Dear Asian Youth,
There are many Vietnamese dishes that I am ashamed to say I cannot eat. My mother has given up on pleading with me to eat anything with seafood in it, knowing I will refuse to touch it, and I cannot eat anything too adventurous like balut. I stick to the more personally palatable foods, like pho or banh mi. Now that I can cook for myself and my parents are gone most of the time, I actually eat more American foods or buy takeout. However, one Vietnamese dish will forever be my favorite.
My grandmother’s egg rolls, or chả giò.
When I was really young, my grandmother always sat me next to her in our dining room when she was making them, her many utensils littering our table. I wasn’t old enough to help just yet, so I just rambled on and on about what I did at preschool, and she nodded while she listened, grating carrots to mix into the pork filling. In return, she’d tell me what her life was like when she was younger. I loved hearing about how she had met so many celebrities because she was once a famous beautician in the city, and how she fell in love with a handsome American soldier during the Vietnam War, only to never see him again. I never realized how full of hardship and adventure her life was until I was much, much older; as a kid, I just wanted to talk to her. We would spend hours like this until I got tired, and she carried me off to nap.
The day before my eighth birthday party, I finally got to help her make food. I had begged her all week to let me make them with her since it was my party, and I felt like I should help her make the food for my friends. My mother told me to stop pestering her, and I was probably too young anyways, but my grandmother just smiled and told me I could help if I really wanted to. She let me peel the wrappers while she made the filling, and we sat next to each other, watching badly dubbed Chinese dramas and drinking tea. My chubby hands ripped a lot of wrappers, but she didn’t seem to care. She only laughed and wrapped with them anyway, telling me that even if I made mistakes, I was peeling faster than she ever could. Nothing made me prouder than knowing my grandmother thought I did a good job, so I just carried on, watching her expertly tuck and roll the egg rolls, brushing each of the tips with egg wash to seal it. The whole time, she told me stories of her first husband, my biological grandfather. He was a rich, older man, and she was the youngest daughter of a Vietnamese landowner in Hai Phong, someone who would never receive her family’s inheritance. She reluctantly married him but was deemed a bad bride because she was terrible at cooking.
“One of the only dishes I could make that he didn’t spit out was egg rolls. I got better, but it is still my favorite to make and eat. I know it’s your favorite too.”
During the next few years, we continued this routine of making egg rolls. She had so many stories to tell, funny ones about her ex-husbands and sad ones about how much she missed Vietnam. My grandmother, unfortunately, passed when I was in fifth grade before I got to hear all of her stories. I was unable to talk for a week, still unable to process her passing, and I refused to eat. The day before her funeral, I was at the dinner table with my parents, staring blankly at the wall while they ate their meals, and then my mother surprised me with a small dish of egg rolls.
“Bà nội had a few left in the freezer. We should eat them now, right?”
It was the first time I could swallow my food that week, and I’ll never forget the tears rolling down all of our faces as we just sat in silence, looking at the empty chair at the table.
Now, I make egg rolls with my mother. They don’t taste the same as bà nội’s because we use chicken instead and started getting a different brand of wrappers, but it still feels the same sometimes. I don’t rip wrappers anymore, and I can actually do most of it myself now, but my mother and I watch the same badly dubbed dramas, drink the same iced tea that’s a little too watered down, and talk about our lives. She tells me about how she had no idea how to make egg rolls until she married my father, and I tell her about school. We laugh and laugh until it hurts, spilling our drinks and putting too much filling in the wrappers.
As I roll tuck and roll and seal with egg wash, I look up at the painting of my grandmother displayed in our dining room. She is smiling, and I know a painting cannot see me, but I always smile back, muttering a small sorry for changing up her recipe, and carry on, knowing that she is looking down at us and laughing with us.
- Cindy Du
Dedicated to my bà nội. Happy 82nd birthday.
Cover photo source: vickypham.com