Rice Paper Rolls

It was his mother that had taught him, long ago in the confines of the big house nestled away in the mountains far away from anything. She had spent time in Vietnam when she was a girl, she had told him. She had a kindly servant who had shown her things. A boy not much older than she was who had been assigned to look after her. To follow her around and pick up after her. At that time she wasn’t aware of the power she had over him so came to look on him as a friend. A companion. And he, although knowing her status, regarded her as someone to feel sorry for, far away from her home with no one to talk to but him and the birds despite the wealth bestowed upon her. The servant boy had taught her many things about touch and taste; but it was the making of the rice paper rolls that she carried with her and later taught her son.

They had lived, him and his mother, in the big house far from anything for a time that was indeterminate. He thinks he was born there but cannot be sure. He thinks he left when he was almost a full man, but that again, he cannot be sure.

He prepares his work space with care. First wiping the marble counter top with bleach to disinfect, then cleaning it again with soap and water, before washing all the suds off and drying with a soft leather cloth. He washes the knife, a wide fat cleaver with wooden handle, then dries it and oils the wood, making sure to get the oil into each groove, each crevice, to protect the wood from age and bowing.

When his mother taught him she told him that everything must be clean. You cannot start to cook with a dirty kitchen or the food will be poisoned. He imagined tiny mites living in dirty places would bubble up, thousands of them reaching up and out of his mouth wrapping their poisoned fingers around his throat.

She showed him how to use the cleaver, how it was only dangerous if it was blunt, she made him practice slicing again and again. Making him go faster each time, slicing the vegetables thinner and thinner until his hand ached from gripping the knife so tight. She would ignore him if he complained. If he misjudged the width and caught flesh instead of carrot. She would wipe away the blood and tell him to keep going. Everything had to be done right. There was to be nothing wasted.

He slices the cucumber first, pieces as thin as matchsticks, twice the length. Then the lettuce, herbs. He has to prepare these just right before he can move on. The rhythm soothes him. The gentle slicing; orderly and uniform.

She had shown him how to boil water in a low wide pan and submerge the noodles, separating the clumps with a fork. She would fish them out, and rinse with cold water. Allowing the water in the pan to cool, and how, when the brittle rice paper was emersed, it would soften. Turning translucent and visceral. Floating skin.

He places the ingrediants in their own small dishes, which will enable him to work quickly once the noodles and paper are ready. Lettuce, cucumber, green mango, mint and coriander. The flavours of freshness.

He boils the pan, places the noodles in the water and starts to stir until they seem to take on a life of their own, slowly spinning. He drains them, keeping the water aside for his next step and steps over to the freezer that is quietly buzzing in the corner of the kitchen.

He lifts the lid and smiles. Pleased with how he has been able to preserve her. She would be happy that nothing was wasted.

He is careful, when using the cleaver, not to cut too far. He slices on an angle to only cut what he needs. To not slice too far in and collect flesh that will make the rolls too bitter. He only needs the top few layers, the micrometers that won’t need much soaking to regain their suppleness. He returns to the stove with what he needs, submerging it into the water for a few seconds until the translucency returns. Floating skin.

He rests it on a paper towel, lines with mint and coriander, filling with noodles, vegetables, a tiny sprinkling of ground rice before starting to fold. Just like Mother taught him.

He calls out to say they are ready; knowing there is no one there to hear him.