If I ever get around to writing my Vietnamese novel it will ooze with snippets about food. Foremost it will mention my most memorable sweet treat; hot sugarcane fished from a drum of steaming ginger syrup on a freezing night on a mountain track above Bac Me where, with a huddle of villagers, we squat around a fire and gnaw.

 

Food of the Gods

 

A historical tale that tantalizes the taste buds and is confected with social issues is Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. Set in a French village in a past when the Catholic Church hierarchy ruled peoples’ lives, the main character, Vianne Rocher, is a young single mother. She is the catalyst for an eruption of patriarchal fury from the villainous parish priest when she arrives in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes at the beginning of Lent with her six-year-old daughter. Horror of horrors, she refuses to attend confession or mass.

 

She sets up a chocolate shop and seduces a swag of parishioners with her culinary genius, her white rum truffles, her nipples of Venus and her gingerbread houses “with the detail piped on in silver and gold icing, roof tiles of Florentines studded with crystallized fruits, strange vines of icing and chocolate growing up the walls, marzipan birds singing in chocolate trees.” Then there’s her seductive view of spirituality.

 

As one reviewer puts it: The story echoes those folk tales in which the Devil, disguised as an amiable stranger, seduces the upstanding citizens of a village by awakening their appetite for pleasure. But in Chocolat, Harris plays a variation on this theme, illuminating the awful things that can happen when we neglect the satisfactions of this world for the promise of a better one. Her amiable stranger stands on the side of earthly angels. Where Reynaud sees weeds, Vianne sees flowers. Where he sees sinners, she sees fallible humanity: “I don't think there is such a thing as a good or bad Christian… Only good or bad people.” Where he uses the fires of hell to control the saved and the fires of earth to rid the town of outcasts, Vianne uses the fire in her kitchen to cook and to nurture.

 

Edible Luminosity

 

Another cuisinely historical novel is The Book of Salt by Viet Kieu author Monique Truong. Set in 1930s Paris, it has as its central character my favourite Vietnamese chef. Binh is gay and in the apt words of an infatuated reviewer, Binh describes food luminously. “Quinces are ripe when they are the yellow of canary wings in mid-flight…” “A tart is better, uncomplicated, in the wrong hands even a bit rough. Like an American boy, I would imagine.”

 

The author got her inspiration from a reference in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook to two Indochinese cooks who worked for Toklas and Gertrude Stein.

 

Binh, a refugee from his father’s homophobic wrath in Saigon, is hired as a chef by the Sapphic celebrities. About one of Binh’s dishes Stein writes: “When he spoke of bitter melons steamed with the brine-plumped tongues of one hundred ducks… I tasted parsimony and extravagance commingled on a single plate.”

 

The word salt in the novel’s title refers to sweat, sea, food, and tears, the ingredients that make up the complex recipe that is Binh. He drinks to excess, nocturnally wanders the city, remembers and recounts stories from his homeland that are as delicious as his cooking, and even has an encounter on a Paris bridge with another refugee, Nguyen Ai Quoc — the alias of the soon-to-be thorn in the French colonial foot, Ho Chi Minh.

 

As another food loving reviewer states: there is perhaps no place so romantic as colonial Indochina or antebellum Paris, and by the end of The Book of Salt one hungers desperately for both. And perhaps even more, one hungers for one of Binh's extraordinary repasts.

 

The novel’s sub-themes stir around colonial racism and xenophobia, the plight of the immigrant who lacks the language and accepted physical features of his host nation, and, of course, the historical LBGT dilemma.

 

Big Ass Sweeties

 

Famous quotes by The Sweet Potato Queens (a women's organization that has over 6,000 active groups in over 20 countries) in their series of books by the original Queen, Jill Connor Brown, include: “Say it loud; we’re fat and proud; chocolate is the main staple of sedative food; menopause is yet another reason to start a trust fund for yourself while you're young.”

 

One compulsively sweet and salty reviewer says of The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner that: “These are my kind of recipes. You know you can’t go wrong when the four major food groups for the Queens are sweet, salty, fried and au gratin. If the recipes don’t have a couple of sticks of butter then there’s at least a pound of bacon in them. Nearly all of the recipes are quick and easy to make too.”

 

Some recipes to die for: Pig Candy, garlic and mozzarella Stinky Bread, Death Chicken, Linda’s Killer Cake and Miss Lexie’s Pineapple casserole.

 

Connor’s most recent book is The Sweet Potato Queens’ Wedding Planner/ Divorce Guide.

 

Truong Hoang is behind the bookshop, Bookworm. For more info click on bookwormhanoi.com or visit their shop at 44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi

More in this category: « Influential Rivals
Truong Bookworm

Truong comes from a family of fisher folk and has been the owner manager of the Bookworm since 2006. Apart from being a book-o-phile he loves to explore Vietnam by bicycle and motorbike. His latest travel passion is tracing the contours of the Vietnamese coastline on foot. He’s also a sustainability fan and has a green home with a rooftop garden near the Duong River.

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