta with pesto, homemade from the sweet basil that her father grew in the back garden, or a beautiful margherita pizza that her mother had just pulled out of the oven. The food looked and smelled amazing, but the mere thought of sitting through a Madison family dinner was enough to make me break out in hives. I was certain that there were rules to living of which I was woefully ignorant. I would say the wrong thing or accidentally spill food on myself. It was much better to avoid any situation that might reveal to outsiders just how uncouth and clueless I was. Instead, I would stammer, “No thanks . . . I’ve already eaten,” and run upstairs to hide out in Lucy’s room.
I was a graceless misfit in the real world, but somehow when I was alone with Lucy, I shed that awkward teenage skin. She laughed at my jokes, praised the little watercolors I painted, proudly displaying them on her bedroom wall. My best friend’s approval meant the world to me. I’d never met anyone like Lucy. She looked like a heroine from one of those old Victorian novels I’d loved so much growing up: perfect porcelain skin, a smattering of freckles, big blue eyes, and thick, wavy, chestnut-colored locks that she was always trying to tame, but that I thought were beautiful. She was the only fifteen-year-old I knew who kept a stack of New Yorkers at her bedside and actually read the articles, and not just the cartoons. Sometimes I felt like my brain had to work overtime just to keep up with her quick wit, but whatever minor insecurities I’d had about myself were assuaged by the fact that she laughed just as hard at my jokes.
With a partner in crime, high school wasn’t so bad. Still, Lucy and I fantasized about getting the hell out of the suburbs of Washington, DC, and moving to New York City. We would live together in an enormous, miraculously rent-controlled, pastel apartment just like the Golden Girls. We’d break hearts left and right, have a shared closet full of vintage Courrèges, and glorious shampoo-commercial locks attached to our heads. (Somehow, in this scenario, I always pictured us both as blondes.) Lucy would be an intrepid, pavement-pounding, power-suit-wearing, ball-busting lady writer, getting the inside scoop for the New York Times, or maybe Us Weekly — we couldn’t decide which would be more fun. I’d always wanted to be an artist, like my crazy uncle in Brussels, but it didn’t seem like the most realistic career choice, so I settled on the much more practical profession of fashion designer instead. With my friend as my muse, Women’s Wear Daily would shower me with hosannas, hailing me as the second coming of Alexander McQueen. Lucy would often indulge my artistic aspirations, gamely modeling some chiffon monstrosity that I’d tacked together with my remedial sewing skills, nodding in enthusiastic agreement when I suggested in all seriousness that yes, it could totally pass for Miu Miu.
My real life, the one where I could be the feckless dreamer with vaguely artistic aspirations, was back in Maryland with my best friend. But right now I was trapped in a teal Honda Odyssey at the Canadian border creeping toward impending doom. There were a few vehicles pulled over on the side of the road. We noticed that of all the drivers that had been stopped, the ones the federal agents were taking extra time with seemed to fit a certain . . . profile. They were all Asians. Families that looked just like mine, the contents of their cars being methodically rifled through and confiscated. I knew it was inevitable that we would be next. I could just see it:
me, my mom, my little brother, my aunt and my uncle in one of his many fishing-themed polo shirts (he wore only fishing- themed shirts that whole trip), and my cousins Tiffany and Kimberly, ages eight and seven, all facedown on the grass, with our hands cuffed behind our backs. The children would be sent to live with my grandpa Harold in the suburbs of Northern California, which was its own uniquely cruel form of punishment, and the adults (myself included) would be doomed to a life of hard labor in a rice paddy back in Nam. Probably
I had grown up on the stories of my mother and her sisters — how, as teenagers, they’d stolen away onto a rickety old fishing boat under the cover of darkness to escape Saigon after the war. My mom, along with dozens of strangers, was trapped inside a tiny wooden vessel. They spent many long days and nights in constantly roiling waves, the boat a mere speck floating in the middle of the South China Sea. All the while, she knew there was no guarantee that this was even her ticket out. If she and her sisters had been found by the wrong people and returned to Vietnam, they’d have most certainly suffered a years-long prison sentence. And not in a cushy Martha Stewart–style American prison, but a hot jungle “reeducation camp” where several of her family members were already serving time for fighting on the losing side. They were lucky; a few days into their journey, my mom and her sisters were rescued by a ship from Hong Kong and sent to a refugee camp in Singapore.
My mom speaks fondly of that time: she remembers the kindness of the Malaysian people, and, without fail, she always remarks on how clean the city was. It was also the place where she met and fell in love with my father, a fellow refugee, about a decade her senior. He was still skinny back then (this was before he’d discovered American cable television — more specifically, that perennial dad favorite: World War II documentaries on the Discovery Channel), with deeply golden caramel skin and killer cheekbones, a bit of the Bruce Lee about him. He had an open, easy demeanor, a smirk or a Marlboro cigarette dangling from his lips, always ready with a joke. He proved irresistible to my quiet, reserved mother. They made their way to America, got married, learned English, worked multiple jobs, and sacrificed for years until they had built a comfortable life in the suburbs of DC, which included yearly trips to visit my relatives in California and a fat, state‑of‑the-art laser disc karaoke system.
I remember helping my parents study for their citizenship test when I was in the fifth grade, the final hurdle to this almost two-decade-long journey. The exam was full of obscure questions to which no natural-born American citizen would ever have a reason to know the answer. We crammed for weeks, me quizzing them until they had committed those useless facts to memory. My parents both passed, and a few weeks later in a stadium with hundreds of people from every corner of the earth, with hands over their hearts, they recited the Pledge of Allegiance and became citizens. With that hard-won piece of paper, they also received new, easily pronounceable names, emerging from that stadium as Nancy and Timothy.
A few years later, they did the most American thing of all: they got a divorce.
It was our turn in line at the Canadian border. My mom turned to the four of us kids lined up in the back and communicated to us wordlessly with her best silent Asian tiger mom look: Don’t be a snitch. With mounting dread, I watched my uncle roll down the window to greet the border patrol officer, a wide, not‑at‑all-suspicious smile on his face. I was appalled. My mother had risked her life, scrimped, and saved — and yet she was willing to throw away all those years of sacrifice. I was an innocent bystander, and she was going to drag me down with her. I saw all of the things I would never do flashing before my eyes. I’d never graduate, or attend an overpriced art school and get a BFA in something practical like fiber arts or glassblowing. I’d never bleach my hair blond, or fall in love, and I’d never get to move to New York City with Lucy to do . . . something creative. I could say adios to all of my teenage aspirations. Hello, Hanoi Hilton!
The officer peered down at us, his eyes masked by the reflective glare of his aviator sunglasses. “What brings you to Canada?”
My uncle told him the truth: that we were on a mini road trip through the Great White North, hitting up five cities in two weeks. He presented our documents, passports for us and birth certificates for the little kids. Nothing unusual here, no sir. The officer examined the papers, and seeing that they were legit, returned them. One hurdle jumped; now, if he would just let us on our way. We were still a few hundred feet away from freedom.
“You folks wouldn’t have any food in here? Tropical fruit, for instance?”
“No sir!” My uncle shook his head dramatically, just like an innocent person with nothing to hide. My mom and aunt also were shaking their heads in unison. “We ate it all at the hotel,” they said. The border agent walked around our van, crammed to the gills with suitcases, stuffed animals, and brightly colored bedding splattered with images of princesses and purple dinosaurs, his suspicious eyes resting on the tiny Vietnamese children with shit-eating grins plastered across their faces.
“All right, then. We hope you folks had a nice visit in Canada. Please come back again.”
Once we were back on good old freedom-loving American soil, we let out exuberant cries of relief, cackling at how we had just pulled the wool over on those racial-profiling Canucks. Victory! When we were a safe distance from the checkpoint, my mom motioned for the kids to move. My cousins scuttled their little butts over and she pulled away the blanket that they had been sitting on, revealing the boxes stuffed full with pounds and pounds of forbidden fruit that we had just successfully smuggled back into the United States of America. My mom handed out bunches of plump, sweet, lychee nuts and we happily snacked on them on the long drive home.
I couldn’t understand it at the time — why would my family go to this much trouble for tropical fruit? For some reason, probably due to a healthy Chinese-immigrant population, Canada was rife with it. My mom, who was not prone to emphatic displays of any kind of emotion, was uncharacteristically exuberant. Niagara Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world — just okay. But a cardboard box of bruised mangosteen from the dumpy little corner grocery store in Chinatown? She was in ecstasy. That whole trip, my mom and aunt had been on a mission, seeking out the local Asian neighborhoods, sniffing out the food of their youth. They would come back to the hotel room laden with plastic bags heavy with fruits that looked alien and exotic to my uncultured eyes. I saw real lychee nuts for the first time, something that prior to this trip I had eaten only from a can, drowning in sugary syrup. They were fresh and still on the tree branch, with the most delicate, subtle flavor, clean like sweet water. These gems bore no resemblance to the overprocessed, cloyingly sweet, candied impostors I’d known. My favorite fruit was the rambutan, oddly cute and anthropomorphic, like a Miyazaki character, colored a brilliant raspberry red with spiny cilia emerging from it like a sea anemone. I had never seen my mom, who was normally cool and unflappable, giggle like this. She and her sister were giddy, practically drunk with joy over these tastes from Vietnam, from their childhood, which had up until that moment been just a distant memory. So they gorged themselves in Canada, and then, back home, they divided up the lucre to disperse to our vast network of Vietnamese expats, delivering these gifts like skinny, tan, Southeast Asian Santa Clauses.
My family wasn’t alone in its underground efforts to transport goods. Most Vietnamese people treat relatives, friends, and acquaintances traveling to Vietnam like their very own personal Federal Express. If someone goes back to the homeland, he or she polls the neighborhood and everyone puts in an order. You could get a beautifully embroidered, hand-beaded, custom-made silk wedding ao dai for a song; genius model airplanes crafted from old Heineken cans; DVDs from the future, of the latest Hollywood movies that hadn’t even premiered yet on American big screens; and some of the more esoteric food items that were impossible to find in the States. One year, Mom asked for dried bamboo. I couldn’t believe that this, of all the good things to eat in Vietnam, was what she’d asked her friend to carry back over thousands of miles of ocean. Reconstituted in water, it was disturbingly bronze and sinewy, just like Iggy Pop. We put it in soup with poached duck and a ginger dipping sauce, and after all the elements of that dish were put together, I had to admit, it was pretty good.
Every summer, we flew to California to visit my mother’s side of the family. My mom is one of ten children: seven daughters and three sons. Most of them married and had multiple children, so I always looked forward to these family reunions because there were so many cousins my own age to hang out with. Each year when we’d arrive, I was surprised by how tiny everyone was. I reached my full adult height by age fifteen, topping out at barely five foot three, but next to my bird-boned aunts I felt as large and ungainly as André the Giant. At these reunions, the whole family would congregate at my grandfather’s house in Northern California. He actually moved a few times during my childhood, but I could never tell the difference between the houses because they always felt exactly the same. Grandpa Harold (nè Ha, but he decided that the name Harold was easier for Americans to pronounce so he changed it legally) was a hoarder. Why buy just one pair of blue-jean overalls when you could buy ten pairs of blue-jean overalls? He applied this principle to nearly everything in his life, from antique swords and vintage naked lady oil paintings to purebred Chihuahuas and his own offspring.
Upon arrival, my aunts would inspect me and coo over how tall I’d grown, how enormous my size seven-and‑a‑half feet were, and point at a zit and inquire if I was washing my face with soap. And then they’d ask if I’d eaten. My mom’s sisters fussed around the kitchen, moving in this complex, synchronized dance to which only they knew the steps. Any outsider would know better than to try to intrude, and I was content to hover around the perimeter and watch as each sister performed her part of the meal with an effortless ease that I was too ignorant to appreciate at the time. They always ate well, but for these family reunions my aunts would cook something extra special. One of my favorite dishes was cha ca thang long. It started with small nuggets of catfish that were left to soak overnight in a marinade tinted a brilliant electric yellow by the freshly grated turmeric. No matter how careful you were, you always managed to find a way to splatter it onto your clothing, a small, unforgettable souvenir of that meal. One of my aunts would tend to the grill on the patio with a fan and a pair of wooden chopsticks, cooking the morsels of fish until they were just done, tender and flaky, with the tiniest hint of smoke from the charcoal. We would eat these with slender vermicelli noodles, pulled from the boiling water at just the right moment to retain that perfect amount of bounce, heaps of cooling dill, fish mint, Thai basil from my grandma’s garden, and crushed roasted peanuts, all drowned in a piquant fish sauce, bright with lime juice and red chiles. Sometimes we’d wrap the whole thing in gossamer-thin rice paper wrappers. Other years, there would be a crispy rice cracker with black sesame seeds, toasted over the flame of a gas burner until the edges were tinged golden brown. We’d sit on one of Harold’s many sectional sofas, with a plate piled high with food, and my aunts would make fun of me for holding my chopsticks like a white person. But I didn’t care — the food was so good.
In the mornings, I would wake to the crowing of Harold’s rooster. I’d spend the day exploring the grounds, digging through the garage for hidden treasures, picking persimmons from one of dozens of fruit trees, collecting fresh eggs, and feeding the chickens, ducks, and fighting roosters that he kept for fun. “But Grandpa, isn’t that illegal?” I’d ask, always the rule follower. He’d just shrug and say, “Not if the police don’t know about it.” The highlights of our days were mealtimes, punctuated by the occasional trip to various Asian grocery stores where my mom would stock up on specialties that she couldn’t get back home in Silver Spring.
On our way back to Maryland, at the airport I would help my mom unload the luggage from my uncle’s car. There would be the regular hodgepodge of mismatched suitcases that we’d arrived with, alongside the falling-apart paper shopping bags filled with a lunch that my aunt had packed for us so that we wouldn’t have to eat the dreaded plane food. Underneath the suitcases was always a new addition for our journey east: some years it would be an enormous cardboard box, wrapped up in layers of duct tape, with our names and home address written on all sides in giant block letters. This year, I noted with mounting concern, it was a big orange plastic cooler, the kind that people bring to a tailgate party. It was obvious that whatever was in there wasn’t going to be cans of Budweiser and bratwurst.
And then, not for the first time or last, I asked myself:
Why couldn’t we travel like normal people? I envied those cool American families I’d see at the airport, seasoned travelers with sassy, matching rolling suitcases. I wouldn’t even mind joining the ranks of those idiots who brought along full-size bed pillows and stuffed animals, as that was a common enough sight to be almost acceptable behavior. At least they didn’t look like they were emigrating from the homeland every time they boarded a plane.
Cautiously, I asked my mom, “What’s in the box?”
“Ga di bo.”
“Ga di bo.”
I know the word for ga; it means “chicken.” But di bo? That translates to . . .
“The chicken that walks?”
“Yes. The chicken that walks.”
While I was busy taking my grandpa’s electric wheelchair for joyrides to Round Table Pizza with my cousins, my mom and my aunts were at the farm store where Harold bought all his livestock. They had come home with twenty-four live young chickens. These were slender, free-range, organic birds, hence the “di bo” part. They weren’t supersized and pumped up on steroids like their American brethren, and they tasted almost exactly the same as the chickens my mom grew up eating in Vietnam. I never heard a peep from these birds, because my mom and her sisters spent the afternoon in the garage chopping off their heads, plucking their feathers, and packing them in this crazy box for her to take home to Maryland.
Parents will embarrass you. I knew that. I’d read most of the Judy Blume oeuvre, after all. But I felt like my family had that extra edge that went above and beyond the usual teenage humiliation. Most people did not live like this. Lucy’s family certainly didn’t. I was pretty certain that the Madisons bought their chickens in grocery stores. In Maryland. Their luggage was filled with clothing, books, and toiletries — not frozen poultry. I had reached new depths of embarrassment, ones previously unknown to me. Either I could sit here and quietly die of humiliation, or I could let go and accept my fate. These chickens, and all the dishes that my mom would make with them, were a reminder of the place where she had grown up. She knew it was a little weird, but my mom didn’t care what other people thought. And, as it turned out, I didn’t really care either. The only person whose opinion mattered to me was Lucy. She would probably laugh at the situation, but she’d be laughing right alongside me, not at me. Besides, you couldn’t go to jail for transporting poultry across state lines. Temporary teenage mortification aside, if the payoff was a few weeks’ worth of delicious meals, it was totally worth it. I couldn’t wait to see how this played out.
We hauled that cooler onto the scale and I propped my arms on the counter and watched as the travel agent took down our flight information.
When the woman asked, “What’s in the box?” I leaned in.
“Twenty-four frozen chickens.”
And then, my mom caught my eye, and I think I detected the barest hint of a smile.
For me, this is the ultimate comfort food, the Vietnamese version of chicken soup. It’s what my mother would make for me whenever I was ill. I could expect a cool hand on my forehead, a warm bowl of this rice porridge, and a not-too-gentle scolding for getting sick in the first place. But this dish should not be limited to invalids. After trudging through the snow in subzero weather, the kind of cold that turns your skin red and raw and instantly transforms your mascara into crunchy little icicles, there is nothing better than coming home to this for dinner.
This soup is also a great way to really show off the charms of a quality free-range, organic chicken and it uses all the parts of the whole bird in a really satisfying manner. The chicken is poached gently in a broth with aromatic ginger and onions for sweetness, and then the meat is removed from the bones and added to a tangy cabbage slaw that is served alongside the porridge, resulting in a simple dish that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. The addition of the slaw may seem unusual, but it adds a lovely crunch and brightness and a welcome verdant green from a generous handful of herbs.
*Vietnamese mint, also called rau ram, has a distinctive earthy, herbaceous flavor. It is available in many Southeast Asian grocery stores, but feel free to substitute mint or Thai basil if you can’t track it down.
In a large stockpot, bring the chicken broth, water, chicken, onion, ginger, and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and reaches an internal temperature of 160˚F when pierced with a meat thermometer. Remove the chicken from the pot and plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking. After it has cooled enough to handle, shred the chicken and reserve the meat for the slaw. Return the bones to the pot and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
While the stock is bubbling away on the stove, prepare the slaw. In a colander placed over a large bowl, toss the shredded cabbage with . teaspoon salt and let sit for at least 20 minutes to draw the excess water from the cabbage. In a small bowl, soak the sliced onion in cold water to take the edge off. Let sit for at least 10 minutes and then drain thoroughly.
In a small bowl, assemble the dressing by whisking together the lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chili, and garlic. In another large bowl, toss the reserved poached chicken, cabbage, onion, cilantro, Vietnamese mint, and dressing together. Let the slaw rest about 30 minutes prior to serving to allow the flavors time to meld. Add fish sauce to taste.
In a separate skillet, lightly toast the rice on medium-low heat, stirring frequently to keep from burning, for about 5 minutes, or until the rice is a lovely pale blond. Add the toasted rice to the stock. Here it will make the most satisfying sizzling sound. Simmer on low, partially covered, for an additional 40 minutes, or until the rice is tender and falling apart. Fish out the bones, onion, and ginger. Add the chopped scallions. Season to taste with salt.
In a small saucepan, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and fry, taking care to stir frequently so they do not burn, for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain.
Ladle the rice soup into six deep bowls, topping with a generous portion of slaw. Garnish with fried shallots and fresh cracked black pepper. Serve immediately with lime wedges.
To assemble the marinade, in a large bowl, mix together 3 tablespoons of the oil, the shallots, garlic, galangal, fish sauce, sugar, and turmeric. Add the catfish, coating each piece with the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.
Preheat the broiler on high for 5 minutes. Place a wire rack atop a baking sheet and oil lightly. Arrange the catfish pieces on the wire rack and season with pepper. Discard the remaining marinade. Broil on high for 6 to 10 minutes, until the fish is beginning to turn golden brown. Flip the pieces over and broil the other side an additional 6 to 10 minutes, until golden brown in places and the fish flakes easily with a fork.
While the fish is broiling, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the dill and scallions and cook for about 3 minutes, until wilted.
For the nuoc cham, in a small bowl, mix together the fish sauce, lime juice, water, sugar, garlic, and chili. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
In a small pan, dry roast the peanuts over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are lightly toasted and fragrant. Give them a little toss every once in a while, and monitor closely to prevent burning. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and crush lightly. If you do not have a mortar and pestle, a plastic bag and something heavy to pound the peanuts with works just as well.
To serve, arrange a bed of wilted dill and scallions on a platter, and then place the broiled fish atop the greens. Garnish with crushed roasted peanuts and serve with rice vermicelli, lettuce, herbs, and nuoc cham to taste.