Tran Dang Khoa - Leisure time talk about the Kitchen Gods
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Poet Tran Dang Khoa
Editor’s message: Tran Dang Khoa was named Vietnam’s genius poet following the publication of his first collection of poems, “The yard corner and Sky interval,” at age 9. Vietnamese people, old and young, know his poems by heart. His book “Đảo chìm” or “Submerged Island,” featuring the lives of Vietnamese soldiers stationed on Truong Sa or Spratly archipelago, has been much admired by people of different generations. Tran Dang Khoa is now working for Voice of Vietnam Radio. The columnist is a “page-view generator” for different features of VOVonline, particularly the newly-launched “Editors’ Blog,” where he shares his concerns and thoughts about what’s happening in the country. Selected VOVonline Editors’ Blog columns are also now available at VOVworld.vn.
(VOV) - They are the Kitchen Gods or Kitchen Kings. They go back to Heaven on the 23rd of the last month of every lunar year to report to the Jade Emperor what happened on earth during the year. It's unfair, even disrespectful, to offer them an ox, a buffalo or a pig to ride to Heaven. A carp is best.
One may ask what's the point of talking about the Kitchen Kings in a mainstream online newspaper? While the story may seem insubstantial, a King is always worth mentioning, because a King is still a King, even if his kingdom stands amid ashes and rice husks, his mandarins are only cooking utensils and his face is always sooty. When I was young, my mother told me time and again: "Never judge people by their appearance. Inside an ugly, disabled man may live a Buddha while a smart, good-looking person can be a serial killer."
I was born in the countryside. The kitchen in rural areas is sooty all year round but it truly mirrors the family. People say the kitchen reveals the status of the family, whether poor or wealthy, happy or sad.
For Vietnamese people, the kitchen is very important, so important that it needs a King. The rule of the King is visible. His kingdom encompasses the 3 stones that prop up the cookers. The stones, called Dau Rau, are perfectly identical. They are all hunch-backed and blackened because they carry cookers on their heads and are exposed to fire their entire life. They are royal mandarins in the kingdom of ashes and rice husks. They may look diminutive, but they are sacred. Don't ever be insolent to them. My mother forbade me to touch the Dau Rau with a poker, saying I would be killed by them if I did.
The King shares his fate with his court mandarins. He sits among the ashes and rice husks with a bent back, like an old toad. But he gives all his best to the food, making a country meal special though it includes no specialties, just a few pieces of fish and some vegetables. That could be why he has his own Tet on the 23rd of the last month of the lunar year. On that day, he dresses up and rides a carp to Heaven.
But because his fate is associated with hard work, the King still has to carry the cookers up until the moment he flies to the sky. People offer him a carp, dead or alive. A living carp is place in a bowl of water on the family alter. A dead carp is made of paper, which is burnt after the worshipping ritual finishes. It’s inappropriate to give the King an ox, a buffalo, or a pig to ride to Heaven. A carp is best because the carp is said to become a dragon when it passes the Heaven Gate.
Vietnamese people bring along a lot of things when they travel abroad. These things often include an altar for worshipping ancestors and the Kitchen Kings. In this case, the King lives in their mind and in their food because there's no place for his kingdom in a foreign kitchen. Wherever there are Vietnamese, there are shops selling Vietnamese food. The owners may put up a large sign that says "Southeast Asian mart" to reflect the current trend of international integration.
You can find such marts in Russia, Germany, France and the US, where all Vietnamese specialties are available-Hai Hau aromatic sticky rice, Vong village young rice, Nam Roi grapefruit, rice vermicelli, and aromatic vegetables. No matter where Vietnamese people live, their meals still contain typical Vietnamese flavors.
Ivan Novichski, my Russian roommate, opened his eyes wide with surprise: "Why are you so meticulous in cooking? You spend hours preparing just one meal, leaving little time for working". So you mean cooking is unimportant, do you, friend?
I didn't know what to tell him. I think no matter how hard I tried to explain, he would never understand because he's European. Europeans eat simply. All the dishes are served cold, except soup. Fast food is everywhere. Some people prefer takeaway so they can eat while walking and save time. For Westerners, eating serves merely to restore energy. But that’s not the case for Vietnamese, who consider eating a ritual. They eat slowly as if enjoying a work of art. Scholars have devoted enormous time and effort to researching what they call "culinary art". When eating is an art, it's not just eating but an elegant expression of spiritual beauty.
That's why Vietnamese meals are thoroughly prepared, even if the dishes consist only of eggs and vegetables. Vietnamese dishes are served hot. Ivan appeared to take a great interest in this aspect. With curiosity, he bought some bread, pork and sliced pickles to supplement my meal. Now, our dinner has become an international get-together.
"Look how lively the dinner is. There are 2 different countries", Ivan smiles, "I have a knife and a fork, you have a bowl and chopsticks". Suddenly, Ivan lowers his tone: "Is it true that chopsticks represent the sticks farmers often use to make holes for planting seeds? I watched a Swedish documentary on Vietnam, which featured a man singing while punching such holes". I respond: "Vietnamese aren’t the only ones who use chopsticks. What you saw is just a baseless assumption made by foreign scholars". Ivan argued: "I don't think so. Everything exists for a reason. The fork on my plate, you know, resembles a hunting spike. Russians and westerners in general love hunting. They prefer meat while you prefer vegetables. Chopsticks are more suitable for picking up vegetables. Nobody does it with a knife or a fork."
Ivan asked me to teach him how to handle the chopsticks but he soon found his food scattered all over the table. But just a month later, he replaced his knife and fork with a big pair of chopsticks that he made himself. Ivan managed to find his way to a Southeast Asian mart and came back with a big bag of foods and ingredients. He rushed to the kitchen. "Vietnamese foods are like drugs. Now I just can't eat Russian food. I want to open a restaurant which sells only Vietnamese dishes. Vietnamese people are hectic. They like thrills and excitement. They light firecrackers during weddings and Tet, creating unbearably loud noise. Their food has a strong smell. I can immediately sense a building inhabited by a Vietnamese family, even from the corridor. You see, it's here. The Vietnamese smell is right here", Ivan said, tapping the fish sauce bottle on the table with his chopsticks.
At a farewell meal before I returned to Vietnam, Ivan said sadly: "You'll leave tomorrow but a Vietnamese will stay". He pointed his thumb at his chest while drawing a circle in the air with the chopsticks in his other hand.
How powerful the Kitchen King is! His kingdom is boundless. Now his subjects include westerners. Who dares to say he rules a court only of ashes and rice husks?