Food with a Slice of History

Tag: relationships

Tung Nguyen & Kathy Manning: The Women Who Introduced Miami to Vietnamese Food

Mangoes in a crate

Hung Nguyen is associated with mangoes and Kathy Manning with peppercorns in their memoir Mango and Peppercorns. (Image courtesy of Antonio Cansino on Pixabay)

Tung Nguyen chose the name “Hope” (Hy Vong) for the Miami-based Vietnamese restaurant that she opened with Kathy Manning in 1980.  While reading Mango and Peppercorns, Tung’s and Kathy’s memoir, written with writer and restaurant critic Elisa Ung, I began to think about the specific meaning of hope within Tung’s personal context. For Tung Nguyen, having hope meant that she eventually managed to see her Vietnamese family again after a decade-long separation. Having hope meant that she found a way to successfully raise her daughter in a country whose culture and language often confounded her. And having hope meant that her hard work earned her recognition and respect within her community of American customers and Vietnamese expats.

As I became absorbed in her story, I had my own personal hopes for Tung Nguyen. I hoped that living in the US would help her look at Vietnamese culture from a different perspective, help her see through the shallow prejudices that she, born a peasant, suffered in her own country.  I also hoped that she would overcome the trauma in her rich personal history and find a way to connect with people across cultural and class boundaries.

Trillium Natural Foods, Lincoln City, Oregon

Trillium Natural Foods (Image by Penwhisk)

My recent experience of Trillium Natural Foods in Lincoln City on the Oregon coast, made twentysomething years after I came to the US, threw into relief colorful strands in the weave of my Bulgarian-American identity.

I had learnt of co-op stores soon after my arrival in this country.  I was having a conversation with Will, a fellow graduate student, about my plans for my first Christmas in the States.  My Bulgarian roots held firmly to an idea of a strictly set traditional Bulgarian menu: vegetarian bean stew; rolls of pickled cabbage stuffed with rice and dill; and phyllo dough pastry filled with roasted pumpkin, walnuts, and raisins, sweetened with honey, and flavored with cinnamon and cloves.  I quickly got immersed in a complicated and somewhat tangled explanation that I had preceded with the statement, “I don’t like the taste of beans and pickled cabbage, but I must have them at Christmas.” I followed this with a passionate description of the above dishes that the Bulgarian in me felt compelled to prepare pretty much from scratch.

Broccoli Lasagna the Bulgarian Way

Two heads of green broccoli

Image courtesy of Allen Lau on Pixabay

Broccoli lasagna isn’t part of the Bulgarian national cuisine.  There’s no Italian influence on the cooking of my native country.  The original recipe came from a British cookbook for easy-to-prepare meals.  The British might have had colonial interests in “the sick man of Europe,” to whom Bulgaria once belonged, but they don’t have much to do with the foods Bulgarians eat on a regular basis either.  The territories of what is now modern Bulgaria used to be provinces of the Ottoman Empire.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the populations of cities like Plovdiv, where I grew up, were diverse and culturally rich.

In Plovdivska khronika (The Chronicles of Plovdiv), a treasured book in my parents’ library, Nikola Alvadjiev describes the colorful ethnic neighborhoods in my hometown a century ago: Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Romani, and Turkish.  In their work and leisure activities, Plovdiv’s inhabitants commingled peacefully and influenced each other’s practices: coffee drinking, smoking, and cooking.  This is probably the reason why I have a tender spot for Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cooking when I’m at home.  When I travel, I also seek out restaurants serving Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.  Even though not exactly Bulgarian, this is the type of cooking that speaks to me.

Mon Chéri

Hollyhocks flowers in a garden

Image courtesy of Stella de Smit on Unsplash

A Mon Chéri was my first bite of capitalism.  I couldn’t have been older than five.  Unease gripped my throat as soon as I bit into the crisp, thin chocolate exterior and liqueur ran down my chin.  Just a second later, a sticky wave of panic washed over me: my top would stain, and my grandfather would yell at me back home.  My clumsy fingers quickly shove the rest of the praline into my mouth.  I stole an anxious glance at my grandmother’s stained dress but the alcohol got to my head and within seconds, I felt slightly elated.  The neat, white curtains couldn’t stop me from glancing through the window.  The hollyhock blossoms out in the garden on the other side nodded conspiratorially at me.  Their vibrant colors looked even more radiant and tempting.

Cooking with Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi

Apricot and Walnut Cake by Yotam Ottolenghi (Image by Penwhisk)

Complicated is my relationship with Yotam Ottolenghi, the eminent Israeli-British chef, owner of notable culinary establishments in London and author of award-winning cookbooks.  Ottolenghi and I have never met and we appear to be at very different stages in life.  Currently, I am a stay-at-home mom and house-wife, an occupation, which, going by the look on the faces of those with whom I share this piece of information, makes me neither capable nor accomplished.  I have won no awards as a stay-at-home mom.  (This is fortunate, for I associate such distinctions with the Mother’s Cross of Honor, given to women in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.)  Nonetheless, there are some things that Ottolenghi and I have in common.  Firstly, both of us hold advanced degrees in Comparative Literature — he a M.A. and I, a Ph.D.  Plenty More is the second thing we share.  He wrote it and I must have used it cooking at least 150 times in the past year. 

Shoba Narayan The Milk Lady of Bangalore

a cow

Image courtesy of Derek Story on Unsplash

I knew that in India cows were considered holy beings, but it was only when I read Shoba Narayan’s latest book that I understood how the relationship to these animals enriched the exchanges between humans.  The Milk Lady of Bangalore tells a captivating story about Sarala, who tends to her cows in the midst of the rapidly developing, bustling capital of Karnataka state in South India.  Narayan’s decision to buy raw milk from Sarala’s cows sets her on a path of unexpected discoveries about the life of urban farmers like Sarala, the bond they nurture with their animals, cultural beliefs about the wholesome qualities of cow urine and the purifying properties of cow dung.  However, most importantly of all is that Narayan’s narrative reveals the ways in which two human beings who inhabit radically different worlds can share rich moments of understanding and intimacy.  In an age when we rely predominantly on social media to connect and communicate with others, and even to maintain our friendships, it is both eye-opening and much needed to engage with Narayan’s thoughtful and compassionate narrative of her interactions with her milk lady.


Image courtesy of Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Banitza, thin sheets of rolled out pastry filled with a mixture of eggs and crumbled feta cheese, was one of my grandmother’s specialty dishes, which I vividly remember.  I see my grandmother carefully walking down the steps from her kitchen on the very top floor, holding in her hands firmly but tenderly a baking pan, covered with a thin cotton cloth.  Underneath was her banitza, a cloud of powdered sugar, set on flaky pastry, which was delicate as egg shells in shades of buttery yellow and darker browns.  Where the shell had cracked, I glimpsed silky filling of feta cheese and egg yolk.  My eyes savored the banitza, while I had a distinct sense that it was not baked just to be eaten.

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