MILL VALLEY, CALIF. — When I announced my plan to adopt a baby from Vietnam, friends recommended child-development texts, Vietnamese language tapes, and travel guides. The volume of information overwhelmed me almost as much as the prospect of first-time motherhood.
But in my family, we don't read. We cook. Just as important as the Passover Seder ritual is the matzo ball soup. When my mother says, "I'm visiting a friend in need," she means: "I'm baking a coffeecake." If I'm fretting, I layer sheets of fresh pasta with homemade marinara sauce and bake until I smell Napoli.
So, facing the arrival of my daughter, I followed friends' advice and went to the local bookstore. I unfolded maps of Hanoi, glanced at grammar tapes, and riffled through child-rearing tomes.
And came home with a Vietnamese cookbook.
I started with appetizers, spring rolls, and dipping sauce. At the Asian market, I looked for vermicelli and banh trang (round rice-paper wrappers), only to find shelves stocked five high with rice-noodle products. This was worse than the bookstore.
The shopkeeper appeared. "May I help you?"
I wanted to blurt out: "Tell me how to honor my child's heritage while raising her in a Caucasian American community. How to love her completely yet understand when to say no. How to be a good mom. Sell me a product. Show me a recipe."
Instead, I simply said: "Spring rolls."
"First time?" he asked.
I nodded. He handed me a package. "This brand is easier to work with when you're not experienced. You'll need nuoc mam," he added, leading me to rows of tawny-colored fish sauce. "This is best for dipping." He handed me the largest bottle as if to say, You'll be doing this for a lifetime.
At home I laid out my ingredients. To soften the rice paper, the recipe told me to dip the edges in warm water and twirl it until it is submerged. I then placed the rice paper on a flat surface and stretched out any wrinkles, dutifully following directions.
The first one disintegrated. I'd left it underwater too long. I dipped the next one more rapidly, but when I piled stuffing on top, the paper was too stiff to roll. I wished for a Vietnamese aunt who could train my hands to know instinctively the correct temperature and consistency, the way my mother taught them to model matzo balls lighter than clouds.
But I was hungry. I dipped another paper and stretched it out. On the lower third I placed barbecued meat, red-leaf lettuce, mung bean sprouts, and mint leaves. I topped that with a tiny pile of cooled vermicelli, folded up the bottom, tucked in the sides, and continued rolling until I held a translucent cylinder in my palm. I took a bite: clean yet pungent, flavors both strange and familiar.
I got cocky and paid less attention to the next ones, so I wasted four in a row. I realized that only with a balance of concentration and relaxation would my fingers find the right amount of heat, the correct texture, and the perfect amount of pressure.
I invited friends for dinner. Some of the spring rolls had torn edges, which I tucked under and laid, ragged side down, on the platter. Others bulged in the middle. One fell apart in the dipping sauce, tangy with chili paste and lime. But no matter how flawed, each one tasted delicious.
Since then I've served pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) in deep bowls, with green onions and chicken. I've mastered fish, sticky with caramel sauce, in a clay pot. I've stir-fried spicy vegetables and steamed banana tapioca with coconut milk. The shopkeeper now nods when I enter the Asian market. He leaves me alone unless I ask for help.
I still make mistakes, but I'm improving with practice.
Although fearful at first, I allowed the combination of curiosity, perseverance, and hunger to lead me to a foreign place. Upon arrival, I found something zesty and piquant. Now it is as if I have known these flavors all of my life.
As I await my daughter's arrival, I will continue to familiarize myself with her culture by way of its cuisine. And when she gets here, I hope that by making these Vietnamese specialities, I can help ease her transition.
As a neighbor, who borrowed my recipe and then invited me to share the pile of spring rolls he'd made, aptly put it: "You know, this is what you're going to be eating from now on Â- until she gets old enough to say, 'Enough of this, Mommy. I want a hot dog.' "
This recipe can be easily adapted. Try substituting chicken for pork, crabmeat for shrimp and pork, or skipping the meat and seafood altogether to create vegetarian spring rolls. Look for ingredients in Asian sections of supermarkets or in Asian specialty stores.
1/3 pound pork
1/2 pound medium-size shrimp, cooked
8 to 10 (12-inch) round spring roll wrappers
1 small head red-leaf lettuce, washed, dried, and ripped into large pieces
1/4 pound vermicelli rice noodles, cooked in boiling water 4 to 5 minutes, rinsed and drained
1 cup mung bean sprouts
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
1 cup Hoisin-Peanut Sauce or Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (recipes below)
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped, for garnish
Cook pork in boiling salted water until just tender, about 30 minutes. Cool and dice. Cut shrimp in half lengthwise.
Fill a large bowl with hot water, about 110 degrees F. Dip a rice-paper sheet into the water, edge first, then turn to wet it completely, for about 10 seconds. Lay sheet on a clean dish towel and stretch to remove wrinkles.
On the bottom third of the sheet, place about 3 shrimp halves, 2 pieces of pork, 1 piece of lettuce, 1 tablespoon vermicelli, 1 tablespoon mung bean sprouts, and 4 to 5 mint leaves. Fold up the bottom, pressing down on the stuffing ingredients, then fold in the sides. Roll while pressing down continuously, into a cylinder about 1-1/2 inches wide by 5 inches long. Repeat with remaining rolls.
To serve, cut rolls into 2 to 4 pieces and serve cut side up on a plate. Garnish with cilantro, and serve with Hoisin-Peanut Sauce or Vietnamese Dipping Sauce.
Serves 6 to 8.
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon ground chili paste
1 green chili, minced
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup hot water
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons carrots, shredded
Pound garlic, chili paste, and green chili with a mortar and pestle or finely mince the garlic and chili and combine with chili paste. Mix with next 4 ingredients. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Serve in individual serving bowls with shredded carrots floating on top.
Makes 1-1/2 cups.
1 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup yellow onion, minced
1 tablespoon ground chili paste
1 tablespoon roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
Bring first 4 ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 to 7 minutes. When cool, add chili paste and peanuts.
Makes 2 cups.