A small window into my world…

As I close my eyes against the Pacific Northwest setting sun, I took in a deep breath filled with the aroma of lemongrass and hot peppers on the sizzling charcoal: only my friends and I would plan outdoor camping equipped with exotic herbs and anti hot dog menu… My senses awoke, my nose transported me to a time and place where everything stood still… so still like those scenes you can freeze in movies, and sometimes replay again and again to experience a different perspective, and to remember new details.

This particular scene showed a defiant pig-tailed girl throwing a tantrum after inspecting her mother’s basket upon her return from the market: there was no sour green mango and spicy dipping sauce for snack! The little devil grabbed the closest things her little hands could reach and threw them out over the kitchen balcony in anger. The small eggplants (ໝາກເຂືອ also known as Thai eggplants) that were thrown out fell into a huge pot… and splatter a distinguished, high-bun lady… with boiling-hot purple water.

A couple feet away from right underneath the balcony, a huge wooden paddle in hand, my grandmother was stirring a ginormous aluminum pot over wood fire, the flames licking black its bottom – she was dying silk threads that would later be used for weaving, a tradition kept up by most women in my family. As to not waste any source of energy, some herbs wrapped in banana leaves have been roasting underneath, in a little alcove carved out like a small oven. We were going to have ‘ponh pah’ (ປົ່ນປາ), a traditional Mekong fish stew made with roasted shallots, hot peppers, garlic, and soft boiled eggplants all crushed in a traditional clay mortar and pestle (ຄົກ ກັບ ສາກ), seasoned with ‘padaek’ (ປາແດກ – fermented fish sauce) and topped with cilantro and green onions. Needless to say, I got to spend some time in the bathroom as punishment, but instead of repenting I was imagining how delicious the spicy fish stew will be, accompanied by pickled greens (ສົ້ມຜັກກາດ), fresh seasonal vegetables, and steaming hot sticky rice (ເຂົ້າໝຽວ)…

My first memory about food takes me back to a monsoonal landlocked country in diverse Southeast Asia. It involves a traditional double roofed home on stilts, flanked on the east by Vat Ongteu (ວັດອົງຕື້) and the west by Vat Chanh (ວັດຈັນ), temples whose drums beat early in the morning as orange-robed monks chant prayers before their first meal of the day – it is the alarm signaling the neighborhood it is time to wake up and prepare for the day. It is a garden surrounded by beautifully scented exotic flowers and tall fruit trees, which I often climbed, to either build an invisible fort and find a semblance of protection away from my mother’s authority after my naughty escapades, or for their bearings as mid-day snacks. It is a safe playground, a haven, a short run to the Mekong to witness fishermen in small boats bringing in their daily catch, where people head out to water their vegetable bends on the banks of, and with water from, the mighty Mekong river, the main artery, the backbone of breathtakingly beautiful and mystical Laos…


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6 Responses to A small window into my world…

  1. I love the use of both languages in the piece, and I love the vividness and details in it, particularly the roasted herbs under the pot that boils the soon to be silk for the weaving. Most fascinatingly, the piece nostalgically takes me back to the countless times that I myself spent with my grandmother as well. I think it is safe to say that, grandmothers were/are pillars of many families in our culture. Please keep writing and sharing!

  2. laosmonamour says:

    A lovely story life in “Ban-nok” Laos: how they prepare meals, how they work. I’ve also posted a story on my blog about extraordinary people told by my grandma when I was 10 years old. See you soon in Paris then…

  3. Maly Chandravongsri says:

    This is a beautifully written piece. I also miss grandma’s house and all the fruit trees. I have some friends who still remember climbing the crab apple tree by the gate. You ought to compile the pieces and put them into a book!

    • My favorite to climb would have to be the huge crab apple tree on the side of the house, because it also allowed me to survey the empty lot next to the house! Most impressive was how heavy of fruits it got, that we had to hang a parachute underneath it to try to catch and salvage the fruits before heavy rains and strong wind!

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