Ode to Bánh mì


I had a very serious post planned for today, opening sentences poised, and paragraphs half-written, then someone told me it was National Sandwich Day, and my mouth started salivating.  Like one of Pavlov’s subjects, the word sandwich in my mind is irrevocably tied to Bánh mì which is a Vietnamese sandwich.  Now I know that a lot of these National Day of Whatever have been started for purely commercial reasons, but for a person who loves food and eating as much as I do, any excuse to eat one of these is good enough for me.  

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, juillienned pickles carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, julienned pickled carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the small town outside of Detroit where I grew up, Vietnamese food was made only by people related to me. At home. And we were not a family who went out to eat at restaurants except for very special occasions, and then to a Szechuan place about 20 minutes away in Garden City.  The owner spoke Korean. My dad would start conversing with him, and ask for the special menu, meaning the dishes that weren’t found anywhere on the plastic printed menus with tiny red pepper symbols next to them.  Pretty soon all manner of delicious foods were paraded out and placed on the table, from fried mandu (dumplings deep-fried to a perfect crispy texture, with a slightly chewy inside layer, with seasoned meat inside, just hot enough to make you inhale sharply through pursed lips, but not hot enough to burn your tongue) to seafood dishes brimming with crab, sea cucumber, shrimp, and artistically cut, slightly crisp vegetables swimming in an oyster sauce. Delicately seasoned broths with crackling bits of rice, browned just to the point of crispiness were an entree and not part of the first course. And, at the end of the meal, my dad would not even raise an eyebrow at the bill, always leaving the owner a generous tip, which would then make my mother’s eyebrows shoot up alarmingly.

I don’t mean to say that we were deprived, as my mother has a knack for tasting a dish, and being able to replicate it, and most of us would prefer to have a home-cooked meal by her over any restaurant meal. But because of this, I grew up fairly unexposed to restaurant Vietnamese food, which is a little different from your home-cooked meals.  The only way to get these was in Windsor, Ontario, which in the pre-9/11 days, was a 20 minute drive across the Ambassador Bridge to University Street.  It felt like a foreign country, the sights and smells just like the Asian grocery store, but multiplied a hundred-fold.

This was where I first saw the classic dangling barbecued red ducks, held up ignominiously by their clawed feet.  We’d go into a number of different shops, through some algorithm in my mother’s head on who had the best prices for whatever she had in her mental list.  I never saw my mother write out a to-do list or shopping list, and constantly wish I had her memory. She mourns the fact that she has trouble remembering things now as she used to know by heart all the phone numbers for all the telephone exchanges for the military base where she met my father. I tell her her memory has subsided to normal human level now.

One of the visits was always to the herbalist, and the acrid, stinging scent brings back instant memories of the concoction she must have spent precious money on to try to fatten me up. The dark brown, murky liquid with various roots and leaves in it was brewed on the kitchen stove, then ladled into what looked to me like an impossibly large cup. A small piece of hard candy was laid next to it, as incentive to finish the entire thing, preferably without gagging or retching. The house would be permeated with the smell, and my brothers would watch me as I sat at the kitchen table, face resting on fisted hands, sympathetic but staying far enough away that they wouldn’t be noticed and possibly made to drink it, too. That was in the days when I was in such a hurry to get back to my books that food wasn’t such a priority to me, and I was, as my mother called it, “a toothpick”.

It didn't work, unless there is a delayed effect 25 years later.

It didn’t work, unless there is a delayed effect occurring 25 years later.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve learned since then how delicious food can be.  Part of that appreciation started with the Bánh mì sandwich.  The kind my mother always bought was what is known as either bánh mì thịt nguội, or bánh mì đặc biệt.  Bánh mì is a general term for all bread in Vietnamese, however, it is also synonymous with the sandwich, which is made from a French baguette made usually with wheat and rice flour (though I’m not able to taste much difference between those with rice flour and without). It is one good by-product of the French colonial times in Vietnam.  Thịt means meat and nguội means cooled or cold.  This is also sometimes known as bánh mì đặc biệt meaning a special sandwich, which seems more than appropriate to me.  It’s filled with Vietnamese cold cuts which may include what we called Vietnamese bologna growing up or chả lụa (pork sausage), head cheese (more delicious than the name sounds, trust me), and sliced pork roasted with the classic red seasoning, and sometimes liver pâté. Though delicious, the meat wasn’t the best part of the sandwich, as it could not be complete without pickled carrots and daikon radish, julienned fresh cucumbers and cilantro. A buttery mayonnaise added some moisture and helped to bind all the ingredients together.

Fixings for

Fixings for bánh mì thịt nguội

Thrown in like little red hand grenades of spiciness were the deadly red Thai chilies, sliced to such minuscule portions that they were nearly impossible to ferret out completely, inevitably leading to abandoning the sandwich briefly for several glasses of water, followed by careful eyeing of the sandwich yet again, before taking the next tentative bites.  Because it is so delicious, and you think you’ve been meticulous about catching all the peppers, a few more bites will lead to thinking you are safe, and then another ninja chili will cause your tongue or lips to blossom in pain, and the whole process will begin again. These were a special treat, and each of us would get one small baguette for our own.  

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

I thought perhaps at first that it was the novelty and scarcity of the sandwich which has also been called a Vietnamese po’boy or hoagie, which was the attraction.  As I got older and got a chance to try many other kinds of sandwiches including reubens, Cubanos, Philly steak hoagies, and calzones among others (can you tell I have no issues with gluten sensitivity?), the novelty of bánh mì wore off. Or so I thought.

Then when I was in the process of moving to this high desert place we now call home, I made a phone call to the physician assistant program here, in the hopes that they might have an opening so that I could continue to be involved in educating PA students as I had in Detroit.  The PA program director told me that she did not, but would be happy to take my name, and C.V. in the event that an opening came available. As I spelled out my name for her, the tone of her voice changed from polite interest to animated questioning.

“Are you Vietnamese?” she asked.

“Yes, well, half anyway,” I replied.

“Can you speak Vietnamese?”, she asked, her voice becoming more excited.

“Um, yes?” But what does that have to do with teaching PA students I wondered to myself.

“Did you know there is a very large Vietnamese population here? And some of our students are Vietnamese.”

“No, I assumed it was mostly Spanish and Native American,” I responded, wonder dawning in my voice.

In the end, I got to teach here, and not only that I discovered the proximity of not one, but several Vietnamese sandwich shops, Vietnamese restaurants, and even a Vietnamese church. I had gone from being related to the only Vietnamese people I knew (other than those I met in college), to a city filled with them, completely on accident.

And so I did the only thing I could do.  I went to every Vietnamese place I could find to try the bánh mì (and the phở, but that’s another blog post). Purely for research purposes, of course. I discovered bánh mì thịt heo nướng, what I now call the gateway bánh mì, filled with seasoned roast pork, a sandwich no one I’ve ever introduced to has ever disliked. And, like so many other things, I’ve discovered that there are many right ways to make a bánh mìall of them informed by personal choice, with variations in bread which is normally baked on site, fillings, types of vegetables included, consistency of mayonnaise (which is definitely not Hellman’s) and chilis used. Here in the Southwest, those red ninja-stealth chilis have been replaced by jalapenos, which when seeded and sliced, often look just like the much more innocuous green pepper.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don't make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don’t make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Same effect, different chili, but still delicious.  It turns out I was wrong. I’m pretty partial to bánh mì, even if I can have one every day.

Not that I do.

Or have done.

Not yet, anyway.

Though I'm not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

Though I’m not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

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The Power of Names


I am a true believer in the power of a name.  Perhaps it is because as a writer, I know the power words can have to change mindsets and attitudes.  Perhaps it is because I grew up with the story of how my name came to be, and saw how it came to be both a self-fulfilling prophecy and revealing of my true personality.  Perhaps it is just because there is always a story behind each person’s name, and I love stories. Mine begins in Saigon, where I was born to a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother.  Whenever I tell people this, I always get the same reaction–“That’s a strange combination”.  Having never known any different, I really can’t say why this is, but purely from a personality standpoint, I can say my parents are two entirely different people.

Though both my mother and father grew up poor in war-torn countries, their stories are very different.   My father tells me stories of hiding out in the mountains of Korea from Japanese soldiers, and moving from city to city as my grandfather searched for work.  My mother wielded a machete to make her way through the jungles near her village in Vietnam while she scrounged for firewood and stole fruit from the trees of neighbors.  My father is a second son of six children, a golden boy who began providing for his family at a young age, helping to put his sisters through school.  My mother is the second-oldest daughter, but 3rd from the youngest of my grandmother’s eleven children, growing up in a very Catholic family.  My father loves music, art, and museums.  My mother was forbidden from reading novels with our family’s strict Catholic upbringing, but there wasn’t much money for novels anyway.  Before he came to Vietnam, my father had traveled all over, taking photographs with his Nikon and reportedly, as my mother teases him, leaving a trail of broken hearts.  My mother was betrothed to marry a boy from the next village over, but having never been there or met him, finagled her way out of the engagement by “forgetting” to notify him of her father’s death, thereby prolonging the time he would traditionally have to wait to marry her from 3 months to  3 yrs  (after the mourning period for her father had ended).  My father, a cultured man 17 years my mother’s senior fell madly in love with the determined young village girl, even going so far as converting from Buddhism to Catholicism to obtain permission from my grandmother to marry.

When I was born, my parents consulted a numerologist for help in naming their first-born daughter.  This to me is one of the most puzzling parts of the story.  When the story was told to me when I was a child, it was said as matter of factly as one might say “And then we took you home from the hospital.”  Looking back on the story now, I have a multitude of questions.  How long does such a process take?  Where might one find a good numerologist in Saigon? Was his or her name on a bulletin board in the waiting room of the hospital?  Was this a normal part of the naming process for everyone at that time?  My father was a fire chief, then a field engineer for the American military base in Saigon, work that is very concrete and physical.  My mother is the most practical person I’ve ever met. The concept of a numerologist being part of the naming process for these 2 people does not fit.  And yet, that is what I am told happened next.  This numerologist took all of our numbers, which I assume consisted of dates of birth for my mother, father, and me, and perhaps the time of my birth, and decided that I would be the peacekeeper between my mother and father, because they are such different people.  Thus my first name and middle name are meant to be said together, translating roughly into “the source of peace and happiness.”

I was in elementary school at the time I heard this story.  If you have children of your own, you realize early on that they arrive in this world with certain personality traits and qualities that emerge and persist.  My two daughters are both perfectionists.  My oldest is soft-spoken and prefers to avoid the spotlight.  My middle child is not soft-spoken, and prefers to do things her way.  My son is perceptive about people, and sensitive to their emotional states.  These are characteristics which are innate to them, ones that I cannot change, even if I were to try, and nothing that I knowingly taught to them.  From childhood, even before I heard the story of my name, I strived for accord between my friends or other children on the playground.  Am I who I am today because of my name?  Or was it just serendipitous that my name reflects the personality with which I was born?  I can’t recall consciously deciding to be someone who brings happiness and peace to others, as it seems to me to a worthy goal for any and every person, but did the knowledge of my name help to firm my nascent and innate desire to be a peacemaker?  Without a time machine, it is a mystery to know how different each of our lives might have been with different names.  Was the fact that my name’s meaning is positive change my perception about my life’s path?  I look at some of the more unusual baby names and wonder what will become of these children named Puppy or Pepsi.  My children are not named Puppy or Pepsi.

When my sister was born, here in America, my father asked for my help in naming her.  Thinking about this now, this also strikes me as strange, given that I had just turned 8.  I took the task very seriously though.  Being a very literary little girl, I went to my favorite stories.  At the top of my list of names was Josephine, for my favorite character in Little Women, and Sara after Sara Crewe from The Little Princess.  These girls were brave, smart, and kind.  These are the characteristics I hoped for in my first and only sister.  My father took my list of suggestions and actually chose one of the names I had provided.  And my sister is brave, smart, and kind.  I can’t take any of the credit for these virtues though I did help to name her.  She was born that way.

Today, I am thankful for my baby sister.  Sis, I’m sorry I forgot to warn you not to read this one in public.  I am grateful that my parents put thought into naming me and all of my siblings, and that none of us have names that might predispose us to being serial killers.  And as always, I am thankful for the power of names and words to change lives.

I love to hear stories of names.  So please feel free to share yours.  What is the story behind your name or the names you chose for your children or pets?  Do you think the meaning behind your name had any effect on who you are? Did you change your name, and if so, why?

Here is an article about the unusual names people have chosen for their babies in 2013, Pepsi and Puppy being real names, unfortunately:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2529425/Vogue-Nirvana-Tea-Reem-PEPPA-The-bizarre-baby-names-2013.html

The time machine I would use to explore alternative universes in which my name was not influenced by the numerologist.

Source: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v291/Riverwolf/tardis.jpg

My Self


Being both Vietnamese and Korean, but having grown up in America, I have a strange relationship with the English language and my mother-tongue Vietnamese.  Because I was blessed to grow up with my grandmother who knew only enough English to order some of her favorite foods (i.e., hamburger–preferably a Big Mac), I learned enough Vietnamese to allow me to understand the gist of most stories told around the dinner table, but not enough to ever allow me to be a diplomat (unless said diplomat was being asked to take out the garbage).  I never learned to read Vietnamese until I went to college, and it was there that I discovered several things.
#1. The reason I had such a difficult time understanding my newly arrived cousins wasn’t because there was something wrong with me (though some might disagree), but because they had a Southern Vietnamese accent, and I had been raised with my grandmother’s Northern Vietnamese dialect.  My grandmother survived not only the emigration from Vietnam to America (see my previous post Flight), but also a harrowing escape from northern Vietnam to southern Vietnam because of the Communists.

#2. The other revelation to me was how I even came to be born. Now, normally, taking a language class does not prompt a discussion regarding existentialism, however, having now learned the proper pronunciation for words and phrases that I had heard all of my life, I realized how poor my father’s Vietnamese is, which led me to wonder how my mother and father managed to have a conversation in those early years, let alone fall in love.  Their mutual language had to have been English, which was obviously a 2nd language for both.  One phrase which I had heard all my life, and realized later was being mangled every day was the phrase “Mình ơi”.   This is a term of endearment similar to honey or sweetheart, and primarily used between husbands and wives.   My father pronounces it “Me-noy”, which explains why it took me so long to figure out exactly what he was saying all these years to my mother.  When I learned the literal meaning behind the phrase, it made me take a closer look at my family.  You see, growing up in a fairly traditional Asian family, compliments and positive feedback are not the norm.  We don’t “hug it out” in our family.  Children are given nicknames based on practical descriptions: “Little brother, big sister, etc.”  And so, when I learned the meaning of “Me-noy”, I was taken aback by how beautiful it is.  Mình ơi literally translates into “my self” or “my body”.  I was instantly reminded of this verse:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be as one flesh.” Genesis 2:24.

Mình ơi is at once beautiful and archaic.  It describes what one writer calls “the transcendent unity of husband and wife”, in which you become so much a part of one another, their body is yours and vice versa, while also describing the possessiveness that is inherent in marriage.  It pales in comparison to honey or sweetheart in terms of its depth of meaning.  Love thyself, or love one another, it is all the same if the true meaning of the phrase is felt.

In one passage from Scripture, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And Peter answers “Yes, I love you” in 3 different ways.   What limits us in our understanding of this passage, and why I find the scholarship of the Church’s teaching so helpful, is that in translation from Greek or Latin, the words used for love differ in each sentence.   Love of God has a different word from love of neighbor or friend.  When translated to English, that meaning is lost as we have only 1 word for love, and thus the subtle nuances of the exchange between Jesus and Peter are lost on us.  In the same way, “Me-noy” went from “honey” to something much more meaningful once I understood the significance.  There is power in naming something, as it allows us to truly see its nature.  When we are able to name an unfamiliar noise as the knocking of a shutter in the wind, it changes our reality and our emotional response.  Understanding Mình ơi showed me the depth beneath a life in which sweet words are seldom said.  I love you is the dinner my mother cooks for all of us on our birthdays, planned for days in advance.  It is the shoveling of the driveway on yet another snowy day, and hours spent knitting socks for feet that grow cold at night.  It is that which withstands illness, death, and heartache and transcends the boundaries of our self.

Today I am thankful for languages, spoken and otherwise. I am grateful to have grown up bilingual and multicultural, as it has given me the ability to appreciate all that is unique and wonderful in each world.

Because I love words so much, I wonder what the phrases lovers use in other countries reveals about their culture?  I’ve shared a link to an article which lists a few, but please feel free to comment if you have an example of one used in your family or culture:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/55564/15-delightful-foreign-terms-endearment-english-should-adopt

This article is a lovely one which discusses the meaning of the word “ơi”:

http://diacritics.org/2011/erin-ninh-an-ode-to-%C6%A1i

And in response to yesterday’s post about Pi Day, a video response to Pi Day by Vihart, which because it is equally nerdy and snarky, manages not to make me like Pi Day less: