I’ve never had a proper answer when people ask about my favorite food.
To be honest, I’ve eaten so many delicious things it’s hard to keep track; however, up the winding stairs of a restaurant in Hanoi, I found the dish of my dreams. Bún chả, a Vietnamese bowl filled with heaping grilled pork, sticky rice noodles, and green herbs was all I needed one sweltering afternoon.
Of course it was mouth-watering. It pains me even now to write this—imagining the closest I will ever come to eating the dish again might mean a plane ticket back to Vietnam.
The narrow interior of the three-level restaurant could be any culinary-enthusiast’s sweetest reverie. The superfluous accessories that drape some restaurants retreated in favor of white plastic chairs and tables shoved together in cramped rooms. It was loud, clamorous. It smelled of afternoon sweat and city grime. But the food, the food.
As a group of travelers and I sat down, another family was already wolfing down glistening bits of pork besides us. The owner—a toughened but gracious woman—began piling rice noodles, bowls of broth, and grilled pork onto our laps. The combination may seem bland, but one ladle of it, sweetened with fish sauce and soured with vinegar, would change your mind.
I digress: savoring in solitude is one thing. But what makes a meal inexplicably beautiful is the people you share it with.
My mother is Filipino. Naturally, a part of that heritage comes with a large extended family — a gigantic Filipino family. I’ve never seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I imagine it’s a fairly accurate mirror of my own relatives—boisterous weekend gathering with kids and scraggily dogs running around the dining room table, hot food crackling from the kitchen only steps away.
Saturday night is family night. Eating has been and still is communal. There is nothing as simple as that.
Back in Hanoi, as cramped as we were, the sharing of a meal was a welcome comfort. We reached unapologetically over each other’s hands, scooping pieces of pork and herbs and spring rolls into ceramic bowls. We nodded to each other euphorically, the common understanding that comes with a delicious, slumber-inducing meal. There were no pretenses, no falsities—just good food and good company.
Unlike home, where communal tables are often the stuff of overpriced, hip eateries, meals were rarely taken alone while I wanderlusted away. No one was isolated by the confines of a square table for two.
The beauty of enjoying a meal with others seems part of our human nature. So why did it feel as foreign as an ancient ritual? Even now, as I write this sitting at my workstation, I am spooning peanut butter into my mouth, too busy and too distracted.
It’s something I miss desperately about Vietnam: the community, the sharing, the one-ness of common experiences. Food will always be delicious—most of the time. But what makes food memorable, what sets it apart, is the people who sit besides you. The people you spend it with.
An avid reader, curious global-trekker, and writer-in-training, Kaitlyn wants nothing more than to explore the world one country at a time, exposing the stories she finds along the way with a pen and paper. (Or computer, whatever’s easier.)