In all the years I've shared my stories in this space, something has always stopped me from sharing any of the most harrowing story I know. It's never felt like my story to tell and even today, I feel a little nervous because it's not my story. It never will be. But in light of all that has and is happening over in the US the past few weeks, I feel it's as important a time as ever to share these exact stories. In the hopes that we can all grow a little bit more tolerant, grow a little bit more welcoming and grow a whole lot more grateful and full of love, for our fellow humans.
I often think about how differently my life would've turned out, had there not been a war in Vietnam...
I was born 5 years after Saigon fell to the communist North, 20 years after the war began. It was also the year my husband (age 5) and his family successfully fled South Vietnam (after three previous foiled attempts). Floating silently in the dead of night down a series of smaller rivers in a boat hand-built by my father-in-law, they connected to the Mekong River and from there floated out into the open sea. To safety, or so they hoped. My husband, Si, is one of 9 children. His parents wouldn't risk jail, robbery or death to save their family, unless the risk of staying was far greater than the risk of leaving. I can't even being to imagine the choices they had to make.
3 days after leaving Vietnam they arrived in Malaysia, thankfully all alive, but only just. For many years after Si and I first met, I queried him on why his memories of it all were so faint. I mean, 5 years old you remember a bit right? After talking with my mother-in-law a few years ago, I finally got to the bottom of the missing memories. Over the three days it took to get from Vietnam to Malaysia, Si and his siblings floated in and out of consciousness, severely dehydrated, scorched from the blazing South East Asian sun and no doubt starving (as they had fled with only a handful of coconuts to feed 13). Can you even begin to imagine?...
The fact that they all made it alive is something my mother-in-law still marvels at. Her stories of whole boats, crammed full of dead bodies washing up on the beach near the refugee camp they called home for nearly a year, still sends chills up and down my spine whenever I think about it. Not everyone was as lucky as them.
Many Vietnamese called these camps home for years and years, but through luck, sheer determination or a combination of both (I'm sure), Si's parents managed to secure sponsorship from an incredible family in Perth, Western Australia and the rest they say, is history.
What if there was no war in Vietnam and Si's family never had to flee? What if a sponsor never came and he lived his whole life in that camp in Malaysia? What if, what if. Questions I often ponder. I think it's pretty safe to say my life wouldn't be what it was right now.
In the current uncertainty of the world, the way I see it is we have two choices. To accept everyone and all as ONE human race. Or believe the fear-mongering people in power and go against human decency, setting out to divide an already divisive world. I'm well aware of the privilege I hold as a mostly pakeha (European) person, born to a New Zealand family. I know the struggles I have in my life are nothing compared to so many others in this world. It breaks my heart to think that people from war-torn countries may not be allowed to lead a life of relative safety, a life like my husband now has simply because of the religion they follow or the country they are born in. Sure, recent refugees and immigrants will tell you that the pain and hurt doesn't always go away once they're safely on foreign soil. Racism and horrid humans exist everywhere, I know. But to be able to put your children to bed, in a bed, in a house, without bomber planes flying overhead, well, shouldn't that be something every human on earth deserves?
I think it's fair to say, I LOVE Vietnamese food. If you own my first cookbook or were following me on Instagram when we traveled Vietnam with the kids are few years ago, you'll know my two favourite dishes are banh xeo (crispy rice flour pancake, pg 126 in My Darling Lemon Thyme) and rice paper rolls (my original recipe features on pg 72 of the same book). While Vietnam shares many of its dishes with neighboring countries, including chao (rice congee) and many of its sticky rice sweet treats, rice paper rolls and banh xeo as far as I know are quintessentially Vietnamese. (I do have a vague memory of a deep-fried rice paper roll version in Cambodia or Laos, but I'm talking about just the fresh kind here).
Rice paper rolls (commonly known in the US as summer rolls) are traditionally served family style. Everything is placed in the centre of the table and everyone helps themselves, making and eating as you do. We've eaten them most weeks since Si and I first met, I don't think I could ever tire of them. Even in the midst of winter I get cravings for their minty, salty/sweet goodness. The version I'm sharing today is a riff on ones we used to make when we lived in Perth, with mango trees in our backyard. Sadly, there's no mangoes here in NZ (I refuse to buy the sappy imports from Peru and the Aussie ones are EXPENSIVE as hell) so nectarine stands in its place, providing texture and natural sweetness. The quick cucumber pickle is something I've made for many years, and is something I'm always adding into everything!
This post is part of a synchronised blog series from a bunch of my food blogging friends around the world, instigated by dear friend Kimberley Hasselbrink and created to bring immigrant stories and their amazing food to the world. You can follow along via social media by searching the hashtag #immigrantfoodstories and also make sure you check out all the other blog posts, stories and recipes below:
PS. Thanks SO much to everyone for your insane response to my last somewhat emotive blog post. I will be responding to that all as soon as I can. Much love xx
Nectarine + pickled cucumber rice paper rolls
The natural sweetness of nectarines is the perfect partner to my favourite quick-pickled cucumber. I've used cashew nuts here, but use roasted peanuts if preferred. Once all the cucumber has been eaten, you can use the picking liquor to make another batch and store it in the fridge for 3-4 days. It's awesome added to salads and sandwiches. If you're a lucky Aussie or live somewhere where mangoes are abundant and beautiful, by all means use them in place of the nectarines.
50ml apple cider vinegar
100ml cold water (filtered)
25g unrefined raw sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 telegraph cucumber
2 firm nectarines, sliced thinly
1 x 35g packet vermicelli noodles (bean thread), soaked in boiling water 10 minutes + drained
1/2 cup toasted cashew nuts, roughly chopped
handful mint leaves, lettuce or sorrel leaves, chives (I also used rocket (arugula) flowers from my garden)
1 packet large Vietnamese rice paper
Gluten-free hoisin sauce (I used Ayam brand)
The juice of 1/2 - 1 lime
Finely chopped red chilli, to taste, optional
To make the pickled cucumber, combine apple cider vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer 2-3 minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside until cool. Julienne the cucumber either using a mandolin or with a sharp knife. I tend to leave out (and just eat!) the middle seedy bit as it's a bit too watery to julienne. Place into a bowl and pour over cooled syrup. Stir and set aside until required or cover and refrigerate for an hour or more if you have time.
To make the dipping sauce, combine as much hoisin sauce as you think you'll need with a little lime juice, to thin. Transfer to dipping bowls and scatter over chilli, if using.
To make rice paper rolls, get yourself a nice flat bowl and fill 3/4 with warm water (either hot from the tap or use boiled filtered water and cool with cold water). Dip one rice paper in the water quickly, just enough to wet but not soften. Transfer to a large plate. Add a little of each filling, then fold up as shown above and roll to secure. Repeat with more rice papers and ingredients and serve with dipping sauce. Enjoy x