The Hot-Sour-Bittersweet Taste of Memories

(Published originally on Spoonwiz.com — a literary food blog that has unfortunately shuttered.)

Aug 2, 2013
Editor: Elizabeth McKenzie

My sister gingerly sprinkled tiny globs on her plate of rice, ground chicken and vegetables. She was careful not to look too close. I dropped a larger spoonful of hăng hơdŏm sao onto mine, and inspected until I was satisfied: the reddish, itty-bitty tri-sections were visible, ground with a coating of oil and chopped red and green chili peppers.

“Eww — you’re eating ants!” our cousin Lap teased. The eleven of us passed a small bowl of the paste-like mixture around a crowded kitchen table. A spread of six different dishes lay before us, including a plate of tăng liang, a bitter, leafy green that grows wild in Vietnam’s central western mountains. Its leaves were dried over a flame and then ground with dried fish, salt and chili pepper in a mortar.

My mother sat across from my sister and me. In the corner was a stuffed teddy — the vessel used to smuggle the silver vacuum-sealable bags of tăng liang and hăng hơdŏm sao from Vietnam to North Carolina.

In Jarai, my mother’s dialect, hăng means hot pepper or spicy. Hơdŏm sao means “red tree ants that have sour taste.” Lap, a linguistic anthropologist, helped me with the words and the accents because I don’t know Jarai. We met him for the first time a few days earlier. My sister and I had never seen, eaten or heard of hăng hơdŏm sao until this trip to North Carolina in 2007, where we had the unique experience of meeting Dega-Montagnard relatives. Dega-Montagnards are ethnic minorities from the central highlands of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. My mother came to the US in 1975, and my sister and I were born and raised in New England — without a Dega-Montagnard community. This was the first time we saw our mother surrounded by her clan. We were witnessing the dialect return to her slowly. With a small video camera at the table, I attempted to document this momentous meal. And, the ants.

Plates of delicious food sat in the middle of the table, but the centerpiece was also a not-so-distant history. A spry man with an easy smile, gray hair and glasses, our host Hip K’Sor relayed his experience as a prisoner of war in the ’70s and ’80s. Uncle Hip, as we were to call him, spent a decade in jail with thousands of other Dega-Montagnards and Vietnamese from the south. “No food and no medicine,” he said again. At least one hundred died from starvation.

“We eat small rice, like this,” he said holding up a spoon. “But we always eat manioc… it makes bad stomach. There is inside acid. And some people be killed by that acid. But we were so hungry.”

Dega-Montagnards were recruited by the American Special Forces in the Vietnam War and were resettled in and around Raleigh in the ’90s. Many of the men had served sentences in prison or re-education camp after the war in Vietnam for being allies to the American military.

If eating hăng hơdŏm sao was an initiation to prove my mettle, for myself at least, I barely passed. The amount I mixed into my rice, meat and vegetables tasted smoky with an acidic tang – a flavor I wished I savored more. But, the moment I started to chew, it felt like my tongue was going to burn off. Water didn’t help, as anyone accustomed to spicy food knows. I shoveled in white rice, hoping to extinguish the fire in my mouth.

My younger sister’s approach was smarter, since she watched me go first–which often means watching me go hazardously headfirst. She is repulsed by ants, to the point of almost having a phobia of them. But she took this meal in stride, blending in the hăng hơdŏm sao for an imperceptible and manageable bite of heat.

The ants were hot and sour, the reunion bittersweet. My mother, who loves to eat, was in heaven, although the nostalgic flavors brought back pangs of sadness. I watched her dot the corners of her eyes with a napkin. The surviving wife of the late Dega-Montagnard activist and minister Nay Luett sat next to her, and at one point, she stroked my mother’s hair. She was of the age of my mother’s mother, whom my sister and I had never known before she died. Seeing an older matriarch so tender towards my mother, how I imagined my grandmother to have been… soon it was my turn to swallow back a rush of emotion.

“It’s the ants – so spicy,” I said, blowing my nose and touching away tears.

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