I am in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, holding a head of cabbage stable on the cutting board with both hands

, while my mother thrusts a cleaver into it, slicing it in half. The leaves are densely packed in a squiggle of translucent white and green. She hands the knife to me, instructing me to cut the cabbage into thin shreds. When my slices are too coarse, she thwaps the back of my hand with a wet soup spoon and tells me to cut them finer. We are making goi ga, which is a Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad. Most of it is just work: chopping and dicing, gathering herbs from the garden, where they grow in big ceramic pots along the driveway, pulling apart the steamed meat by hand. Have you ever cooked a whole chicken before? You can get at least two dishes out of it. The salad and then a soup that you make by boiling the bones. It’s simple kitchen things, but some of it requires finesse. When you make the dressing, if it’s too salty or spicy, you add coconut soda. “Normally, coconut juice,” my mother says, “but this is how we do things in America.” I would be lying if I said that food is all there is of culture, but it is the thing that is the easiest to explain, the thing that is most physical and visceral. Is finding home just a matter of having the right hot peppers burn your tongue? The first weekend I moved into the brick house with the green porch on Howe Street, I went grocery shopping and stumbled into a tiny Chinese market about a mile down Whalley. I don’t know if I could tell you what it’s called, now. It had just opened, but already smelled familiar. It’s an open secret that all Asian-American grocery stores contain tiny, hidden portals to each other, as well as your childhood. No matter where you go, you will find the snacks you ate after school when you were eight years old; the plastic stool you used to sit and take baths on when you were a toddler; the pastel clothespins that your extended family use to hang-dry their shirts. I wandered in, wanting to fill up my empty corner of the pantry. One thing no one tells you when are nineteen and preparing to move into a new house for the first time is that you will need to stock your kitchen with all the spices and pastes and implements that you were so fortunate to be born into, the silver spoon of the first-generation American youth. The spice drawers in the kitchen of the house I grew up in have a thin film of chili and curry powder on the bottom; that’s how lucky I was to be born. Downstairs, the market was cool and smelled stale. Mangoes were ripening, stacked in huge flats; I picked one up in my hands, hefting its weight, smelling the goldening skin. There were bins of tea, dried fruit and fish and squid, impassive glass jars of pickled vegetables. There were two shelves devoted entirely to chili sauces, and it was there that I found the plastic jar of hot garlic chili paste that I only know—as I only know so many things—by its Vietnamese name. I bought it immediately, along with a hand of ginger. Ginger is good for taking care of yourself or sick friends, if you put it in tea. When I got home—by home, I mean the house in New Haven, Connecticut, which has white walls that still emanate the clean brightness of fresh paint, and a kitchen so narrow that only two people can comfortably cook in it at once—I unscrewed the little plastic jar with its green cap, and peeled back the safety lid. I dipped my pinky in the red paste, feeling a little ashamed but mostly anxious to make sure I’d found the right thing. It was, so I ate it every morning on my eggs for the rest of the semester.

not so shiny and new anymore. not that I am only writing about food because I don’t know any other way to say the things that I am feeling. That batch was too bitter to eat raw. the things I grew up eating recontextualized and strange on this chilly New England rocky soil. They glowed warm orange in the heat of the lamp of my kitchen. with a thin film of spice dust building up in the cupboards. we made jam with cups and cups of sugar. But how else do I explain that it wasn’t until I left my mother’s kitchen that I learned I was always struggling to remember names? How do I explain the trawling. I got a care package from home. and then mix them in a blue ceramic bowl until your mother approves. A few weeks after my conversation with my mother. Not that I don’t still linger in grocery stores. their skins shone over with a sudden frost.To make the dressing for goi ga. you mix it yourself. white and green and oily-peppered offering. to write about culture by writing about food. not that I don’t think both coasts and countries have a claim on my component parts. “Open it soon. with the chicken and cabbage nestled under the chopped Thai basil and the mint and the lime juice and drizzle the dressing over it and turn it over and over with two forks and present it at dinner. put the entire salad together. nestled in paper towels. the sifting. and I was heartsick for a moment. . It feels like cheating. the kind that comes in a shiny emerald poptop can. a little fish sauce. but it’s enough. Alternatively. trying to decide: was this it? Is this it? I’ve spent hours in these tiny grocery stores. and coconut soda. a little rice vinegar. trying to sweet the tannins in the fruit. It would have been late October and I must have been seventeen. actually. I cut open the box and found a dozen persimmons.” she told me. the smelling. that red chili garlic paste. I missed home so much. calling me on the phone I am never without in case someone I love is sick. not that I can hardly remember the last time I picked persimmons off the tree in my family’s back yard. running heavy-bellied grains of rice through my hands. a gleaming. Not that I know where home is anymore. trailing my hands over fruit that’s marketed as lush and exotic. they’ll rot. you take water. The dregs of salty shreds of cabbage left in the bottom of the big china bowl are the only sign you did it right.

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