Credits: Bo Nguyen
During the first lockdown, it seemed like everyone, young and old, was flocking to the kitchen. Even some of my friends who barely knew how to make sunny side up eggs were making all kinds of breads and other quarantine-friendly dishes. But for some reason I found myself cooking significantly less. I associated cooking with happy feelings and circumstances, so this surely was not the right time. Lacking energy and motivation, I was mainly trying to survive emotionally and not paying attention to my body. I began sustaining myself from ready-made meals, instant ramen and occasional leftovers from my sister’s restaurant. The food I ate never took me longer than 5 minutes to make, it’s saltiness was dopamine-inducing - just what I thought I needed. I was sad and I did not want to have yet another thing to worry about.
Now my mom stands in the kitchen listening to one of her podcasts, completely unaware of her surroundings and wholly focused on the task at hand. Her hands, slender but strong, wander over the kitchen counter searching for the next ingredient. They find a thick bunch of coriander and hold them down to the cutting board, chopping in an ever so steady rhythm. It is on one of the warmer days in autumn that my eyes are following her from across the room - only partly as a distraction from the uni assignments I am supposed to be doing. The feeling of homely warmth snuck up on me. Oh, how much I had missed this feeling. I had loved food and cooking ever since I learned to read and began looking through our many cookbooks at home. I used to love grocery shopping, the process of assembling the ingredients, the heat, the sizzling, the smells.
It was only when my mom returned in summer, after being stuck in Vietnam, that I realized how I had almost lost all interest in food over the past few months. As soon as she stepped back into our home, our kitchen saw a transformation. Suddenly, there was always a pot bubbling on the stovetops and a home-cooked meal ready for me to eat every night. I found myself feeling a lot more comfortable and content, often thinking that our home finally felt like home again and not just a place I was staying in. To some, it might seem like hyperbole when I say that good food is what keeps me sane and happy, but I truly mean it. I was blessed with growing up in a household where food was a kind of love language. Food brought us together and good food kept us together. Thus, it is extremely fortunate that my mom happens to make really good food. Whatever she puts on a plate - whether it is a classic Vietnamese dish or a more experimental Western dish - will taste exactly like what she brings into the kitchen: experience, love, care and a dash of talent. My friends’ eyes always gleam with excitement when they dig into a meal she’s made and my siblings who have moved out long ago still take the time to come by to get her food. Every heartbreak, nervousness before a big exam and mental breakdown was sure to be mended with a dish made by the loving hands of my mother. Sitting down and enjoying something that was made because of someone’s love for you, can change your day. It helped me navigate through a lot of difficulties and this pandemic is nothing else but that. Just another obstacle I am dealing with as I slurp my mother’s homemade broth. Her food is grounding, it takes me back to what matters, what’s important and what’s not.
During the first lockdown, I was cooking less, and I know now that it was an indicator of my growing self-neglect. When my mom returned, I realized the large impact her food had on my mood and my sense of security at home. Being much more than a means of survival, her home-cooked meals had always strengthened me not only physically but also mentally. After months of eating out of convenience and not out of joy, I truly understand now that what I’m putting into my body matters. When I wasn’t eating well, it had impacted other areas of my life and even my sense of self-worth. However ‘my body is a temple’-ish it might sound, I suddenly had the energy to get up and do things and make an already awful situation a little bit better for myself because I reconnected with the idea that I deserved better. Something that takes you back to reality and reminds you that things really are only as bad as we make them out to be. And once you do find it, hold on to it and never let it go.
For the time being, here is one of our family’s favourite meals according to my mom’s recipe. This dish called Bun Cha is a bowl of goodness filled with noodles, fresh veggies, herbs and juicy meatballs topped with a homemade lime sauce.
Ingredients (for 2 people)
For the meatballs:
300g of minced pork
2 small onions minced
2 cloves of garlic minced
a handful of dry bread/1 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 tbsp fish sauce
½ tsp ground pepper
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp oil (for cooking)
For the bun cha serving:
200g bun vermicelli noodles
a few lettuce leaves, washed and dried
a handful beansprouts
1 julienned carrot
a handful of coriander, shiso leaves (also known as tia to in Vietnam)→ these are optional but we like to eat it with a lot of herbs
Nuoc cham sauce:
3 tbsp fish sauce
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
3 tbsp sugar
9 tbsp water
chopped chili according to taste
1 clove of garlic minced
To make the meatballs, put all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well so all ingredients are well incorporated. Then let it sit and marinate for about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill another large bowl with cold water and soak your noodles for 20 minutes.
Now prepare your nuoc cham sauce by whisking the fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and water together in a sauce bowl. Once the sugar has dissolved add chili and garlic. Set aside.
To prepare the rest of the bun cha, chop your lettuce and herbs into bite-sized pieces and assemble them on a separate plate.
Boil water in a pot and cook the pre-soaked noodles for 4 minutes. Drain them and rinse with cold water until the water runs clear.
Knead your meatball mix one last time, form small balls and flatten them slightly with your palm. You should end up with around 12 - 15 meatballs.
Heat 3 tbsp of oil in a large pan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, place all your meatballs in the pan and let them cook for 5 minutes on each side (or until they’re brown and cooked in the middle).
Assemble the noodles in a bowl, add your herbs, julienned carrots, bean sprouts and lettuce and the meatballs last. Pour over 2-3 tbsp of the nuoc cham sauce.
Enjoy with a cold beer or lemonade.
Edited by Anoushka Chakrapani, Food and Drinks Editor