KHỔ QUA and Noodle Soup 2

January 31, 2021

Hello,

At the end of 2020, I began to get really irritated when people kept saying “Good riddance, 2020” or “I can’t wait for this awful year to end” because I didn’t understand how going from one day to the next would suddenly turn us around. 

But as the days get longer and I try to unclench my jaw, at least a little, I want to believe there is change on the horizon. We just can’t know how much or how quickly. Like saying “I can’t wait for the year to be over” without knowing what lies ahead, to be sure of anything seems unlikely.

This feels apt as we continue our way through NOODLE SOUP. So much of what interested us about this theme was what we don’t know and the realization that by not knowing, we are able to interrogate further - to not stop at face value. Which is something we all must do after we let our jaws unclench a little, enjoy looking at some Vermont school teacher hand-knit mittens (y’all know what I’m talking about), and sit with art and words. 

So continue with us as we learn more about etymology, my loss of language to the forces of assimilation, and the power of our own limits.

As always,

Alana Dao, co-founding/managing editor



BÁNH CANH

Words by Vien Dobui, illustrations by Bounahcree Kim

There are many unusual things about noodle soups that can be called bánh canh. If you’re looking at bánh canh cua (pictured above), you’ll notice the abundance of garnishes: chunks of crab meat, shrimp, slow cooked pork shoulder, fish balls, and squares of blood curd. Garnishes vary depending on what version of bánh canh you’re eating, of which there are many. Each variation is marked by a qualifying suffix: bánh canh cua, bánh canh giò heo, bánh canh gà, etc., etc. But if you look past the window dressing of garnishes, you’ll see that the common ingredient across all bánh canh are the thick, slightly translucent noodles. These chunky noodles are cut from a sheet or cake made from tapioca and rice flour with the final product resembling Japanese udon. Thus, “bánh canh” is the name of the noodle and short-hand for the name of the noodle soup.

Growing up, we ate a relatively spartan version of bánh canh (that we just called “bánh canh”) that - until recently - I thought was the version. This realization happens a lot to me and, I imagine, many other people like me.

We eat versions of dishes that our families make and mistake our little eccentricities for the essential, “authentic” version of that dish.

As we gain new experiences, some of us learn to appreciate the limits of our assumptions while others stubbornly hold on to these authenticity myths and beat back anything that threatens to challenge them.

What I grew up thinking was bánh canh - the ur-bánh canh - was actually bánh canh chả cá, a version common to where my mẹ is from, Phan Thiết. Mẹ’s bánh canh chả cá has the requisite thick, chewy noodles in a very lightly seasoned chicken or pork broth, fried chả cá, fried garlic, scallion-garlic oil, and - oddly enough - a chunk of bánh mì on the side. Just the bread, not the sandwich. I’d finish the noodles in my bowl and make a little sandwich with the bread and chả cá to dip into my leftover broth.

Mẹ usually made it on a Sunday, and I thought that every Vietnamese person ate this on Sundays. I am grateful that I was wrong.

I like knowing that my experience is limited -  that what I know makes up so little of what exists, that there isn’t just one bánh canh but so many yet to taste, on any day I can find it.


YAKA MEIN

Words by Alana Dao, illustration by Pam Chevez

Before crawfish and noodles, before “fusion” was ever a thing, yaka mein was the cure for what ails you. Origins for the dish are murky but yaka mein was created and shaped within what we now call the American South. This dish is clearly an amalgamation of influences from Chinese, African American, and possibly Korean cuisine with a soup consisting of stewed beef and beef broth, Cajun or Creole seasoning or chili powder, spaghetti noodles, and almost always garnished with a hard-boiled egg and scallions. One theory is that African American soldiers brought yaka mein back to the US after returning from the Korean war

However, famed New Orleans chef Leah Chase believed yaka mein was created by the Chinese immigrants who were brought to the States during the mid-19th century. The majority of Chinese immigrants in the South were there to build railroads railroads between Houston and New Orleans or work on sugar plantations and mostly spoke Cantonese.

This is why Chase’s theory may be the strongest; not only because the type of long, thin noodle found in the soup is so often attributed to Chinese or East Asian noodle dishes but also because of the etymology of its name.

This checks out as the term “yaka mein” is similar to the Cantonese pronunciation for "one order of noodles", a phrase common among small restaurant waitstaff to ask their kitchen to prepare an order of the house noodle dish. 

While I was born in a bilingual household, I lost my ability to speak Cantonese when I returned to the States as a small child. Scared I would speak with a Chinese accent, we focused on the future of my English and subsequently lost my past. I can still understand Cantonese fluently, which comes in handy whenever my mother wants to talk about somebody behind their back in public or when I eavesdrop at the Chinese grocery, but an actual conversation is beyond me. And while I can’t really speak Cantonese anymore, I can, like a toddler, at least count to ten and know some words for food.

My ability to count and demand food in a gruff, Cantonese way tells me that one order of noodles would sound like “yāt gwo mein” which, when manipulated by an English-speaking tongue, could possibly turn into “yaka mein.”

So while I’m certainly no expert, I can still tell one thing from another - a possible right from a possible wrong - and say that this seems right.


LAMB NOODLE SOUP

Words by Alana Dao, illustration by Joey Tatlock

This dish comes from the Xinjiang region in Central/Northern China. Xinjiang lamb noodle soup signifies the marked difference between this geographic region of China and the broader strokes that Westerners imagine Chinese food to be. As a child, my father taught me about Chinese food by delineating regions in China based on the types of food these areas were known for. He would always say that Northern Chinese ate bread and noodles while those in Southern China ate rice because the colder climate in the north was better for growing wheat for flour.

And this was all I knew of Northern China: it’s colder there so bread and noodles are more prevalent than rice.

I did not know that the Xinjiang region is the largest autonomous region in China. Nor did I learn that Central Asia is home to a large Muslim population, most notably the Uighur people, a Turkic ethnic minority who have lived in this westernmost province of China for centuries. The Uighurs are currently under great threat because of their way of worship. As an adult, all I ever learned about them have been stories of struggle and danger from the news. But what I have come to learn outside of this narrative is that cuisine reflects multitudes and how strikingly different it is from perceptions of what “Chinese” means.

For example, lamb noodle soup usually consists of broth, lamb, hand pulled flour noodles, and bread. This dish not only showcases how prevalent lamb is in this region - where there is less focus on pork and beef - but also that bread and noodles are an integral part of the diet. Not only are there noodles in the dish, but bread is also diced and added into the soup or served alongside.

Spices such as cumin, peppercorns, and caraway are heavily featured, a whisper of this area’s connections to the Silk Road and the rich history of the region that has come before.

These histories are hidden to perhaps tell an easier, smoother, story. I, like so many others, have spent many years thinking of China as a great monolith but this is, of course, not the case.


ROUNDING ERRORS

by Alana Dao

I’m from Texas and am visibly Asian of some variety (people love to guess.) So when I first moved to Maine, a common way for people to begin a conversation with me was “Where are you from? Texas? Oh wow, you sure are far away from home. How did you get all the way up here?” and then we would launch into a conversation that always highlighted my otherness, my being different.

“Wow, an Asian from Texas” or “you even say y’all!” made me feel like an anomaly. But, I’m not.

Even as far back as 2013, the county I grew up in was being touted as what the future of ethnic diversity in American would look like: breakfast burritos at Soliz across from the local high school, Asian grocery shopping for Chinese vegetables with my mom, a stop for afternoon tea at the Hindu temple were the norm on weekends. 

During the week, however, I attended a very white and very conservative parochial school. The problem was that both my parents worked and nobody had the time to pick me up from the private school that sat outside our county. My mom pored over the school directory, looking for families to carpool with and finally found one near us. Rescuing her from the logistical nightmare that is childcare in the US was an Indian family who invited us over for tea one day to work out the details. 

The mother, aka my carpool mom, served us milky chai and spicy chaat on that first visit, a precursor to the dinners and meals I would have in that family’s house until I left for college. Soon, she saw that I was often picked up well after dark and that cooking dinner was probably beyond my mom on some nights, and so we settled into a routine. If it was getting dark, I’d eat with their family. If my mother was on time, I would be ready by the door with a glass Pyrex full of dal for when we got home. 

At some point, my mom ended up coming in. We would have dinner there a few times a week, our noses running as we grew accustomed to the spice and heat level. If I was lucky, it would be sambhar and idli, or some other Southern Indian delight like dosa, or maybe even pav bhaji with rolls slathered in so much ghee that my fingers would leave stains on the family’s glass coffee table. 

The best though, was when they had family come in from India. That was when all the party food came out: kaju katli, sev, and puri. Huge gatherings would happen where they would have a smattering of North and South Indian food, homemade jalebi, and my favorite: any manner of chaat.

Chaat is an umbrella term for a large array of snacks, typically made with fried dough and, in my experience, made to be eaten in combination with a variety of snacks all smothered with sauces, chutney, and/or yogurt. Tiny snacks with so much flavor in them that I can taste them now as I write this.

However, snacks and street food are rarely seen on an Indian restaurant menu here in Maine.

But I have found chaat at Taj Indian Cuisine in South Portland, near the mall which is often the best place to find a restaurant, in my opinion. Before Covid, the chaat options at Taj were pretty solid and if you went on the right day, somebody in the kitchen could make you a dosa. This felt like my adolescence to me: sometimes I got the special, sometimes I didn’t. But either way, you can’t beat it. And Taj delivers! Literally and figuratively! 

Recently, I ordered a samosa chaat, the only chaat currently on their takeout menu. A samosa is a samosa, but a samosa chaat shakes everything up. The samosa is quartered and topped with sev, chickpeas, cilantro and tamarind chutneys and, depending on the day, chopped “Sad Hannaford Tomatoes©” or diced red onion. Because it was takeout, the samosa did get a little soggy as I waited for its delivery, but the crunchy sev on top kept things from getting too mushy on its car ride over to me.

While Taj delivers, I discovered that there is a better and cheaper menu if you pick-up. Perhaps this is purely coincidental but the food that I picked up also seemed fresher than with delivery. And their pick-up menu has more chaat-like options! Meaning, instead of just ordering one or two entrees, you can have a bunch of things to snack on such as Sambhar Vada or the Medu Vada which is a savory lentil and allium donut that comes with sambhar, a lentil broth that makes your jaw quiver from the tartness of tamarind. And a favorite for its familiarity, Chapati Bhaji which is described as “potatoes and onions cooked to perfection. Served w/ soft, thin bread.” In my biased opinion, chapatis are the underdog to overrated naan: they’re more pliable than naan and more flavorful. Chapatis are what I grew up eating, watching them puff up over the stove if I was finished with my algebra homework and chatting with my carpool mom as she made dinner. And the potatoes that come with it are so buttery and so potato-y that, with the few peas thrown in, make it essentially the insides of the dosa that I long for. 

This is what I love about snacking; there are so many things to encounter. It all amounts to a meal of variety. Crunchy bits atop a soft samosa, dunking savory donuts into a sauce-like broth, and experiencing a full range of flavors and textures in small bites feels like making something out of nothing.

I can’t really explain chaat any further than this; I cannot tell you what the word means, its etymologies, or any of its cultural history because of course, while I was immersed in it, I am not of it. I just know I love to snack.

From what I’ve read, chaat is all about transformation, contrasts in textures and flavors. It’s one of those things I just know when I see it. I feel a kinship to chaat, to thinking of snacking or even aspects of personal identity “as an emotion, of something greater than the sum of its parts.”

So if you’re gonna get take-out, get Taj and know that we are at once greater and more whole than we ever thought possible.


CONTRIBUTORS

PAM CHEVEZ (she/her) is a multidisciplinary designer born and raised in Mexico City. Her work is a blend of her native Mexican roots with elements from the environment she lives in. Adventure and curiosity feeds her creativity. She is currently feeding her self with happiness, self-love, the joy of building community, and tacos...plenty of tacos.

BOUNAHCREE KIM aka Bones aka Uncle Boney (he/him) is Wini the cat’s loving human, avid cult podcast listener, and butter chicken connoisseur. He is currently a prep cook and Twitch streamer at CTB and more of his work can be found at: @w1nsdvd. He is currently eating La-Z-Boy© meals like cereal, hot pot leftovers (otherwise known as fresh produce), and any random assortment of items in his fridge  🦝

JOEY TATLOCK (he/they) is an ex barista, front-of-house aligned restaurant worker “freelance artist” and a proud member of the He/They community. He lives in the attic someone else used to live in with his 15 year old cranky cat, Molly. He is currently eating what his roommates cooked for a special birthday celebration dinner: lasagna with homemade cashew cheese, mustard greens, lots of garlic  and mushrooms of course!!