Crossing the streets in Hanoi is like entering the sea on a stormy day, a flow of motorcycles as an endless set of roaring waves. Once the swell breaks, you need to trust yourself and jump in. Swimming against the currents, and tumbling around in the waves, you finally come out of the other side looking somewhat pathetic, gasping for air, thinking “Jesus, I thought this would be it.” Eating and cooking in Hanoi is sitting right on the edge by this sea, with a calm and slightly mad presumption that you won’t get wet.
Around the low plastic tables, life is hectic — there’s a taste of chicken broth in the air as it simmers in metallic pots, the lingering smell of gasoline, the sound of water and soap splashing on the pavement, the loud thumps of women cutting chicken and colorful fruit carts creaking onwards, people slurping noodles and arguing and laughing in a language unknown… It’s all so wonderfully unfamiliar, an overloading feast for the senses. Chopsticks in hand, my sister and I tried almost everything, our palates enriched by spices, breaths filled by the aromas of distinct herbs, savoring mouthfuls of salty crispiness. Now it was time to dig in deeper, to swap our chopsticks for knives, pans, and pots, and get cooking ourselves.
The night was falling as we followed Nhung, our cooking teacher that evening, into her apartment building. We’d left the low crooked buildings of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and were now surrounded by taller concrete blocks in the Thanh Xuân neighborhood. Carrying the ingredients we’d just bought at the local market, we entered a bulky elevator that took us up to the 6th floor. Nhung’s home was a welcoming looking flat: an aquarium enclosed on the wall, plants and flowers arranged in glass vases, a TV framed by shelves with books and family pictures. Her husband and little son greeted us with friendly smiles as we went inside. The door was left open and neighbors occasionally came in to say hello, no inhibitions, no “sorry to interrupt” or “hope I’m not bothering you.” It was like the building was all one big family.
Even indoors, the spirit of street food was alive as we sat together on the floor to prepare the ingredients. Among conversations, laughs and Nhung’s directions, we chopped spring onions, ginger and carrots, mixed ground pork with eggs, spices, fish sauce, and sliced herbs. We rolled up the meat in green leaves, fried tofu and boiled vegetables with garlic.
Nhung’s son watched us with big curious eyes, perhaps wondering whether we knew what we were doing. It certainly felt like we did once their bamboo table displayed a delicious feast of fresh and fried spring rolls, special homemade spicy sauce, Vietnamese greens, tofu with tomato sauce and wild betel leaf rolls. “Enjoy!”
With every bite came a mouthful of joy. And in this joy, the one of cooking and eating together was a familiarity and generosity that made us feel right at home. The exotic tastes didn’t matter so much, nor did the fact we had just met this family of a different country, of a different religion or political viewpoint… Food had brought us together. The world looks a lot less daunting when you know you can sit with strangers and share a meal. When you cook with others, you are home, wherever you are.
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