My parents always had a garden at every house that I can remember growing up in, the gardens were full of tomato plants, various herbs, bitter melon, and different squashes (that I only know the name of in Vietnamese). My brother and I would be running around playing while my parents tended to their herbs and vegetables, which would always end up on the dinner table every night.
It was during high school that I distinctly remember when my love affair with food began there was one day when my mother called me out to help her pick tomatoes and herbs in the garden to prepare for that night’s dinner, it was mid-summer and our garden looked overgrown, we picked several colanders full of tomatoes, and a large basket of green onions, Thai basil, mint, lettuce heads, and sorrel leaves. My mom had invited my aunt, uncles, cousins, and grandmother over for a meal of summer rolls, but we just called them cuốn (rolls).
Cuốn is much different than the spring or summer rolls (whatever restaurants are calling them these days) that you would get as an appetizer in a Vietnamese restaurant or some trendy Asian fusion place. Having cuốn for dinner is more of a social event for my family. Some things are similar, like the foundation of a rice paper and vermicelli noodles, unlike being pre-wrapped for you in restaurants, it is more of a D.I.Y situation.
The rice paper sits beside a tub of hot water, waiting to be bloomed. In the middle of the table there is a hot grill with all sorts of marinated meats and seafood – for my family, it’s almost always lemongrass & garlic beef, salmon, and octopus. Large bowls filled with lettuce and fresh garden herbs sit at both ends of the table alongside bowls of vermicelli noodles. At every plate, there is a small dipping bowl of nuoc mam (fish sauce diluted with lime, sugar, garlic, chilis, and water).
During dinner, there’s a lot of “Can you please pass the …”, “Mom can you dip the rice paper for me …”, “Don’t forget to add vegetables”, “Are you sure you’re full? Eat more”. Dinners like this happen very often in my family, it’s always shown me that food is to be enjoyed with the people you love. These experiences also revealed that food brings people together, and though at the time I was not aware of this, I think in some subtle way it’s been etched in my subconscious.
I’m glad my mother was so adamant about family dinners and grateful that we always had fresh greens on our table. Now that I live with my boyfriend without access to my parents’ gardens I do miss it, but I always stock up on weekend visits!
So, thanks mom for everything from forcing teenage-me to have family dinners to showing us that having a fresh garden is priceless!