When I left Vietnam for school in California, I thought I’d have no problem finding Vietnamese food. There are plenty of phở (beef noodles) and bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) served in food trucks and trendy pop-up dinners in Southern California. But the international perception of Vietnamese food does not (yet) stretch too far outside the main staples like phở or spring rolls. For years, I desperately looked for a place with a Hanoian-style Bún mọc dọc mùng (fresh rice vermicelli with taro stems and mushroom meatballs) in the US, but to no avail. In fact, few of my Asian friends even knew taro stems were edible! If you’ve never heard of it before, it is a celery-looking vegetable that is spongy in texture and absorbs all the yumminess of your soup or broth.
Bún mọc dọc mùng might sound exotic to my friends but for me, it is simply what I grew up having. My dad used to take me to the old quarter in Hanoi, and we would sit on those tiny plastic chairs, excited for our 2-dollar bowls filled to the brim with green taro stems. The ribs, meatballs and pineapples combined produce a unique and calming sweetness. If chili sauce or a thin slice of fresh chili pepper were added, the result would be a divine mixture of sweet and spicy, not overpowering but delivered just right via the hot, tender and spongy taro stems. During wintertime, bún mọc dọc mùng was my perfect alternative to phở, with a healthier fiber supply, too.
Being away from home has taught me two things: (1) those 2-dollar bowls aren’t simple to make but if you have the will, it is doable in your kitchen and (2) frozen taro stems in the US cannot compare with the fresh ones back home, but they do the job. When I’m stressed with essay deadlines at school, washing the taro stems or slicing the shiitake mushrooms helps me meditate while nourishing myself. It slows down my day and reminds me of those noodle bowls of steamy goodness that attract endless crowds every morning in Hanoi.