(Tôn-Thất Quỳnh-Du dịch từ truyện “Thực Đơn Chủ Nhật” của Phạm Thị Hoài)
On Sundays I visited grandma in her attic, a room windowless except for a ventilation hole in the wall where a brick had been removed just above grandpa’s altar, as if to give grandpa some fresh air. Through the opening you could see white clouds floating outside, just like TV. Grandma lay on two timber planks placed next to each other and laid across a stack of Buddhist prayer books and tiny trunks among a collection of jars, bottles, sandals, thongs, a lime pot, mouldy oranges, a fine china potty and a cheap plastic one. She spread herself grandly over her possessions, watching the clouds floating past. A stick of incense, which I lit for grandpa every week, was enough to fill this tiny matchbox of a room up with smoke.
I said to her, ‘Last week on Monday we had Chicken with Golden Flowers, on Tuesday it was Phoenix Embryo, Dragon’s Beard for Wednesday, Golden Sand Abalone for Thursday, Hibiscus Fried Crab on Friday, White Bird Returning to Nest on Saturday and today, Sunday, we had Duck with Holothurian.’ On each visit I told her a different menu so that, until her two timber planks were used for another purpose, she could rest assured that her aristocratic culinary heritage hadn’t been a waste. My mother used to work in a state-owned restaurant, but she now ran a food stall serving cyclo drivers. Every Sunday she gave me two 5,000-dong notes and said, ‘You can take the day off. Go and travel with grandma.’ Grandma and I would travel back a whole lifetime, further and further back in time until we came face to face with a red lacquered tray of food covered with a muslin cloth. For my part, I tried to prove a worthy companion by talking about culinary dishes, the substance of which I was not sure, but the names of which sounded like they had been conjured up by someone in the Sino-Vietnamese Academy. I would quietly place the two 5,000-dong notes on grandpa’s altar – somehow it seemed more polite to make a donation to the dead than to the living – then I’d withdraw, leaving grandma in her own world with the stuffed bean sprouts of her glorious turn-of-the-century haute cuisine.
Our cyclo-driver food was soupy in summer and fatty in winter, but throughout the year the essential staple was pickled vegetables and fried tofu. For variety, sometimes we would have fish or meat, shrimp, an omelette or stir-fried vegetables. Everything that mother had learnt from her stint with the state-owned restaurant proved very useful: her soup was diluted by a ratio of three to one, fish sauce at five to one, her omelettes were as fluffy as the pillows on a wedding night, and the modest slices of meat were always displayed conspicuously as if they were offerings to the gods. When mother decided to open this eatery, I thought, Oh no, what a shame, Mother’s culinary art, which our family had suffered for 20 years, was about to be inflicted upon the public! Mother told me, ‘If Grandma asks, tell her that we have opened a specialty cuisine restaurant.’ On the second day of the previous New Year, Mother made a special effort to cook a mushrooms-in-aspic dish and told me to take it to Grandma. When Grandma upturned the dish onto a plate, the sloppy jelly wobbled but luckily it stayed in one piece. Normally, Mother’s aspic jelly is so runny that I would faint just looking at it. I was pleased and waited for grandma to eat it, but she didn’t. Instead, she said, ‘Take it back to your mother and tell her to use a fine cloth as a sieve to drain the pork skin first; the peppers should be roasted lightly – swirl them around twice only in a hot pan; the mushrooms should be pared right to the base; and tell her to stop trying to poison me with indiscriminate use of gourmet powder.’ I threw the lot into Hoan Kiem Lake on the way home but told Mother that Grandma had enjoyed it. I wanted to bring mother and grandma a little closer; cyclo driver food served on a red-lacquered tray would mark the beginning of a new trend in culinary fashion.
But I worried unnecessarily. Mother knew herself that she’s not the best daughter-in-law that ever lived, and never pretended to be so. Her motto was ‘sacrifice for the people’ – 200 dongs would buy something; the most expensive dish was 1,500 – and customers came flocking to us in such numbers that there weren’t enough tables and chairs for them all and they overflowed onto the footpath. From outside looking in, all you saw was a crowd of people noisily chomping their food and a blur of chopsticks flying from their dipping sauce to their mouth and back again; dipping, licking, dipping – quite an amusing sight. All the work was done by just the three of us: Mother, me and Thai, a cousin from my father’s side living in the Buoi area. Thai did all the heavy work, such as drawing water, carrying the pots, disposing of the rubbish, lighting the fires, washing up, and maintaining order because our clientele were not the gentle folk who would chew their food gently for fear of hurting the grains of rice. A couple of drinks, a few peanuts, or a piece of tofu, any minor thing out of place and anything could start and nobody could tell what might happen. Thai didn’t like his work, except the keeping order. As soon as any trouble began to brew, he’d be right in there, machete in hand, and if Mother tried to calm him down he’d sulk and go into the kitchen to piss into the pot of soup. Mother was frightened that sacking him may be worse, so she tried to put up with him and occasionally even gave him money, telling him to go to those karaoke inns to have a good time because if he was to pour out his heart at our eatery it’d be like spitting into the face of our clientele, not a polite thing to do. He sang only one song, ‘Sad Autumn Afternoons’. I told Grandma that our specialty restaurant employed a special security guard who has been to Japan to study, who in one breath can say a whole Japanese phrase, Karaoke-toshiba-ajinomoto-toyota-honda-yamaha-mitsubishi-ohayo-tokyo. Grandma said that it sounded better than merci beaucoup. She blamed the French for the corruption of the Vietnamese cuisine.
I took great care not to mention foods such as roti, farcies, together with butter, milk, sausages and bacon so as not to offend shake her onion, garlic and fish-sauce flavoured patriotism. Mother’s crime was worse than that of the French. Her crime was that of destruction. I guessed when the time came, Grandma would take with her the fine china potty with the figures of beautiful Chinese goddesses to protect her Eastern cultural heritage, and bequeath the cheap plastic one to us, children of an era that the Sino-Vietnamese Academy would describe as a period of mongrelisation, from food intake to waste output.
Mother and I shared the remaining tasks. When shopping, she bargained and I carried the basket. When cooking, she took care of the preparation and I the implementation. And at precisely ten-thirty every day she ensconced herself behind the counter while I worked the tables taking orders and helping Thai wash up. When the place became too crowded, I helped serve up the rice and vegetables. She took sole control of high-protein dishes, as she felt I was too young, and out of pride I might serve too generously and send us all bankrupt. She sliced the meat so evenly, not one piece any thicker or thinner than the others. Fish and tofu were the same, and dried shrimps were measured by the teacup. Mother said these items were hardware, about which we had to be tough, whereas the less expensive items such as rice, soup, vegetables and sauces were software, where we could show a little generous spirit from time to time to make our customers feel special. I guessed that Thai had divulged this insider knowledge to the goods-cyclo drivers from Buoi. When they came they would order just rice and vegetables to have with the dried fish they’d brought themselves, and always asking for more dipping sauce with lots of lemon and chilli, and once they even complained when the sauce was a little thin. In the end, Mother spooned a ladle of gourmet powder into the dipping sauce bowl and said to me ‘Every line of work has its own pains, but to live happily you have to learn to be accepting.’ I feared that the cyclo drivers from Buoi might get poisoned, so I secretly added a few spoonfuls of rau muong juice with a dash of lemon to the bowls of dipping sauce, because at home whenever I caught a cold or an upset stomach mother would say ‘Drink a bowl of rau muong juice and it will go away.’
If things had continued on in this way there would have been nothing for me to complain about. I had no dreams of working in those places where I’d be a tight skirt wiggling my pretty bottom among white-napkined tables, and where the aperitif was a menu in three languages. The girls of my age working in those places always looked so proud, their lips so wet, as if they were kissed all day long. I wondered what it would feel like to be kissed. At our food stall, Mother and I were the only women. The rest were men, and rough men at that. I got my fair share of pinches on the bottom, but kisses were rare. Thai was a crude, rough and sulky man. Sometimes he went overboard and chased me into the kitchen and dropped eggs down my blouse just to watch me panic and take off my blouse to save the eggs from breaking. That’s about as far as he got. It was not a happy place but it’s not a depressing place either. Sometimes I felt quite close to the customers as if I had shared my meals with them all my life. Our meals weren’t always the best but they certainly were filling. In any case, our customers were busy people constantly on the move, without a moment of leisure even at mealtimes, and their zest for life was infectious.
Many of them were quite unpleasant to look at, squatting down on their haunches as if on a toilet, picking their teeth with the scratching movements of a market-sweeper, cursing freely and with almost unbearable crudeness, but Mother said ‘The customer is always right. Even if they shit right there, we’d still have to put up with it and smile, my child.’ I had to acknowledge that the world-view of the harsh and sharp-tongued former state-run trader had gained a certain humorous and humanistic edge.
The days floated past in a crazier fashion than the clouds drifting in the tivi at Grandma’s. From ten thirty onwards there wasn’t enough time to think about anything. Only in the mornings, squatting down at work in the kitchen, did I have time to mindlessly recite to myself the Sunday menus so that I could look at the pots without cold shivers shooting up my spine. I knew for a fact that today’s soup was yesterday’s soup disguised by freshly chopped shallots, and yesterday’s was really the day before’s; that inside that pot over there, happily simmering away and gently browning to a mahogany colour, were the 2.1 kilos of rotten, fly-blown meat bought at the market at the end of the day – the flies and their egg-sacks dotted that piece of meat like black beans and sesame seeds. But our customers led such busy lives that food never stayed in their mouth for long, and nobody had the time to discern yesterday’s soup in today’s soup. I simply sat and recited to myself my Sunday menu Moonlit Flowers, Magnolia Palace Fish balls, Snow White Soup, Chicken with Holothurian, … which helped to overcome the shivers threatening to travel up my spine. I didn’t know what a holothurian was but I had heard that it’s quite nutritious. And if it’s nutritious it’s good, on this both Mother and Grandma agreed.
That’s all. I am not difficult like Grandma, not insouciant like Mother. Grandma’s turn-of-the-century and Mother’s end-of-the-century culinary art agreed in another aspect as well: they both tried to deceive the eaters. Grandma’s fish bladder was exaggerated to become dragons’ beard. Mother’s fish balls were overfilled with flour. Grandma satisfied them by ear and eye, Mother by filling up their stomachs. They both respected protein highly. When my turn comes in the twenty-first century, I might combine their methods of deception to immortalise both Mother and Grandma in my own food fashion which could be called ‘Vietnamese Blend of Old and New Culinary Art’. I will massage the ears, the eyes, the stomach and the pride of all my eaters. In the end, it’s always the pride of the customers that’s the most difficult to satisfy, not my pride. And I’ll write a cookbook teaching many things more useful than all of those cookbooks that I read in Ha Noi’s library on Sundays before going to see Grandma to make my weekly menu report.
Just as our cyclo driver food stall began to prosper, just as my mother’s culinary talents began to reach their peak and just as I was about to finish all the cookbooks in the Ha Noi library, the police arrived in great numbers and raided our eatery as a part of their ‘Keep the City Clean and Beautiful’ campaign. They took everything to the police station. I came out of the kitchen and saw mother throwing herself on the ground, rolling over the broken bowls among the puddles of gray and green crab soup, the reddish crab eggs stuck in her hair like sequins. It was quite early and no customers were around. Thai picked up a hose and began to hose down the mess of spilled food on the ground as if he was washing a motorbike, each spray accompanied by a curse, ‘Bloody Clean City’, ‘Bloody Beautiful City’. The whole street turned into a huge pot of combination soup. Mother picked herself up laughing hysterically, the crab eggs that were embedded in her hair quivering in rhythm with her laughter.
With nothing to do that day, I went to see Grandma. She used me as a calendar so she said ‘I just blinked my eyes and it’s Sunday again.’ It was actually Wednesday. I didn’t correct her, letting her think she had lived longer than she had, and proceeded to make my usual Sunday menu report. ‘Last week we had White Cranes Saluting Flags, Orchid Chicken, and Snow Flakes of Beef Balls …. ’ Usually after each item she would just acknowledge ‘Uh-huh’. I guessed she wouldn’t know any of them. The books I used were recent editions, most of them written by southerners; more modern in their approach to cooking (they use mushrooms, bacon and coriander in every dish). In his book Customs of Vietnam, Phan Ke Binh, a turn-of-the-century scholar, said that ‘We don’t lack the rare and precious ingredients, but our ways of cooking are still very clumsy, our cooks are mostly servants who simply copy what has been done before, as long as it’s edible it’s OK, none of us can really be bothered to learn the high art of cooking.’ Mother also said ‘I don’t know about her repertoire. I can whip something up from whatever is there, but her repertoire is quite limited really: a couple of stir fry dishes, shark fins and braised ducks, that’d be the lot.’ So on Sundays, each time grandma said ‘Uh-huh’ I was happy, partly because I was helping to erase mother’s crime, partly because my menu was appreciated by someone else besides me. In this matchbox of a room filled with incense smoke, with clouds floating past the ventilation hole, a dish that I borrowed from someone else’s ideas was enough to nourish us for a week. Perhaps I was making her turn-of-the-century more glorious that it actually was. Perhaps her turn-of-the-century made my upcoming millennium look crasser that it actually is.
I’m not introspective, I’m not sad, just occasionally a little confused, because each person belongs to an era in a natural way, like every painting has its own frame, and I don’t know which frame I belong to. I am always in between this frame and that frame, nothing is settled. That’s all. I am not difficult like Grandma, not insouciant like Mother.
When I got to the dish of Steamed Quails in Holothurian Juice, Grandma didn’t say ‘Uh-huh’. I looked at her and an unusual smile on her face made me feel a little uneasy. What if she asked what a holothurian was? Then perhaps both of us would feel awkward, not knowing what to say. She didn’t ask, but kept on smiling and said gently ‘Holothurians, yes, those sea cucumbers, they should be soaked in the juice of field crabs before serving.’
I felt relieved; at least there would have been a holothurian in her black muslin-covered, red-lacquered tray. But I still didn’t know what a holothurian was. I waited for her to elaborate but she said nothing further, so I bent down and looked closely at her face for a while and then fled outside and ran away. At the Hoan Kiem Lake I remembered that I hadn’t locked the door, so I ran back. Grandma was still lying there, spreading over her possessions looking at the clouds floating outside. I hesitated for a while and then stepped inside and closed her eyes for her. Now she could close her eyes for a moment and in a blink it would be the end of the century. But that’s not what was important, what was important was that this was Sunday, the next day was Sunday and so was the day after. I strained to lift a corner of one timber plank, removed a prayer book from underneath and placed it in her hand. The plank wobbled but that didn’t matter. The prayer book now propped up her soul instead of her body. And her soul was also grand. I lit a whole bunch of incense to keep her smelling nice and went home, locking the door after me.
At our stall Thai was sitting by himself singing ‘Sad Autumn Afternoons’. Mother had probably gone to the local police station with a full packet of Triple Fives imported cigarettes. We didn’t know what to do so we went inside the kitchen. Thai dropped many eggs down the neckline of my blouse. I let him help me catch the eggs for the whole sad afternoon. I will definitely get married one day. In devastating times like this if there was a smell of a man around, and if there was a bit of kissing, it’d make the day pass quickly.
Many days passed. Each day I went to visit grandma in the morning and played eggs with Thai in the afternoon. I had gone through all the cookbooks and now I began to remove those polite five-thousand-dong notes from Grandpa’s altar to buy plates of specialty food for Grandma. Real specialty food. Each day a different dish. I went to those places where the young girls with tight skirts worked.
They were all similar, offering the same twenty or thirty dishes named in three languages, quite different to but not as richly varied as my Sino-Vietnamese Sunday menus. I conquered their deficiency by adding mushrooms, bacon and coriander to all of their dishes. ‘Grandma, today there’s Golden Chicken Happily Returning to Water’. ‘Today’s dish is Five Coloured Spring Flowers.’ ‘Today there’s Eight Precious Ingredients in Lotus Leaf.’ She was always happy. When old people say nothing like that it means that they are happy, and I even ventured my unsolicited opinions. My view is that when people manipulate food so obviously, taking care so that the bright orange of the carrots stands in prominent contrast with the green of the cucumbers, when the prawn crackers straddle nakedly over a bright white flower, I find it all a little under-dressed. My view is that to disembowel a duck to put a chicken inside it, a pigeon inside the chicken, all cooked inside a huge melon is madness, madness copied and exaggerated to the point of becoming clichéd. My view is that to love food doesn’t mean carving minutiae on useless tomatoes, nor does it mean stuffing tiny bean sprouts with meat, and as for Mother’s culinary art, it’s nothing but pure violence. Destruction. To love food is a far cry from worshipping protein. Very different from giving it exaggerated names. To love food demands a great deal of genuine gentleness from both sides.
My view is that …. There’s nothing much to my views anyhow. All my brave and bold theory is based on cyclo-driver food wrapped in the pages of Hanoi Library’s cookbooks and placed in a red-lacquered tray. That’s all. I don’t even know what a holothurian is.
But Grandma couldn’t see my embarrassment. The incense smoke curled thick and the flies swarmed black. Each time I opened the door I stepped to one side to allow a thick black rain of flies out, taking with them a little bit of her and a little bit of my offerings. I lit a lot of incense, placed another specialty dish on the floor, by now covered by innumerable dishes, sat down and began my menu report. I couldn’t see her clearly, she seemed a little more grandly bloated, bursting at the seams of her clothes, destined to disintegrate tomorrow, to be taken away by flies and ants on a trip back in time for a whole lifetime. She seemed to lean towards the colour of Buddha, with her white chiffon blouse having gone almost brown. On her smile there seemed to have blossomed a purple flower.
By the time the last of the five-thousand-dong notes was spent, there was no more room on the floor to place another specialty dish. Grandma was lying on the floor. Her face was turned towards the door waiting for me, her mouth next to a bowl of shark-fin soup. A terrible flow of slime oozed from her mouth to the bowl, or was it rising from the bowl to her mouth? I couldn’t tell. I tried not to panic, asking her to return to her old place, to turn around to watch the clouds floating past Grandpa, it’s better that way, lying down like this is no way to enjoy a banquet. But the two wobbly timber planks had collapsed upon her possessions. The feather-light goddesses of her fine china potty lay shattered. I closed my eyes tight. When I opened them again I saw millions of busy maggots.
I rushed outside and ran home. I ran to the kitchen looking for Thai but he wasn’t there. There were only broken eggs, as the afternoon before we had been a little too vigorous in our play and eggs broke all over my body. Mother took the opportunity to sack Thai and sent him back to Buoi village. Perhaps in the future he might take up driving a goods-cyclo. I told Mother that Grandma wished to have another mushroom in aspic dish. This time I would cook it for Mother to bring it to Grandma, so that Mother and Grandma could become a little closer. I had already completed the funeral banquet and now the final offering should be made by Mother and witnessed by Grandpa. What’s more, Mother knew what to do with the two timber planks. I used a fine cloth as a sieve to drain the pork skin first; I roasted the peppers lightly – two shakes in a hot pan only; and I pared the mushrooms right to the base…
Mother went to see Grandma. With nothing to do I sat down and sang the song I had heard Thai sing, jumping from line to line at random. In empty times like this singing a half-remembered song helps make the day pass.
The following week the beautification campaign stopped and our cyclo driver food stall opened again.
Tôn-Thất Quỳnh-Du dịch từ truyện tiếng Việt “Thực Đơn Chủ Nhật”, tác giả Phạm Thị Hoài