Any prospective reader of Kim Fay’s book about Vietnamese food should be forewarned. Her descriptions are awfully good. In the city of Hue, following her first exposure to com hen, or clam rice, which was served to her Vietnamese-hot, well beyond the four-star scale, she returned the next morning for a lower heat version.
“It had not rained in the night,” she writes, “and so this com hen was topped with thin slivers of star fruit. Their tartness sparked against the dry crunch of the wonton sticks. The clams were light, and just a bit gritty from the alluvial bed of the Perfume River. The chili pinched through, roguish but painless, and then there was that cheeky spearmint, fighting for attention among the distinctive flavors. The pork crackling was clean and crunchy.” In the process of describing her pleasure, Fay goes on to identify an emotion that is very familiar, but which I don’t recall ever having read an account of before: “There are rare and beautiful foods that I crave not only when I do not have them but also while I am in the process of eating them. My mother’s raspberry pie. Com hen. Foods I want to both devour and save for later. I lingered over a spoonful of rice, clams, coriander, and marinated banana flower.”
Well, I can conjure a pretty close approximation of her mother’s pie. But com hen? I can just taste it from her description, but I know I’ve never had anything quite like it. And so much for saving it until later. I want some right now.
Fay’s Communion: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam teases the reader like this over and over. But it’s a wonderful tease.
Fay’s culinary journey began during her five years following college, at the Elliott Bay Book Company. At one point, she writes in an email interview, she was in charge of the cookbook section. She started reading food books, so she’d know what to recommend to customers. A colleague recommended M.F.K. Fisher.
“I fell madly in love,” she writes. She devoured The Art of Eating, an anthology of five of Fisher’s books, then went on to Angelo Pellegrini, Elizabeth David, Laurie Colwin, and others.
Referring to Fisher, “I’d never experienced creative non-fiction before and hadn’t realized how the techniques of fiction— description, narrative—could be used in that way. Plus, Fisher writes with such an enviable blend of straightforwardness and sensuality.”
Then Fay went to Vietnam to teach English. But not write about its food. She figured she’d write a novel. Even though she already loved food, she did not learn to cook a single Vietnamese dish during her four years there. She was preoccupied, she writes in her introduction to Communion.
“I was writing a novel. I was navigating a relationship…I was discovering myself as an entirely new person living in a foreign land. Also, I could just walk out my front door at any hour of the day and trade a few cents for an amazing bowl of beef noodle soup… or wander around the corner for the best home cooking in Vietnam.”
But when she finally returned to the states, she missed the food and so started to study Vietnamese cooking and plotting a return.
Fay was working as an editor for the travel website ThingsAsian.com. She started thinking about a food book. “I wanted to write something that would take readers beyond the war, which still dominated writing about Vietnam” she says, “and when I thought about the country, I realized how much of my life there had been dominated by meals.”
She became fascinated by “how intricately the food was entwined with the culture and history of the country.”
Indeed, that’s the beauty of Communion. This is an extraordinarily ambitious book. Though framed by a five-week culinary tour of Vietnam, Fay manages to not only hit more restaurants and food stalls than seems humanly possible, she brings a depth of cultural, political, and culinary history to the mix.
By the way, Fay and her entourage, which includes her sister Julie, who took all the photographs for the book, and her Vietnamese “sister” Huong, seem to eat all the time. They’ll grab a snack on the way to lunch. Or after lunch. Or both. But judging from the photographs, they are all slender. This is the wonderful thing about southeast Asian cuisine, as anyone who travels there will quickly discover. Composed largely of fruits and vegetables, the food allows the very slender citizens to eat all the time. My kind of place.
Regardless, Communion is much more than a “foodie” book, thank goodness. Fay sets the diversity and bounty of contemporary Vietnam against a past of deprivation and famine.
Between October 1944 and May 1945, she writes, up to two million Vietnamese died of starvation, victims of food shortages exacerbated by the occupying Japanese diverting rice to ethanol production.
In Hanoi, “an entire generation was born into and raised in an environment where food as enjoyment was taboo.” Nearly all the restaurants in the country were shut down after 1954, when Vietnam declared independence from France. Restaurants and traditional festivals were abolished. “During the American war that followed until 1975, and the lean decade after the war’s end, dining out in restaurants in the north, even at street stalls, was almost nonexistent, except for the privileged few and visiting dignitaries…”
But now, with Vietnam’s food culture firmly reestablished, Fay tastes and evaluates grades of fish sauce, perfects her spring roll wrapping technique, and contemplates the originality of cuisine, exploring a country she clearly loves with a determined appetite.
On the web
Recipes and instructional video from the book, Communion: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam