I've mentioned my ba noi (paternal grandmother) before here and there, but I've never really talked about her. I've been asked several times recently how I learned to cook, and with these several months old photos of my ba noi's death anniversary dinner still unposted, I figured Mother's Day was an appropriate time as any. While I have many, many loving memories of ba noi, the food memories are the strongest.
As far back as I can remember, I and all 19 of her other grandchildren and even visiting friends, have memories of wiping banana leaves in the kitchen as she made banh nam (Vietnamese steamed flat rice flour with pork and shrimp wrapped in banana leaves) for the family. While I wiped, ba noi told stories about her childhood or my dad's childhood.
There she is concealed behind the purple cupflowers. The pictures are from her death anniversary dinner several months ago. In case you missed it, I explained about death anniversaries and ancestor worship.
It didn't matter if I had heard the story before. I never tired of hearing about how her mother died when she was a little girl. How she had to quit school to help her father take care of her two sisters and two or was it three brothers?, all of the boys died in childhood. How she married my Chinese grandfather because he promised not to uproot her from her village so she could stay and take care of her father. But in the end, he returned back to China anyway, abandoning her when she was pregnant with her sixth child. He had abandoned her before (when she was pregnant with her second child (my dad), and yet she had taken him back when his brother forced him to return). And she still took in and raised three more children, when their parents had died or abandoned them.
She worked tirelessly. During times of famine when she couldn't afford rice, she picked rau den (Vietnamese amaranth), a nutritious weed, to feed her children. She was enterprising -- picking bananas, slicing them, drying them, and selling them for profit. She scrimped and saved and managed to build a nice cement house next door to her father's house, in the countryside where mud floors and straw houses were more common. She scrimped and saved and managed to move her kids to the small town where I was born. There she bought a nice two-storey house, and operated a store downstairs.
And when the Vietnam War ended and my father and two of my uncles were sent to re-education camps, she scrimped and saved some more so that all of her kids and grandkids could buy passage on a small fishing boat to escape Vietnam. And after four nights and three days at sea to reach Hong Kong, and months and months in the refugee camps, she started life all over again in America. But ba noi never rested, and at an age when she should have been retiring, she helped out her kids at their janitorial jobs and on weekends picked berries for $2 a flat, or cucumbers for 33 cents a pound.
And even after her kids prospered and she really didn't have to work anymore, ba noi would still handwash her clothes every morning, work in her garden, and cook all her specialties for the family. All those endless banana leaves were used to make banh nam, or banh it la gai (a nettle leaf sweet dumpling that had to be plucked, strained, and cooked to get that dark greenish-black color), or banh tet (lunar new year steamed sticky rice cylinders with pork and mung bean filling). She also shelled countless crabs and made her own clear, chewy tapioca flour noodles for banh canh. And I would be there, listening, and trying to wipe, or wrap whatever she told me to. It wasn't always the prettiest result, but ba noi didn't care. She was just happy to have me or any of the other grandchildren in the kitchen with her. Ba noi taught me that food didn't have to look perfect, it just needed to be made with love. Love what you're making, love what you're eating, and love feeding it to your family.
As for the rest of her lessons, I'm not quite that noble. She had sponsored my grandfather over from China so her children and grandchildren could get to know him. But he made no effort to get to know any of us, and after several years decided to go back to China to his other wife and kids. And yet, she built a school in his village in China and dedicated it under his name. Up until the end, ba noi was still sending money to Vietnam to take care of her two sisters and their kids. She also built a Buddhist temple in her village in the country and dedicated it to her two sisters. And she was still cooking and taking care of all of us.
So when I say I learned how to cook from helping my ba noi in the kitchen, it's really because it's impossible to say how very much I learned from her.