Short of a meal with an old friend, cooking a recipe from an old friend is the next best thing. A couple of weeks ago, I called Hoa, whom I met when we were at University of California Santa Barbara, to ask for her recipe for fried rice with lap xuong, or Chinese sausage. "You remember," she said, rattling off the ingredients with a throaty laugh. There were, of course, no measurements, no temperatures and no times. The women in her family, like mine, measure by eye, season by smell and taste, and move the dial on the stove depending on whether the oil pops when you flick water at it or the vegetables are making the right shusssh-shusssh sound in the pan. The only way to learn is to cook alongside them. "You gonna make it?"
Even over the phone, I knew she had her eyebrow way up and a skeptical smile on her freckled face. Back in school, my roommate and I would lure her to come study at our place (really to keep us entertained and awake as we crammed for midterms and finals) with the promise of hot coffee and easy parking. OK, we lied about the parking. Every time. "Liars!" she'd shout, whipping back her mane of hair and pointing in our faces. She knew we'd appease her with coffee, maybe ice cream, as sure as she knew that parking spot was bullshit.
When we could get a ride and weren't so pressed, we'd go to her place, which was far better because she would cook. She'd grumble in her deep, raspy voice that there was nothing in the fridge and pull out day-old rice and a couple of dark, wrinkled lap xuong (pronounced "lop chong") — grim looking links that turned dark red and shone like fatty jewels when fried. It's the pancetta of China and Southeast Asia, a little bit of salty-sweet cured pork that goes a long way to flavor a dish. That and judicious use of fish sauce made her fried rice, an elegant dish of pantry staples, utterly different from my family's fridge-cleaning version, in which we dumped everything that could be chopped, swirled with soy sauce and tossed in a wok. Hoa would grin and scold us for eating her food. But she was proud of her cooking, of her ability to make something of almost nothing, and she'd beam while we sighed over our bowls.
I'd never eaten Vietnamese home cooking before I met Hoa, who is Chinese-Vietnamese American. It was on a visit to her family in Los Angeles that I had my first real bowl of pho. I watched her paint the surface of her soup with a labyrinth of Huy Fong Sriracha and followed suit with about half the amount. I was red faced and sweating, trying to breathe — she was red-faced laughing at me across the table.
Hoa's family fled Vietnam in the late 1970s. Her mother tried to get the family onto a boat that was leaving the country but there wasn't enough room for her, Hoa's father and all seven children. Rather than risk being separated, she organized her own boat, scraping money together to pay the captain and crew of the fishing boat as well as bribing officials and anyone who'd need to look the other way. For a year Hoa and her family waited in a Hong Kong refugee camp while they tried to get a sponsor in the U.S. She was 7 years old, living in a warehouse and waiting for her sisters, who found work in the city, to bring her food. At night they slept in three-tiered bunks with plywood beds. This was still better, still safer than home.
I met her mother, a small, quick moving woman, only once before she died. She spoke only in Vietnamese and regarded me with a look I knew from my own immigrant family — a mixture of kindness and caution. I was out in the larger world with her daughter, helping her navigate it and pulling her away into it. She offered me sweets and watched me as I ate.
Hoa lives in the Bay Area now, working with families as a social worker. She tells me it's exhausting, emotional work but it's important. She still makes fried rice for her family and I'm guessing she still gripes and laughs while she cooks. Talking on the phone and cooking it myself is as close as I'll get to a visit with her for a while, but that's OK. It's a chance to tell stories about her, to bask in the pleasure of making something from very little and to enjoy feeding people just because you can.
Lap Xuong Fried Rice
I've swapped in fresh carrot and sliced snow peas, but no shame in frozen peas and carrots, which is what she used back then. You can find the sausage at Asian markets like Lao Oriental Market (2908 E St., Eureka). Got a few extra eggs? Serve them sunny-side-up on top of the rice. Serves 4.
Ingredients and method:
1 cup snow peas, trimmed and sliced into diagonal strips
1 carrot, chopped in -inch pieces
½ bunch green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat of a knife and chopped
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 lap xuong sausages, skins removed and cut into ¼-inch slices
4 cups day-old jasmine rice
In a wok or large frying pan, heat ½ tablespoon of oil — moving the oil around to cover the cooking surface — over medium to medium high heat until it sizzles with a drop of water. Pour the beaten eggs into the pan to form a thin omelet and push it lightly with a spatula until you can gently flip it. Slide it onto a plate, cut it into strips and set it aside. (If you're using a wok, do this in two batches.)
Add the remaining 1½ tablespoon of oil to the hot pan along with the sausage and carrot, keeping them moving for 1-2 minutes. When the sausage turns red and glossy, add the green onion, garlic and peas. Stir-fry the ingredients for 1-2 minutes until the peas turn brighter green and the carrots are just tender.
Add the cold jasmine rice a handful at a time, breaking up clumps and incorporating the ingredients with the spatula as you go. Keep everything moving and turn down the heat if necessary to keep the rice from sticking. Swirl the fish sauce over the rice and mix it in with a pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper. Taste and add salt, pepper or fish sauce as needed. Finally, add the sliced omelet and toss it into the rice. Serve hot.