Wrappers piled up like the pages of an old dictionary, bowls laden with meat studded full of black and clear tentacles of mushrooms and noodles, a tray neatly stacked with cigar-shaped rolls. These are what surrounded the culinary torcedor that was my grandma.
In her kitchen, making chả giò becomes venerable and sacred.
Every week I’d stand next to her, peeling off wonton wrappers from the block she left to me. I’d see her fold them around a dollop of filling—coming together like hands in prayer—tease the edges with water, and seal it all in one quick motion. She’d try to tell me how to help her, to grab her a towel to wipe her hands, or to teach me the technique she used to ensure that a stray air bubble wasn’t caught that could prematurely burst the roll open, but I could never understand her. Our mothers’ language was barely comprehensible to me.
But actions became the words as she’d take my hands, like a marionette, into hers and use them to peel and spread and shape and form, then drop the chả giò fearlessly into oil, to watch it sizzle and pop into vivid arrays of golden sepia.
And I learned, and her hands left mine, and I had a tray of my own.
When she placed it down in front of the family they tore into it, just as they would hers.
Eagerly crunching into the chả giò, puffing out billows of steam with each chew. They complimented her on how good she made it, and she and I would privately share what was our success—my hands and her knowledge. I could understand then, what it was in food that drove her to painstakingly make it each and every day.
I saw it in the aluminum trays she’d bring with her when she picked me up from school, handing chả giò out to people who’d never even seen anything like it, much less be able to pronounce the name, or even thank her in her own language.
I could barely do that myself, yet from they and I, she knew we were thankful.
Nothing is easy with her and me: lessons aren’t taught with words as my teachers do, not with our tongues caught on opposite sides of the ocean. And even if she could, she’d never stand to talk me through the arduous steps in making chả giò when an innumerable line of family and friends wait with bated breath to try her food. But it’s through this silence, this process, this prayer, that I hear her words more clearly than her broken English and my even worse Vietnamese can contain: it’s “thank you” and “ăn chưa?”, it’s “cảm ơn bà” and “you want more?” in its most primal incarnation—it’s love in a form that’s too enormous for anyone to truly understand.
About the Author
Tristan Vu is a Vietnamese-American writer. Vu is inspired by his LGBT+ identity and Southeast Asian heritage and upbringing. His romanticized nonfiction seeks to highlight his life at their crossroads. Connect with Tristan on Instagram.