The Dishes from the Garden
The Kitchen Fragrance
Recently I treated my friend, a visiting Australian chef, to some steamed seafood à la sidewalk. The dish itself is modest, its dipping sauce an effortless mixture of salt and pepper with a squeeze of kumquat and a tang of hot chili sauce, whipped together without any additional heat. As someone who lacks not cooking nor tasting experiences, my friend was in awe at the pairing sauce’s elegant simplicity.
By Dam Duc Vu
Recently I treated my friend, a visiting Australian chef, to some steamed seafood à la sidewalk. The dish itself is modest, its dipping sauce an effortless mixture of salt and pepper with a squeeze of kumquat and a tang of hot chili sauce, whipped together without any additional heat. As someone who lacks not cooking nor tasting experiences, my friend was in awe at the pairing sauce’s elegant simplicity. The taste of sea salt - not as bitter and biting as that of table salt, the fragrance of kumquat - not as tart as lemon nor as sharp as lime, and the viscosity of slightly pungent fermented chili sauce fuse into one another, creating a layered, complex flavor. Furthermore, the dish builds upon an interesting principle of Vietnamese gastronomy: yin-yang accordance. Seafood is believed to bear attributes of the enclosing yin class; as an inherently cold ingredient that may cause digestive problems, it must be paired with hot (yang) ingredients such as ginger and citronella. Steamed together, the herbs alleviate the seafood’s fishy smell while adorning its natural taste.
Our ancestors believe that food, if used appropriately, has healing properties that can bring the body, the mind and the senses to a harmonious state that is in tune with the working of the universe. Thus, the accordance we yearn to achieve resides not only in a complementary side sauce, in a single course but in the meal as a whole. A typical Vietnamese meal has the different courses served side by side and at the same time instead of in succession. A table full of aromas, tastes, colors, complimenting and balancing each other, satiates one’s eyes, palate, nose and at once fortifies the body with a variety of nutrients. Such setting of a meal, befittingly, takes after many characteristics of the garden sprawling at the front lawn, in the backyard of a traditional Vietnamese house.
The garden begets fresh vegetables and succulent fruits that make the meal. A harmonious meal conjures up the scenario of standing on moist soil, amidst fresh scents, in a wondrous pastiche of all sorts of plants: herbs —basil, coriander, culantro, shiso, dill, etc. and leafy greens in the likes of slender amaranth or star gooseberry. It would be unseemly if one fails to mention the fig tree, the abundant lush that is the banana grove, and the vertical trellis laden with plump gac fruits glowing reddish hue starting every lunar October, eager to lend its festive tint to the indispensable Tet offering - xôi gấc (gac tinted sticky rice). Every season has its own harvest. A cook gleans from the garden what the garden has gleaned from the weather, the soil, and the caring hands of the gardener. In-season ingredient and freshly picked herbs under the maneuver of deft hands transcend into seasonal delicacies gỏi bưởi tôm thịt (pomelo salad with shrimp and pork), ốc hấp lá gừng (ginger leaf steamed snails), the much acclaimed nem, bún chả. Having a well-cooked meal, one can sense the cook’s tender affection as well as the gardener’s hardships, can taste sweet chilly bites of winter air in the julienned kohlrabi inside each roll of nem in the New Year banquet, can inhale the crisp summer downpour in the pomelo pulps tossed with shrimp and pork - a dish best served during the time of the autumn breeze.
Not limited to seasonal offerings, the plants and trees in the garden generously present the resourceful homemaker down to all the tidbits– leaves, blossoms, buds, roots– so that they can flaunt their skill to their heart’s content. Take the humble banana grove shrouding the garden’s corner for example. Even its flower is so versatile: it tastes great as complementary garnish for soups or hot pot it and just as delightful when tossed in a sweet and sour salad. Thin slices of banana flower are soaked in salted limejuice to prevent oxidization and reduce tartness, tossed with shredded chicken, laksa leaf, roasted peanut and voilà there we have a dish everyone looks forward to at every festive gatherings. Always in position to receive what mother nature has to offer, always ready to create from what is given. The mindset of a cook whose cooking is grounded in one’s own garden is a mindset of gratitude.
A child grows up thanks to loving home meals; to be able to cook an entire meal by oneself, a meal that is balanced on all fronts: fragrance, flavor, presentation, nothing too much nor too little, is a milestone in one's coming of age. If we are to claim food is more than flavor but rather culture and history, we can aptly add that (learning) to eat and to cook is how we absorb, savor, and grow upon our country’s culture and history. We mature as we learn how to accept fully what nature bestows on us, how to appreciate the way the tropical monsoon climate crystallizes as seasonal products on our homeland, and how to orchestrate a melodious accordance on the dining table following the rhythms of the harmonies sung by heaven, earth, plants and trees. Such profound knowledge, needless of any pedagogue, seeps into the children through each meal, through each time helping out in the kitchen, similar to how the scent of pomelo blossoms and soapberry infuses them as they bathe after hours of playing around in the arms of the backyard garden.
In face of inevitable shifts regarding our society and our time, there are cases where we forget, neglect or even shun that embodied wisdom and engage in rash, brutal, extortionate behaviors towards nature to serve our consummerist desires. The consequences are irreversible climate and ecological changes. Even though it is easier said than done, repaying deserving considerations to the tenets that Vietnamese cooking and the Vietnamese garden have shared generations after generations is perhaps a healthy way of thinking towards a more harmonious and sustainable cohabitation.