Life Life

24/01/2020 - 10:18

Sweet potato sticky rice of Nong village

That year-end family meal was one I never forgot. Uncle Ca’s (the Eldest uncle) eyes were watering as he picked up the bowl of sweet potato sticky rice: “It’s been 50 years, now that I eat the dish again". Aunt Ut (The Youngest aunt) said softly to my mother: "Your dish makes us miss Mother so much!”

Sweet potato sticky rice of Nong village

That year, Uncle Ca came home to visit right on Tet holidays; on the day we carried out worshipping our ancestors. He was over 65 years old. Uncle Nam’s (The Fifth uncle) and aunt Ut’s families also came home. So even though the New Year had yet to come, our family was bustling.

Each of us was assigned to make our best dish. We all wanted our dish to be the most eye-catching and delicious. We wanted to impress Uncle Ca since in our family he is the perfect image of talent, reputation, success and perseverance to overcome the challenges of a life in a far-away land.

My cousins brought us suitcases of colorful candies. Those living in Hue offered jams and cakes that we had learned from our aunts and grandmothers years ago. My mother made Ut Quan go to Nong village to buy dried sweet potatoes, and then to Truoi to buy sticky rice to make a pot of sweet potato sticky rice, despite our strong protests because it was not a beautiful dish at all.

My mother smiled gently: "Your grandmother used to make this dish and your Uncle Ca liked to eat it." My mother’s sweet potato sticky rice is a labor-intensive dish. The sweet potatoes and sticky rice must be soaked in water, and must be cooked separately. Once the sweet potatoes are cooked just right, the sticky rice is added in. Sugar and ginger are also added and everything is mixed together. Only then would the dish be up to my grandmother’s standard.

That year-end family meal was one I never forgot. Uncle Ca’s eyes were watering as he picked up the bowl of sweet potato sticky rice: “It’s been 50 years now that I eat the dish again". Aunt Ut said softly to my mother: "Your dish makes us miss Mother so much!” We listened silently to the stories of our uncles’ and aunts’ childhood whose hardships seemed long forgotten.

Back then, my father’s family was very poor. My grandmother was the daughter of the Vo Dai lineage of Nong village. She got married to my grandfather who came from royal blood, living in Truoi. After getting married, she brought her cooking ways of Nong village to live with her husband’s family and helped them overcome the chaos of the war.

The sweet potato in Nong village is not like that of other villages. The skin is thin and the flesh is sweet and friable. When the sweet potato season is over, every household would store them along with rice for the rainy season. Back then, Hue was rainy all winter long and there were often flooding.

In the dreary cold and wet weather, the girls of Nong village were taught to cook various dishes from dried sweet potatoes and produce from the garden. Nong village people who live far away from home miss sweet potato sticky rice and braised fish with jackfruit fibers the most. In the feast to worship our ancestors, my grandmother would always have the sweet potato sticky rice, and the sweet potatoes must be from Nong village.

Nong village’s sweet potato sticky rice is slightly sweet with the aroma of ginger and of the sweet potatoes which have been soaked in the summer’s air and sun. The sticky rice and sweet potatoes blend in together, soft and fragrant of the winter of Hue, of the cold weather but cozy atmosphere of generations gathered together at the year-end feast to celebrate Tet.

In those difficult times, at the age of fifteen, Uncle Ca had to leave the land of Truoi to go to Saigon to find a job to earn a living. At that time, his family had only 5 cans of rice. My grandmother gave him two and a half cans of rice, a bag of dried sweet potatoes and two coins. I kept wondering how, in 1945s, Uncle Ca could reach Saigon which is so far away.

 My uncle smiled kindly: "Well, I just walked and asked passing by cars for a lift along the way.” If no one gave him a ride, he would walk. When he reached villages, he asked the local people to borrow their stove to cook rice. Once the rice ran out, he ate potatoes. Sometimes, the villagers along the road would feel sorry for him and invited him to eat with them. When his rice, potatoes and money ran out; when his hair got long like women’s hair; when the soles of his sandals were worn out, he finally reached Saigon. What is more amazing is that he found his uncle’s photography shop on Le Loi Street.  His first bowl of rice in Saigon was full of tears. 

Then, the whole family left Truoi to move to Hue. They asked to stay in a relative’s yard on Nam Giao slope. At the age of 14, my father went to school in the morning, and in the afternoon, went to Hue railway station to sell snacks to passengers. He would also do any jobs to earn money to help my grandparents and support his siblings to go to school.

My grandfather retired from work and opened a class at home to earn money and also to teach his children. My grandfather was strict with his schooling, so all of my uncles and aunts exceled in their studies. 

My mother told me that she got married to my dad when my grandmother was hospitalized with tuberculosis. The whole family ate rice with salted fish sauce, to save money for grandmother’s medicines. However, no one was allowed to drop out of school or neglect their studies. 

Every weekend or as a treat for studying well, my grandmother would make sweet potato sticky rice for my father and his siblings. It was the most delicious delicacy of the whole family at that time. The sweet potatoes were from grandmother’s Nong village and the sticky rice was from grandfather’s Truoi village. My youngest aunt recounted that she was always looking forward to Sunday, to eat sweet potato sticky rice. The aroma of the rice spread throughout the house.

So, my father and his siblings grew up, quietly passing through the turns of fate. Thanks to the strictness of their father’s teaching and the love in their mother’s meals, they each matured and succeed in their own careers.

My eldest uncle took an apprenticeship with his uncle for a while. When he saved up some money, he began to go to school. I have yet to get a chance to ask him how a fifteen-year-old boy could earn his living in Saigon at that time. What did he do to rise up and then fly all the way to a place without any relative, to study and achieve the success that he has today? 

Last week I went looking all around Dong Ba market and found only one stall selling the right kind of dried sweet potatoes. The time of worshiping our ancestors has come. This year, I made sweet potato sticky rice just as my mother had taught. With a heart full of love, I decorated the dish with colorful flowers.

The simple dish contains the difficult childhood and the resilience of my father’s family to overcome their hardships. Perhaps those difficult days have molded the tradition of my family. Nothing can hinder our determination to rise up, so that tomorrow is always a brighter, more fulfilling day.

Story and photo: Nguyen Phuoc Tuy Ha