I’ll have some gratitude with my pho, thanks
It's a truism I know, but I cannot help but feel that if we, the 'haves', spent a little less time lamenting about what we don't (yet) own, and a little more time being thankful for the plenty we already possess, things would be a lot less complicated in this messed up planet of ours. This wisdom is emphatically driven home to me each time I am invited to dine at my friend Hieu's mother, Anh Kim Ly's, house in Sydney.
Despite the fact that the Ly family have called Australia home for several decades, a nonetheless distinctly Asian mood prevails each time I arrive. Mum is invariably at the stove, juggling numerous cavernous pots, where she has intermittently been for the last five hours. The (grown up) children are making desultory conversation while scanning the Net for the latest viral video with the grandchildren, and of course, the patriarch of the family is nowhere to be seen. It's not that nobody wants to help. It just goes without saying that attempting to help (read: interfere) with the cooking process is absolute taboo. And to many of us who reside in palatial bungalows, the modest home may seem small, but to the family who live there, who arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the gratitude of being given the opportunity to start new lives in a new country, it's a tangible measure of their decades of unstinting, backbreaking hard work. The kids speak with Australian accents, but Anh speaks hardly any English, due in no small part to the fact that most of her waking hours had been consumed with looking after her children and putting food in their mouths. Socialising was a luxury neither she nor Hieu's father could afford when they arrived, so it's especially touching to see the Lys gathering religiously for meals at the family home, and enjoying food that was beyond their means when they arrived in Sydney 30 years ago, after a harrowing escape by boat from Vietnam, and time spent in a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
When Anh gives a terse nod and starts dishing out the broth, everyone obediently files to the table, and I do the same, attempting not to usurp any family member's seat, and trying, but failing, to contain my excitement at the impending meal. She's serving pho tonight. Even though Anh didn't cook before she arrived in Australia (street food was cheap and the family was affluent), she quickly learned from the families they lived with—four families sheltered in four rooms of the same house at one point—and over the years became more confident and creative. It's hard to imagine this amazing woman as a novice. Her pho—and I've had it more than once—is consistently irreproachable and the best I've ever had. It's the product of five patient hours simmering on the stove, sans short cuts. The first round of liquid is dumped after it's brought to a boil and a fresh batch of water is introduced to ensure only the good stuff remains. A plethora of other vital ingredients like ginger, coriander root, onions and five spice are added, and as each bowl of noodles is transported to the table, I silently salivate and the memory of the exquisitely robust broth is already playing in my head like a cherished melody.
Sure enough, it lives up to—and even surpasses—expectations. I've piled my bowl high with such accoutrements as lemon, beansprouts, pickled red onions, braised beef and mint, and with each slurp of the deliriously good soup, my Asian manners vanish like a tablecloth being pulled out from under my feet as I ask, like Oliver Twist, for more long before it's deemed polite to do so. During the meal, little of consequence is said as the food is voluminously appreciated, but I imagine, for Anh, it's knowing that she never was defeated, that against the odds, she brought up her kids and was able to provide for them, that is the most satisfying part of all. Well, that and the fact that her son's strange greedy friend, like her family, thought that her food was the best she had ever tasted. From little things big things grow, dear readers. Let's be thankful for all we have.