Home Sick

I miss many things about Brisbane, my family being number one on that list. Inextricably linked with missing my family, I miss the food: my family’s cooking, the proliferation of fabulous food places near my home, and the Green Market every Saturday.

I have been ill last few days. Given that we arrived in UK in the middle of winter and this is my first major flu-like illness, I’ve done quite well. But I woke one morning with the most horrific sore throat: each time I swallowed, it felt as if I was choking on razor blades. Behind my right ear, some cruel pixie was hammering away; all my muscles had liquified but, inexplicably, my joints had become rock-hard.

Everything I ate that day was like cardboard; chewing was a chore and swallowing was distinctly unpleasant. When the food hit my belly, I felt queasy. For lunch I had a salad baguette, but the cursed sandwich-maker drowned my salad in mayonnaise. It was horrid. I passed the rest of my day in a moochy fuzz, which took my workmates aback as I am usually cheerful. I got two bad phonecalls in the late afternoon: one of which effectively destroyed my client’s case; the other intimated that the next day would be a flurry of frantic activity in which I would need all my wits about me. I put the receiver down and put my head in my hands, tears pooling just behind my eyes (I suck at being sick).

The best way to deal with feeling so bad is to mock oneself; I wailed: I want my mum! My workmate looked over at me. Oh! she said. What brough that on?

When I am sick, I want to eat chao. Only one person makes it better than my mum does, and that’s my eldest sister. When I was a wee thing, I often came home from school all scraped up – I got into a lot of fights. Occassionally, the whole household (me included) had to pull an all nighter to meet a clothes deadline (we were a home sweat shop). My eldest sister would cook up a pot of chao thit (meat congee) which we ate to keep us going, and so that Um did not have to cook a proper dinner.

I can recall quite clearly a particular occassion when I arrived after a rather unpleasant walk home and being told that I would have to neatly fold the mountain of cotton t-shirts in the living room. I was very good at looking pouty when younger (I still do a good line in pouts these days), so when my bottom lip stuck out and my eyes got all mournful, my eldest sis said: There’s chao thit in the kitchen. Get some and then come help.

I sat myself down at our octagonal dining table with a large bowl of chao and a porcelain spoon. The rice had been cooking all day and was a soft gelatinous mess intermingled with pinky grey gems of pork mince and dark green rectangles of thorny cilantro, slices of spring onions and sprigs of leafy coriander were liberally sprinkled on top. I added pepper, chilli and soy sauce as I went. Each spoonful revived me. I said to my sister, who was working nearby: I don’t know what you put in this. It’s like medicine. Um lovingly turned my words into a family anecdote: it is about her appreciative youngest daughter, and her skilled eldest one.

That is still my iconic chao memory. Every chao I eat now is an echo of that perfect bowl: little me at a table, legs swinging and my petty woes peeling away from me as each spoonful of hot, nourishing mushy rice slides down my throat, filling my belly with comfort and love. If anyone got sick, chao started simmering alongisde our usual dinner. We also had chao as late night suppers. There were many video nights that my siblings and I had when we were in our teens, which comprised chao in between b-grade horror movies and Hong Kong martial arts flicks. We got fancy with our late night chao: it became chicken chao, fish chao, crab chao – anything we could think of to add to the pot got thrown in. Some worked and became family standards; some were salutary lessons in mixing flavours.

None of the chao that I cook ever tastes as good as Um’s or my eldest sister’s, but it’s what I make for myself when I’m feeling poorly. The best chao is made with leftover rice. Because I do not eat rice everyday, I have to make chao from scratch*; I’m too impatient for it to turn out the mushy consistency I like, and that is so wonderful on sore throats. Often, I make a clear soup instead – but it’s chao that I really want, and chao that will heal me.

* There’s a Viet word for uncooked rice, that distinguishes it from cooked rice. I am not sure there is an English equivalent.

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10 Comments

  1. Oh, chao is definitely the only thing I want when I’m sick too. My mom made it for me when I was little and she makes it for my kids when they are sick. Chao bao ngu was always my favorite but alas, abalogne is expensive these days.

    I hope you feel better. Aren’t there any Vietnamese restaurants that would make it for you?

    Reply

  2. hope you’ll be better soon. My husband doesn’t understand how congee can be so comforting when you’re ill. Like you, I have to make it from scratch as well when I’m unwell and it’s not always pleasant having to cook when you’re not well. I think there are a few Vietnamese restaurants in London that may serve cha’o. Hugs.

    Reply

  3. I love rice congee when I’m sick. Specifically chicken congee. It just goes down so nicely. I made my husband get it for me from the local Vietnamese soup place after I had gastro last year.

    Reply

  4. Thanks everyone!

    I’m getting there, getting there. Still all snotty but not headachy etc anymore.

    HongLien –
    There is ONE Chinese / Vietnamese restaurant near where I am – although the food’s good, it does not have chao on the menu: probably no call for it…

    Hedgehog –
    No way am I going to London when I feel sick. The smog will kill me!

    🙂

    Legal Eagle:
    I’m so jealous :-/ It’s because you live in Melbourne! Wah!

    I love the Melbourne Viet soup places that stayed open ALL night, to serve, mostly, chao. Those were the days (er maybe one or two) when I’d go clubbing, down some chao and then sit around with the other diehard losers on the train station platform waiting for the first train home. What a long time ago that feels…

    Reply

  5. oanh – hope you are feeling better – nice post on getting beat up, pulling all-nighters in the family sweat shop, and comfort food 🙂

    While I like pho, bun, etc. I’ve never had congee or known a ton about it – so I did a lot of lookups on different types of congee and now I’m going to have to both give it a try at a restaurant (if I can) as well as try and make it myself. I’m not sure I’ll dig the consistency, but I’ll at least give it a try…

    Reply

  6. VietK –

    Now that’s a great precis of my post.

    I shall consider posting a chao recipe – although I think Wandering Chopsticks might have one already, and she sounds like a way better cook than me.

    Reply

  7. Oanh,

    Hope you’re feeling better. When I was sick that’s what I made too. But I didn’t have any ground pork on hand and that’s my favorite chao. Maybe you can ask that restaurant to make it? Just b/c it’s not listed on the menu doesn’t mean they can’t cook it, especially when it’s so easy to make.

    Family sweat shop. Reminds me of my childhood. My mom and aunties all used to sew. Now a lot of them do nails.

    Reply

  8. Oanh, was recently wondering how you were doing and came across your blog by accident when checking out another blog. Hope you’re feeling better! I will now check your blog regularly for updates on your travels 🙂

    KMWS

    Reply

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