When I was in elementary school, my whole family were busy so we rarely had meals together. Usually when I went home from school, I would eat first with my grandmother to have time to study and then go to bed early. My mother came home from work late, so my father would wait for my mom and eat together later. My uncle and my cousin lived in the same house, but we all cooked our own food. In general, our life at that time was still hard and with a kid like me, relationships and contacts with many individuals in the big family made me feel too complicated because I still did not understand why adults had so many principles and reasons to get apart.
This routine continued until I finished secondary school. When I reached high school, my uncle moved out. My cousin’s family had two small children and still cooked their own meals. But at that time I was able to take care of my homework, so I often waited for Mom to come home and dined with Grandma, Dad, and Mom. When I ate, Grandma told me again and again to “chew the rice without opening mouth widely”, “and even if the foods are so good, don’t let other hear your smacking noise because it was not polite”, “focus on eating and don’t talk”… But Grandma was the person who talked the most at the table (I felt happy so I just listened to what Grandma said without retorting her). Grandma often told stories of the past. My parents always picked up food for Grandma, for me, and to tell each other to eat what was left on the plate. Needless to say, Mom always gave in and was the one who sat until the end of the meal, trying to eat it all. The dinners passed smoothly and happily in laughter and the TV sounds from the living room.
Then, I studied in a university away from home. Living expenses in Singapore was so expensive that everyone was worrying, and the students didn’t dare to eat out a lot but all flatmates often went to the supermarket on weekends to hunt for discounted food. I remember the cheapest was chicken. A plate of #HainaneseChickenRice in good places costed about 5-6 SGD, in normal places it costed 2-3 SGD. But the whole chicken after discount would cost only 2 SGD. Sometimes, you could also buy processed #unagi (Japanese eel) to bring home to make sushis or to eat with rice. Our dinners were full of the jokes about school, exam, prices in the supermarket, and daily stories, such as that day we was in a busy MRT and standing next to an Indian man with the smell of curry, or someone’s family just asked an acquaintance to bring over a bottle of fish sauce, because Thai fish sauce there was a tasteless … The carefree dinners, when we picked up the food in front and remembered our home foods – which were delicious and we didn’t have to cook at all because there were always hard working Cinderella at home.
When he took me home to meet his parents, I liked that in the evening, when his Dad came home after playing badminton, his Mom also finished preparing food, and called everyone to come to the table. Dinners at his house usually start late at 8PM and last for a long time, because there are so many juicy things, especially with gathering dinners, when the children from far away come to visit. Dad will take out a long-term wine jug, taking out a large bowl of speakers, using some more clear wine bowls, and then dad and the children both eat rice and clink their glasses. It was winter. Alcohol was just enough to warm everyone up and everyone’s mood is excited. After finishing the meal, the women cleaned the plates, washed the dishes, the men made tea, waiting for everyone to gather and sat around to chat. Some days we chatted until midnight. He said his family always waited for each other to eat together like that for many years, so it was fun to do that.
I also think “that’s fun”. We lived separately, when we were too busy, we would eat a restaurant or cook something quick and each one had just a plate. But for many times, the two of us cooked together for many dishes, then putting the foods on beautiful dishes to eat better. I don’t know how he felt, but at times like that, I felt I loved him a billion times more. Last time, my family had some friends from the Philippines stopping by for dinner. We also made some Vietnamese dishes for them. And definitely it must be a traditional meal with fried dishes, braised dishes, stir-fries, soups, served with white rice. That day I made seafood spring rolls, grilled eggplant sprinkled with onion and fish sauce, braised fish, stir-fried bamboo shoots, pumpkin stuffed with pork and mushrooms. Simple and full of love.
For me, meals are different from vermicelli, soup, fish hotpot, barbecue … Although elaborate cooking also needs the whole family to enjoy it. But the traditional meals of Vietnamese people are family’s tradition, are flesh and blood, are sharing, being generous, giving in, loving, worrying, instructing, connecting, healing, forgiving, missing…