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His skinny figure stoops and meticulously cleans and wipes each green Dong leaf, then puts it into an small pile. Afterwards, he takes out a basket of peas and grinds them till they are as fine as wheat flour. Each of his movement is quick but careful, gentle and skillful. He is like a competent artist performing his show…
When I was small, I usually spent my own Tet holiday in my homeland – Thai Binh province- at a small village typical of green paddy fields, flute kites, strolling buffalos, adventurous cricket-finding afternoons and never-ending mellifluent lullabies.
The Tet at hometown was simple, but it was interesting to a six year old girl like me. Delicious jam, decorative multi-colored lanterns or lucky money could not convince me to spend my Tet in the big city. Instead, I was passionately fond of the Chung cake-making process mastered by my grandpa. He and I made cakes the same way every year, but every year I learned more about life as we did so.
Wrapping was the most exciting part of cake-making to me. Grandpa said that Chung cake needed all the ingredients: green peas, pork, sticky rice, dong leaves, onions, peppercorn and some other spices, and that the lack of one of these ingredients would change the original taste of the cake. He also told me that when we wrapped the cake, we must place intact leaves outside torn ones so that they could “protect” each other, like the strong helped the weak in the real life. Even though I could not understand deeply all the stories he gave, I still opened my eyes wide, a little girl trying to learn the world.
The work was tough. There were no ready cake mounds, as there are today, and my clumsy shaping resulted in lopsided cakes. Even so, I was delighted every time I finished a cake. I held all my finished cakes close to me and ran around the yard in pure happiness, proud that I had done something meaningful.
The next step was cooking the cakes, which took at least twelve hours. Firstly, I helped grandpa put all the cakes into a huge cooker, and then we together placed the cooker on a fire my grandma had already lighted. Grandpa said that cooking Chung cakes required patience. He told me that one who cooks Chung cakes hastily and takes them out before they are done will never feel the truly taste of Chung cake. That patience always paid off.
Cooking was fun. Our family gathered together beside that giant fire, excited and talkative. Sometimes I fell asleep as I waited for the cakes. When I woke up and saw my beloved family, I felt secure and warm. I can imagine no greater contentment than I felt on those nights: beside a huge fire under a starry sky, with soft spring wind on my skin and carefully prepared cakes cooking slowly.
As morning dawned, I always jumped up joyfully and couldn’t wait to check the cakes. I was almost more excited to see my” masterpieces” than to eat them. Tasting was artistic. Grandpa said that tasting was not just eating and making ourselves full – it was experiencing the food with all our senses. Tasting something I had made was very special. Although my cakes did not look as nice as my grandpa’s, his careful instructions about how to balance ingredients ensured that they tasted perfect. My grandpa taught me to truly feel the cake with my mouth. He told me Chung cake was considered symbolic of the earth, that with each bite I could savor the nation’s pride.
My Tet days were like that, simple but meaningful.
As the years went by, obligations in the city kept me from spending Ted holiday in my hometown. My mother always bought pre-made Chung cakes from the market, but I thought they tasted very bad. I asked why Grandpa did not make Chung cakes anymore and was told only that he was old and needed to rest. I accepted that answer and settled for the bad cakes. I longed to taste my grandpa’s Chung cakes again, but I did not want to tire him and so I told no one about my craving.
Then one year, a month before Tet, my mother was planning a visit to Thai Binh and asked whether I wanted to send a message to my grandpa. “Just tell him I miss the nation’s flavor,” I said, and she promised to do so.
Several days before Tet, my mother entered the house with a big smile and handed me a cake. “I have this present for you!”
“Oh, Chung cake again.” I figured it was the same store-bought variety I managed to choke down. “That’s nothing special.”
“Maybe you should try it before saying that,” my mother said.
With a sigh, I opened the cake and had a taste. Remarkable! “Mom, where did you get this?”
“Your grandpa sent it to you,” she replied. “I sent him your words; maybe that is the reason he made it for you.”
Immediately I decided to finish my school work as quickly as possible so that I could visit my grandpa once again. It would be my first Tet at home in four years.
Several days later, my mother and I drove through the peaceful green paddies to find Grandpa already waiting for me at his bamboo gate. “I was craving your Chung cake!” I told him, giving him a great hug.
“I thought you must have forgotten about it,” he replied. “I was happy to hear that you still remembered.”
“Chung cake is Vietnam!” I exclaimed. “How could I forget it?”
Someday, when my grandpa is gone, I will make Chung cake on my own. I will learn to properly balance the ingredients and shape the cakes neatly, as Grandpa does. As they cook I will think of family and my small hometown, and when they are finished I will serve them to friends from all over the world. I can only imagine the pride I will feel as I hand them the cakes. “Here!” I will say. “Taste Vietnam!”
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