I am a little later than I should be. She said to arrive at 11am, which means to come at 10.30am. I come at 11.30, not entirely my fault. Maybe I slept in.
She hasn’t started yet, she says. Flustering around me, she pulls out two bags of rice flour (I’ve just been to the shops, it was so busy). Where did you go?, I say conversationally. With exasperation, she says ‘Inala’, as if there were any other shops nearby that she could go to to buy these bags of rice flour. They are each about 400g of fine bright white powder, in a clear bag with red writing all over. The writing is in a variety of languages: Viet, Thai, Chinese, English. I remember being little and being shown these bags, with careful instructions to come back with the right one (red writing for rice flour, blue writing for tapioca starch). I hesitate to tell her you can buy these at the local Coles; I don’t want to start an argument – today, I am being good. Minus the turning up late – she’ll forgive me for that.
I wander over to my father who is resting on his recliner chair, eyes closed. Shopping has clearly worn him out. Sitting down on the arm of the chair, I place light fingers on his knee. I used to sit on that knee but now I am too large, he too frail. He opens his eyes and I greet him – “Ba”. He acknowledges me with a grunt and closes his eyes again.
My mother (Um) has boiled some water and she pours some into a large bowl, into which both bags of flour had been emptied. With a large serving spoon, she mixes it in and tells me to ‘ne’ it – she will bring me the tapioca starch which she left downstairs. ‘ne’ is a word I had not heard before. She bustles off and I look down at a large tub filled with white dough. I have never done this part before. This has always been done before I arrive and my job is to turn the mountain of dough into large rice noodles. It is just like playing. I think about it and figure she must mean to knead it.
Um does not teach me to cook. She does not show me. I often ask her to cook things with every intention of coming by early to watch how she does it, to learn before it is forgotten how. She always starts too early for me. I have resorted to downloading recipes for Vietnamese dishes from the web. Tradition expects that my mother in law will show me how to cook, teach me how to look after her son. The notion is obsolete.
I am also the youngest. My mother had shown some of my elder sisters her cooking – they helped her in the kitchen. I did too but I did the odd jobs, the jobs you could trust the youngest kid – easily distracted and petulant – to do. You should never give the youngest kid a time consuming task, unless the reward was great. Something like “fetch me the butcher’s cleaver” was about what I could handle. Maybe rinse the vegies and herbs and sometimes, put the rice on. Nothing too involved. Beetles, praying mantis’ and lizards always needed to be found and homes built for them (they often also needed supervision so they would stay in the insect mansions). I could rarely be expected to stay in the kitchen long but I could always be called in for those urgent fetching errands.
There were exceptions. Fresh tofu was one: I could stand and curdle that tofu for happy, anticipatory hours; my taste-buds eager for the silken flavour of home made tofu, my greed overcoming my need to rescue unwilling insects or climb frangipani trees in the neighbour’s yard. Banh canh – today’s lunch – was another. The store bought noodles were nothing on the flavour and texture of home made ones.
Um comes back: “Where would you like to make them, on the floor?” No, I say. I’d prefer the table. Better for my back, used to sitting at computers all day. She looks at me strangely and says – it is easier on the floor. “Oh, I just prefer the table”, I say diplomatically. “That’s why your back aches, Um”, I don’t say.
I spread out the bowl, a chopping board, a plate and another serving spoon. I wish for music, but not aloud in case Ba hears me and turns the Vietnamese radio on. Um has gone again and it’s just me and a large bowl of dough. I put my whole hand into the dough, only to withdraw it and run to the tap. The dough is hot. After running my hand under cold water for a while, I come up with a plan. I go to my bag to get my book. Using the serving spoons, I turn the dough over, break it into bits and generally mush it. Then, as the steam rises, I bring the book to my nose and read. When the steam subsides, I repeat.
“Is it ready to ‘se’?” Um says. I guiltily put the book down and say – no, the dough was too hot and I could not knead it. She looks at me again, to inspect whether I really am her daughter or some hopeless Australian who just looks like her daughter. I’m both, honest. She looks at the book. I show her my splotchy red hand – a hand that reads books more often than it plunges itself into hot dough. “You put hot water on it” I accuse. “Of course I did”, she says impatiently. Pity we came to Australia for a better life, education, opportunities. Look how I’ve turned out – unable to knead dough.
‘se’ is a verb. It is in the present tense. All Viet words are in the present tense. Yesterday, I se the noodles. Today I se the noodles. Tomorrow I se the noodles. It feels as if I have always se the noodles. You use the same word and it does not matter what the time structure is (although if you are my parents, early is best). Context is important to ascertain meaning. Context is all you’ve got to go on. Unfortunately for the dough, my context is higher education and a professional job. My hands weren’t toughened in the context of bonded labour (traditional Viet marriage). Context is also my family.
After about an hour of lonely ‘se’, my sister turns up, both kids and husband in tow. She sits down beside me, youngest kid on her lap and starts chatting. I invite her to join in the fun, but she declines. Her husband helps instead. They are a liberated family. In another hour, another sister turns up. This time, the kids are in the lead (they’re older). They too sit down. I invite them to join the fray – to speed up lunch. Luckily, they do with enthusiasm.
To ‘se’ is to roll small parts of the mound of dough into smaller, long, noodle-like parts. Picture yourself playing with playdough as a kid. Remember making worms? Just like that, only not colourful and hopefully hygienic. Repeat. Repeat some more. It is better, if you can manage it, to have family turn up and arrange themselves around you. They should start chatting, the louder the better. Some should join the ‘se’ and others can outright refuse to. For added interest, the kids could cry. Maybe one of them should be super cute, and say something precocious, preferably bi-lingually. Another is probably on the cusp of being an adult and she’ll want to talk about hair, boys and clothes. You will try not to be disdainful, but you won’t succeed especially when she tells you she is reading magazines instead of books. You will despair (even though you were that way yourself).
Um is downstairs, making the soup to accompany the noodles. I always miss out on this part because I am the person who ‘se’. As if telepathically connected to the mountain of dough, Um turns up with the soup when there is one tiny hill left. We divide it and ‘se’ in excited conclusion – the last few are thinner and less consistent, but made with more laughter.
The noodles are cooked in soup (it has crabs and prawns – we were fishing folk ‘back home’). Bowls are placed in front of flour dusted people, and we sit down elbow to elbow to eat. Fresh eschallots, coriander and pepper is added to your taste. Ba likes large pieces of pepper so he takes the lid off the grinder and places whole peppercorns into his soup. I mimic him and discreetly choke on one behind a cough. We have banh canh for lunch. Its flavour is enhanced by our work and the warm chatter.