You are how you eat

This morning, my cousin Thảo drove us down the road on her motor cycle to the market near her home. We took our time with our plate of Bánh cuốn, before going through each stand to pick only the freshest ingredients for dinner’s meal. Bánh cuốn is a dish that my mom loves to buy on those lazy Sunday mornings where cooking just seems like too much of an endeavor. We’d usually stop by the super market on our home from Sunday service to pick up a few boxes. In Portland, you can buy the dish pre-boxed with all the necessary fixings for the meal: sliced cucumbers, herbs, fish sauce. This was the first time I’ve seen the dish made fresh.

As we walked around the busy streets of the market place, she points out all the places she goes for her daily grocery runs. The streets are filled with people: those who are trying to make a living off the few produce they can sell, and those who, like us- were just trying to find dinner’s ingredients. Thảo walks around to her usual stands. She buys two tomatoes and some herb from one stand. At the next stand, where seafood was sold, she points out the squids she wants, and it’s quickly cleaned, prepared and packaged for her. She stops at another stand for her eggs. And another for fruit: pineapple, dragon fruit, and longan. Thảo explained to me the art of picking where to buy your produce. Too big of an operation could mean they’re a middle man selling you what they bought from another farmer. You can’t trust that they can speak for cleanliness of the food’s origin. It’s usually the smaller stands that’ll have the best things. Here, each produce being sold is limited to just the few that the family was able to grow in it’s small garden. None of the food she bought was frozen or pre-packaged, and she knew every seller by name. (And no, this wasn’t fueled by some organic, non-GMO, free range, crunchy granola cuffed jean hipster fad- this was just how people lived.) She buys exactly what she needs, nothing more nothing less. When fridge space is limited, market places are a few minutes away, and fresh ingredients are a priority, it’s normal for families to make visiting the market place a part of their daily ritual.

The place was busy, yet there was something truly simple about it all. The interactions, the laughters, the universal desire to eat and to make a living, the lady who takes her time to pick the freshest leaves or fruit for you, or the lady who pushes you to buy a little more than you need- it’s all part of their daily lives. I did my touristy thing of course: bought a Banh Mi, and dove right into the crispy crust of the sandwich without a blink. But deep down, I felt at home. I thought back to my time with JVCNW. Perhaps the simple life I’ve been longing for is fueled by a deeper calling from the simple lives my heritage comes from. Where the important things- like what you eat, was more than just the dish in front of you. It’s about the process: how you get your food, the people you interact with while doing it, the cooking, the people you cook with, the people you share your meal with. I guess you aren’t just what you eat. It seems as though, more importantly, you are how you eat.

Bánh cuốn with Thảo
Man prepares fresh pineapple
Ben Thanh Market
Cathedral with my uncle
Post Office in Saigon
My aunt doing laundry