Kim Thúy’s second novel, Mãn, is an immigrant story with food at the heart of it. She discusses food and writing with Guardian AustraliaArriving in Canada from Saigon as a child after the Vietnam war, author Kim Thúy, parlayed the love of food from her home country into a restaurant and later her book, Mãn. She is appearing at the Sydney writers festival talking about food and writing.
Brigid Delaney: what’s your favourite Vietnamese dish, and why?
Kim Thúy: Fresh spring rolls. A traditional roll contains at least six different herbs: garlic chives, fish mint, Vietnamese basil, peppermint, Thai basil, a kind of shiso. When you bite into this roll, a bouquet of different perfumes opens up. And as you chew, new flavours come out because of the mixture, like a cocktail being stirred inside. The aftertaste gives you the impression that you are standing in the middle of a garden right after the rain, inhaling freshness.
What are the defining characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine? And the stand-out or must-have ingredients?
We eat a lot of raw vegetables. There are not many dishes which are served without some mixture of greens – banana flowers, lotus stems, morning glory, green papaya ... mixed with all kinds of herbs. But the must-have ingredient – as Marguerite Duras has listed as her essentials – is nuoc mam, the fish sauce. Without fish sauce, I think my dad would not survive more than 48 hours.
Your book is as much a love story about food as it is about country and a man. Tell us why food is such an inspiration in your writing.
Vietnamese don’t usually verbalise their emotions – good or bad. They express their love through food. As soon as you step through the door of someone’s home, they will ask you if you have eaten. They serve you food without listening to your answer and your wishes. When I refuse my parents’ food, I feel the guilt of someone who rejects a love declaration.
I’ve learned that food is never simply food. The first time my husband had a flu, I made him congee, since congee can cure all diseases. But being a Canadian, he asked for chicken broth which has the same medicinal power, according to his mum. To me, food carries stories, traditions, cultures.
What is your favourite thing to eat while writing? Do you cook the dishes you describe to better write about them?
I love nuts, mangoes, chocolate, cheese, edamame, cookies, blueberries, celery, bread, ice-cream, noodle soups ... I eat everything and anything during, before and after the writing.
When I write about a dish, I can see the whole process happening in front of my eyes: the smell, the heat, the texture, the colour ... maybe due to the restaurant years where everything had been done a thousand times over. Each gesture had been repeated so often that they become reflexes. I can now tell if a piece of meat is ready or burned or uncooked just by listening to the sound of it on the pan. This is maybe why I don’t need to cook to enjoy cooking. Writing about cooking is less demanding than cooking itself since there are no dirty pots and pans to wash afterwards.
What foods are you looking forward to trying in Australia?
Kangaroo, of course.
Kim Thúy is a novelist and former restaurant owner. She is a guest of the Sydney writers festival and on Thursday will be in conversation with Guardian Australia’s features editor, Brigid Delaney, at Richard Wherrett Studio, 10am, cost $14.