It’s been stated by many people many times before, but it is true: one of the best meal to be had is at your grandma’s house. Or in this case, my grandma’s house. For the past 21 years, my family has spent every Saturday and Sunday dinner at grandmas. Dinner is always cooked by grandma and grandma alone. She never let anyone help, whether it was with the prep, actual cooking, or even cleaning up. We were to do nothing but eat and enjoy. And enjoy I have! When I went to college I found that the food I missed most was not spam musubi or coco puffs, in fact it was not even a specific food. What I missed most was everything and anything my grandma cooked.
She heard my pleas, and sometime in the middle of a cool Manhattan October, my freshman year at NYU, I found an enormous package of food my grandma packed in dry ice and overnighted to my dorm. Inside I found Vietnamese pork chops, shoyu eggs and stewed pork, bei (above photo) divided into single serving bags, and even a jar of nuoc nam! I can’t remember how she had it packed and how it managed to get here in mint condition. All I could remember was how incredible grateful and I was, and that I should give my parents a call and ask them to pay her back for the exorbitant shipping cost from Hawaii!
I don’t appreciate these weekend dinners near enough, and even if I did, I would have no clue how to express my feelings. I just visit every weekend, sometimes with dessert in hand, my grandma likes my apple tarts…
…and madelines, but somehow, all these gestures, whatever I do, could in no way truly express my gratitude. But I think she knows, to a certain extent at least, how these routine dinners have kept our family together and in good company all these years.
Tonight we had eggplant. This might look sloppy, a even a bit yucky, but this is what my parents grew up on in Vietnam during the 1960s. Grandma starts out with six pounds of eggplant, boils them for about half an hour. Remove from water, let cool, and peel off the skin. Make sure to drain off excess water/eggplant juice. Heat up a big wok, add a mix of vegetable and sesame oil, and brown a lot of minced garlic. Add in the eggplant and start frying. We season this dish with nuoc nam, chopped chili peppers from the garden, a few pinches of salt, and couple pieces of rock sugar. Right before it’s all pau, crack in three eggs and scramble with the eggplant quickly, then remove from heat.
The dish is divided into four bowls, laid out across the long dining table. We start our dinner with a steaming bowl of rice, and pile on the eggplant. I like to mix the rice and eggplant together, but my dad thinks mixing it is not very aesthetically appealing, so he eats it separate. It’s a truly wonderful, homey dish. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, creamy: yes, spicy: yes, chock full of nuoc nam flavor: yes, nidbits of scrambled eggs thicken and tie it all together, make for one might find dish, as ugly as it might look.
Next we have a steamed dish. Lots of thick cut funn (just purchased in Chinatown this morning) is laid out at the bottom of a pan, topped with my grandma’s own fishcake, and shrimp. She ladles a shoyu/nuoc nam/sugar based sauce generously over the entire dish, topped with minced garlic, and steams it for exactly 10 minutes.
It’s a pretty refreshing dish, and much lighter than other funn dishes I’m used to. I love funn of any kind, but unfortunately enough for me, the kind I love most is fried and topped with a heavy black bean sauce and plenty of beef (and some broccoli), hehe.
After steaming, the funn simply soaks up all the sauce, giving it plenty of flavor…my general understanding is that nuoc nam + starch of any type = good.
No meal at Grandma’s is complete without soup, and tonight we had something new she wanted to try on us. She had gone out to a friend’s birthday party last week and was particularly fond of a type of soup she never encountered before. She noted down the ingredients and flavors in her head and tried to replicate it tonight. It was pretty awesome! It’s a kabocha based soup, but it’s not thick like other sorts pumpkin based or chowder soup. Chopped kabocha, barley, lotus seeds, chestnuts, and longan is all boiled together and then strained out for a light, savory soup. I imagine it could be easily converted to a sweet dessert soup.
She serves the broth in the middle of the table and places a bowl with all the boiled ingredients on the side, instructing us to spoon the soup into the bowls add in the other ingredients if we wished. The boiled ingredients, as you may imagine, are not left with much flavor, but I enjoy it quite a bit on its own with a splash of shoyu on top.
Hayden mangos all around for dessert! Unfortunately my grandma’s house was not blessed with a mango tree (although there are tons of chili peppers growing out front!), so we buy mangoes from a friend in Chinatown. Tonight’s mangos were especially delicious, and as icing on the cake, they were very well chilled. I like my mangos near frozen, and these were pretty darn close. My grandma does all the slicing, one mango a person and we devour them at the dinner table, in silence, paying our respects to the crisp sweet goodness of these island fruits.