Sunday, July 11, 2010

A fly on the wall

I'm an observer today. I see three women whose faint, crow's feet lines can't suppress the youthful twinkle in their eyes as they reminisce about days long past -- from girlhoods in Saigon to new lives, struggles, and triumphs in California. Laughter fills the air, accompanied by the familiar smell of something cooking. Something authentic. Something good. In this case, it's the filling for bi cuon chay, or vegetarian spring rolls with julienned taro root, jicama, and potatoes coated in toasted rice powder masquerading as fatty shredded pork (note: chewy vermicelli and shredded pork skin are conveniently similar in texture). Or it might be the meaty broth simmering on the stovetop, ready to immerse rare slices of beef tenderloin upon serving hearty bowls of pho tai.

On the other side of of the spacious open kitchen, three men -- two husbands and a son -- are engrossed in a World Cup game: the fight for third place between Germany and Uruguay. The women's chatter is interrupted by the "Oh! Oh!! Ohhhhhhh!!"s triggered by close attempts and "almost" moments on both sides.
And working quietly in the middle of it all is my assistant. Completely focused on crafting the perfect dessert with which to end the meal, she is slicing strawberries, whipping cream, and assembling her chocolate strawberry shortcake -- a sure hit with so many chocolate lovers and strawberry fans converged in one room. She looks up to find her mother and aunts (her mother's two best friends, so close they're practically sisters) deftly wrapping the bi chay in rice paper and lettuce leaves freshly plucked from the garden outside. She hears the excitement coming from the dining table, as her dad, uncle, and friend are unanimously rooting for Uruguay to take third. And she studies her cake -- simply assembled and made with love.

She doesn't need me for inspiration today. She's surrounded by it.

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