Radish Greens, Foraging and the Frequency Illusion

“A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate o’ shrimp” out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

Repo Man

“… Frequency Illusion: once you’ve noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even “all the time.”   Your estimates of frequency are likely to be skewed by your noticing nearly every occurrence that comes past you….”

Arnold Zwicky, Language Log, August 7, 2005

Radish greens make a great soup. Well, I think so and so do plenty of others as it turns out. In Paris, radishes are plentiful come April and sport a mass of leaves filled with sand and pebbles. My frugal French neighbors (the old ladies) would never throw out the leaves. Bon sang! These femmes débrouillardes make a tasty little soup or just cook the leaves ‘à l’étuvée’ (which means with a dab of butter and half a wine glass of water in a covered saucepan.)

I’m not French but I qualify as pretty frugal and am definitely ‘getting on’ age-wise so washing those radish greens has become a springtime ritual. Radishes were already planted in my head after my granddaughter and I did some digging in the rain to sow some French breakfast radish seeds.

Imagine my surprise when I received a notice from prolific cookbook writer and writing teacher Diane Morgan about her new book Roots.  She included Radish Top Soup as the sneak peek recipe.

At dinner a few days earlier, my friend Odile served radishes as an hors d’oeuvre each with a sprig of green attached. That’s what I always do! I thought to myself and then remembered that another friend, Annabelle, had been the one to tell me that eating radishes with a green leaf attached makes them far more digestible.

Was I succumbing to frequency illusion? I looked in my recipe stash and discovered an Italian recipe for radish green soup I had filed away at least five years ago. And by the way, not only Odile but thousands of other folks munch away on radishes with their apéritif at this time of year. No illusion, just fact.

Still, it’s dispiriting to think you’ve come up with a dandy idea to write about only to discover the subject has been dealt with brilliantly in the New Yorker magazine. That ‘plate ‘o shrimp’ is not part of the cosmic unconsciousness after all and when it comes to eating, what hasn’t been hashed over?  My mother, aged 97, is not helpful. “Stop writing about food. It’s old hat.” Instead, she suggests that I write her book, Waiting to Die. When I mentioned it sounded a little grim, she retorted,“Nonsense! It’ll be a blockbuster.”

But hold on there, Mama! You might think you’ve heard it all before but isn’t that what we humans do? Repeat ourselves? Savour, reflect, and define? Relish, digest, and thrash out? Death and the weather probably do top the list but as Marcel Boulestin* put it around 1923, “Food which is worth eating is worth discussing.” 

What do you think? I asked my discriminating and knowledgeable friend Paola. “Are people saturated with all this food writing and talk? She looked shocked. “Not at all. It’s so normal to discuss these things. As we put it in Italian, ‘Prendere per la gola’ which sounds like ‘grab them by the throat’ but means, ‘seduce them with food.'”

Eat the greens!

So back to frequency illusion: how our brains always search for patterns. Arnold Zwicky, who is quoted at the beginning of this piece, coined the term and it refers to ‘selective perception’. We think we hear or see something constantly but in fact, our brains are doing a lot of sifting and sorting to give us that (very subjective) perception. The radish and its leaves float to the top of the old brain pan, in my case, thanks to Diane, Odile, Paris in April, the color green, sand, pebbles, butter and salt. You get the picture. To home in on radish green soup, note that many recipes contain potato and other root vegetables which give a little heft and texture and sweeten up the greens. I like a thinner soup of greens and broth because the color is so intense. See what you think.

While radish greens may enjoy a popularity du jour, face it: they are mostly thrown out. Radishes in the supermarket appear in bags without leaves and where do they go? In the trash. This thought leads to Washington, DC circa 1955 and my husband’s pet rabbit Wilbur. Wilbur was entirely fed from the greens and scraps that the Paul and his siblings gleaned from the produce manager at the back door of the Minnesota Avenue Safeway.

The little gleaners now take my mind to foraging and my own experiences which started in Avalon, New Jersey one summer around 1960. The Meerson family was visiting from Bougival, France and we spent a day at the beach. I associated the beach with swimming. Not so the Meersons. They associated it with fruits de mer. Clams, in this case. I had no clue that the little bubbles and holes at the shoreline were dead giveaways for serious clammers. Madame Meerson and her three little children dropped to their knees and began digging. In a short while, they had a big bucket of cherrystones and were already thinking about lunch. I loved this family!

Despite this introduction to creatures beneath our feet, I wasn’t always on the lookout.  I spent several summers at a pond near the Great Point end of Nantucket Island crunching over sharp points en route to the water (I thought it was seaweed) before I actually looked down. Mussels. Thousands and thousands of them. At low tide, you could gather a bushel in minutes. Removing the beards was the time-consuming part but pleasant enough if done outdoors. These blue mussels are more commonly found clinging to rocks but according to Terry O’Neill of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries they can be found in salt marsh ponds. I’m being specific here because there is another kind of mussel: the ribbed mussel which is brownish in color and while not inedible exactly, “You wouldn’t want to eat it” says Terry.  They are important, however, as they do a great job of holding down all the grasses. As a caveat, it’s a good idea to check with the local shellfish warden to see what the regulations are in your area and what shellfish you will encounter.

Another island catch was conch which we could pick up at low tide off sand bars. Conch is not as easy to deal with as mussels but makes good chowder. These conchs are more properly known as whelks and smaller than those found in the Caribbean. Conchs around Nantucket Sound were plentiful and used to be considered a shellfish predator, therefore a nuisance and thrown out or used as bait. Nowadays, conch is big business and few are available for local consumption. Unless you gather them yourself.

Moving to Delaware in the mid-1970s, my foraging involved volunteer asparagus. ‘Volunteer’ was not a word I associated with asparagus or indeed any growing thing. But that just showed my ignorance.  “You’ll find volunteer asparagus growing behind the Ford agency.”  my elderly neighbor told me one day. Indeed I did; the wild remnants from someone’s garden or as the botanists say, open pollinated plants. If you find volunteer asparagus, it probably will have thin stalks and be somewhat fibrous. In commercial operations, volunteer asparagus is considered a weed but in Sicily, sparacelli is a delicacy to be found along roadsides, in fields and most conveniently, in street markets sold in big bundles. I found an article **suggesting that sparacelli is best eaten with a sharp cheese in a frittata. Good advice.

Sparacelli: Wild Sicilian Asparagus ©2004 Best of Sicily (bestofsicily.com). Used by permission.

For sheer confidence: meet a mushroom hunter. For a brief period in Washington, DC, I attended meetings of the Mycological Society. Members report on their finds, show slides, and in one case, displayed homemade jewelry with a mushroom theme. Slides shows prompted fierce debates over fungal identification. While these meetings had a certain Benny Hill quality to them, there was no doubt the members were genuine, enthusiastic, and seriously scientific. Their website http://msafungi.org/ is packed with articles, news, and even job offerings (in such places at Kew Gardens, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and US public lands in Wyoming.) Foraging for mushrooms makes me a little nervous and I wish we were as lucky as French and Italian hunters who can take their stash to the local pharmacy for identification. I have two French friends who gather mushrooms every year with the nonchalance of picking up acorns.

My son-in-law JB’s mother Goldie Anderson is a morel whisperer from what I can tell. Here’s what JB says,

Where does she find them? Mostly in the woods around Logan (Ohio). She had numerous, favorite spots. She also had secret theories about what type of trees, slopes ,and elevations held the best habitat. Really, she is just good at seeing them. I could walk over them and she would come along and practically find them in my footsteps.”

Sometimes a friend will do the foraging for you.
David Lucas made good use of a toilet paper roll.

If you’re lucky enough to know someone like Goldie, tag along.

And then there is urban foraging. Despite a miniscule back yard in Philadelphia, my father planted two peach trees which produced a bumper crop of beautiful peaches. A few days before peak ripeness, however, some squirrels arrived with their own plans to forage. Not only did they eat all the peaches, they actually threw the pits at my parent. He was sad about the loss of his fruit but, as he dodged the pits, he admired the plump little squirrels and decided to take action. As a young man, he had a small ranch in Nevada where he raised rabbits. Squirrels aren’t that different, bodily, and he set about trapping and eventually eating the Philly squirrels. “Nothing to it! I used to skin 60 rabbits in an hour. It’s like taking off an overcoat.” I’ll spare further details but have provided a squirrel recipe below.

When I think of foraging, I think free stuff! And generally speaking, foraging often refers to plants and wild edibles. In Sicily, we were told that everyone has the right to forage for wild asparagus which  includes access to private property. This concept of the ‘right to forage’ has a long tradition in many countries. In Sweden, it’s known as Allemansrätten***, every man’s right to share the land. But it has its darker side as in soldiers (starving) foraging for food. Or simply hungry folks gleaning, hunting, and gathering.

Many foragers are secretive about ‘their’ spots but it’s interesting to remember that during bad times, desperate humans are open to sharing secrets. An example is the hobo sign codes of the 1930s, where out of work travelers would leave marks to indicate ‘food for work’, ‘housewife feeds for chores’, ‘talk religion get food’ or best of all: ‘sit down feed’.

Sit down feed
Photo by Paul Allman

Have you seen The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse)? With her handheld camera, the great documentary filmmaker Agnes Varda joins men, women and children who find sustenance and possibility from scraps and discards.

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet

That initial thrill of discovery is the hook of foraging. Once you’ve found that cache, you will hope to go back year after year. The keys to foraging are these:

Act like the Meerson family. Imagine the possibilities and then, pounce.

Learn from the example of Goldie Anderson. Observe and remember.

Feel and sense in the manner of Agnes Varda. Recognize that foraging has deep roots in the past and right now.


*Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943) was a restaurateur in London who wrote many cookbooks including Simple French Cooking for English Homes. Elizabeth David loved this man (professionally speaking) and they both were ferocious about not adding meat broth – only water! – to soups. Boulestin believed that “The fresh pleasant taste is lost owing to the addition of meat stock, and the value of the soup from an economical point of view is also lost.”

3+ Radish Soup Recipes

The following soups do contain stock and should Boulestin and David be with us today, they’d undoubtedly be distainful. Frankly, commercial ‘vegetable’ stock is pretty bad – mostly salt. So suit yourself: water would work well.

Radish Green Soup with Leeks and Potatoes

3 words about adding pepper to soups: not too much. I think it sticks in the throat. Those who love pepper will add more at the table.

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup leeks, chopped (white and tender green parts)
  • 3 medium potatoes, chopped
  • 2 bunches of radish greens (about 8 cups)
  • 5 cups weak vegetable stock or water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Garnish: finely chopped radishes

In a large saucepan, sauté the leeks in the olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes. Add a tablespoon or so of water and cook for 4-5 more minutes, until the leeks are tender. Stir in the potatoes. Add the stock or water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Check to be sure the potatoes are soft. Add the radish greens and simmer for 10 minutes.

Purée the soup in a food processor, blender, or food mill. Don’t overdo the puréeing: the soup is best with some texture. Return to the saucepan and heat, add salt and pepper to taste and swirl in the butter.

Garnish with the chopped radishes, if desired.

Serves 4.


Crema di Foglie di Ravanelli

An Italian version of this soup uses onion rather than leeks. The soup is garnished with crostini and sprinkled with Parmesan or Grana cheese.

Hardcore Radish Green Soup

Just the greens, ma’am! 

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 2 bunches of radish greens, well washed (about 8 cups)
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • A few pinches sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Garnish: finely chopped radishes

In a large saucepan, sauté the shallot in the olive oil until tender. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the radish greens and simmer for 5 minutes or until the greens are soft and wilted.

Purée the soup in a food processor, blender, immersion wand, or food mill. Return to the saucepan and heat, add salt and pepper to taste. If the soup tastes bitter, add a bit of sugar.

Garnish with the chopped radishes, if desired.

Serves 2 – 3.

Radish Green and Cauliflower Soup

This was an accidental discovery, thanks to a cauliflower in the fridge. The cauliflower provided just the right amount of sweetness to the greens. In other words, it did the job that the potato does (in the first recipe) but the results were much more interesting. 

To the above recipe (Hardcore), include the following ingredients:

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, in flowerets, cooked in boiling water until just barely done
  • 1/4 cup crème fraîche
  • 2 – 3 tablespoon chopped mixed herbs: mint, chives and cilantro
  • 4 or 5 slivered or julienned radishes

Prepare the radish green soup as above adding the cooked cauliflower at the pureeing step. Stir in the crème fraîche just before serving or put a dollop on each serving.

Garnish with the chopped herbs and radishes.

Serves 4.

Foraging Favorites

Mirabel Avenue Jam

The Mill Valley, California street where our daughter lived was loaded with plums. Not Mirabels funny enough, but Santa Rosas. Here’s what we made:

  • 4 quarts Santa Rosa plums, washed, cut in half and pitted
  • 8 cups sugar

Clean and pit enough plums to halfway fill an 8-quart pot.

Add 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil.

Cook over medium heat just until plum begin to break down (soften).

Add the sugar.

Bring the mixture to a boil and then keeping it at a slow boil, cook until thickened.

Check for thickness by placing a teaspoonful on a flat cold plate. When done, the jam will keep its shape (not spread.)

Ladle into clean jars. Seal with lids while still hot. Can be frozen.

Yield: 6 pints

Wild Asparagus Frittata

Roberta Gangi suggests that Caciocavallo cheese, made from cow’s or sheep’s milk, is typical in a wild asparagus frittata. Caciocavallo is made much in the same way as mozzarella, comes in round balls, and is fairly mild and salty. Stronger sheep’s cheese such as Pecorino or Etorki would also be good.

  • 1 pound wild asparagus
  • 6 eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons of water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup sheep’s milk cheese, cut up
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Break off the tough ends of the asparagus and discard. Cut the spears into 2 inch lengths and put in a frying pan (that can go in the oven) with one tablespoon of olive oil and water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and cook until the asparagus is tender (about 5 – 8 minutes).

Remove the asparagus to a bowl and wipe out the frying pan. Preheat the broiler in your oven.

Add the remaining olive oil and heat. Combine the eggs, cheese, and asparagus, pour the mixture into the frying pan and cook slowly until just set. Place the pan under the hot broiler to puff and slightly brown the top of the frittata. Do not overcook! Transfer to a warm platter or cut into wedges.

Serves 4 modestly.

Lew’s Squirrel Soup

‘Foraging Favorite’ is an exaggeration here. I asked my good friend Miriam  who knew my father well if she’d ever had it. Her response: “Thank God, no.” But she certainly remembered it!

  • 1 whole squirrel, cleaned
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ teaspoon thyme
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup cooked rice

Place the squirrel in a soup pot and add all the ingredients, except the rice. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered for about 1 ½ hours. Remove the squirrel and discard the bones. Shred the meat.

Bring the broth to a boil and reduce it for about 5 minutes. Add the meat and check the seasoning. Add the  cooked rice and serve.

To make this a little more exciting, I would add something green: a half cup of spinach, maybe.

Resources and References:

** Roberta Gangi’s article Wild Sicilian Asparagus http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art344.htm

*** Joy Hui Lin’s article on foraging in Sweden http://www.saveur.com/article/Travels/Swedens-Every-Mans-Right-is-a-Foragers-Dream

Rebecca Busselle’s article in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine confirmed my memories of cooking conch and I also used the Joy of Cooking to figure out how to deal with these creatures.  http://www.mvmagazine.com/article.php?32866=

Check out Diane Morgan’s new book Roots as well as other publications at her website:  http://dianemorgancooks.com/

Vietnamese Market Day and the Beauty of Margins

Photograph by Hien Lam Duc, from the exhibition Mékong, histoires d’Hommes



 When fully ripe, the unopened jackfruit emits a strong disagreeable odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana.

The Jackfruit

I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching —
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands

Ho Xuan Huong, 1772 – 1822,
 translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich 

 Two acts of generosity led to a delightful day.

 The St. Francis dining hall in Portland, Oregon serves dinners daily to “those in need in dignity and peace.” That turns out to be 300 meals per day. At their annual auction, it’s hard to say who is more big hearted: the donors or the recipients. As her auction contribution, Ho Mai Huong, a young accounting student, offered her services as tour guide and chef for a day of Vietnamese cooking. Margo Foeller was the winner and treated me and my friend Trish to a wonderful day.

Visiting the markets

Our first stop: the market Hong Phat where Mai identified and introduced us to a world of fantastic fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish and meats.

Fruits came first. The jackfruit (which can grow to over 80 pounds), banana flower (peel back the outer leaves and slice), four different kinds of mango, litchis, and ‘fragrant fruit’ were just a few. “In Vietnam, there are many more varieties,” explained Mai.

We moved on to a huge assortment of herbs, greens, and vegetables. Many herbs have medicinal applications such as dấp cá or fish mint, used to cure stomachaches, indigestion or, in paste form, for insect bites. The flavor and aroma are strongly fishy. Rau Dắng or bitter herb is used both cooked and fresh. When burned, the vapors are a very effective mosquito repellant.**

Spinach, mustard, and collard? Now these were familiar greens. But hold on! They are not what they seem. Mồng tơi, as an example, sometimes referred to as Ceylon or Malabar spinach, has spinach-like leaves but is a vine and cultivated on a trellis. And might lower your body temperature.

Bitter melon which looks a bit like a cucumber with a ridged dark green skin is used in soups, sautéed or stuffed. Its medicinal qualities are many, including a blood sugar lowering effect for type II diabetics. With each fruit, pod, green, root and fungus, an important therapeutic reason for its purchase was cited. 

                  Will this help my baby grow? Will this cure his cough? Can this ease my pain?

Eat your Gac (gấc)! It is the greatest source of beta-carotene (vitamin A) of any fruit or vegetable. Gac (gấc) has ten times more of the stuff than carrots or sweet potatoes. Did you know that green papaya enhances breast milk production? And, it would appear, that if you have anything wrong at all, just eat a persimmon.

 Gac  (gấc)      
Photograph by Jennifer J Maiser

Moving from vegetables to the grocery aisles, Mai discussed the cross over in cooking techniques and recipes between Asian countries and cultures and their subtle differences. Fish sauce, for dipping, is a good example. In Vietnam, chopped garlic and chilies are added to the sauce which is diluted not with water, but coconut juice, as coconuts are very plentiful in southern Vietnam. 

On that same topic, Mai explained that Vietnam is divided culturally and economically into the North, Central, and Southern parts. The North has less fruit and vegetables and the food tends to be salty. The Central part of Vietnam is the poorest. It is subject to severe weather (especially flooding) and the soil is poor. The cuisine in this area is very salty and spicy which adds flavor to the food and warms the body. The abundance of fruits and vegetables are the hallmark of the southern Vietnamese cuisine. Fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits are used in nearly every preparation in the South.

 Pho, the hugely popular beef noodle soup is believed to have originated in the North, where it is made with fresh rice stick noodles (banh pho tuoi) and flavored with star anise in an oxtail broth. Typically, it is not served with garnishes. In the South, however, the soup is served with herb and bean sprout garnishes. Suffice it say, there are many regional varieties of this soup.

 A package wrapped with a green leaf and tied with red string turned out to be cha lua or Vietnamese ham wrapped in a banana leaf.

“It’s just like spam. That’s what my mother says” a young customer offered.

Among the huge selection of meats (every possible cut of pork and beef) and fishes (including whole frozen fish and about 30 types of frozen shrimp), I was struck by the two types of chicken:

  • Walking chicken (not always tender but very flavorful) and
  • Black chicken (quite a small variety and good for fatigue, back pain and expectant mothers)

 Beautiful and mysterious dishes that Mai alluded to:

  • Coconuts stuffed with Quail
  • Baby clam meat with Jackfruit

 Slightly stomach churning:

  • Duck eggs with embryos
  • Pigs’ udders
  • Silkworm pupae (eaten fried with lime leaves)

 Our market visit ended in the household products aisle. Mai showed us two types of brooms. One of coarser fiber for the yard; the other very fine and soft for the house. The market sold all types of cooking pots, pans, including a special crepe pan that looked very like a Swedish pancake skillet. I bought a coffee drip pot for making one serving of Vietnamese coffee which is brewed with sweetened condensed milk.

Our next stop was Bui Natural Tofu. Originally, fresh tofu was the only product of this family business which was conducted from their home. Now, the busy shop makes not only a great deal of fresh tofu but also fried tofu, tofu pudding, red sticky rice (its color comes from the aforementioned gac fruit), fermented rice (a digestive after a meal), sticky rice balls with a mulberry in the center, and much more.

 Mai had ordered in advance so as we waited as all sorts of containers and packages appeared at the counter. We staggered out to the car.

Lunch at Mai’s Home

 Now came the really fun part: Mai made us lunch at her home.

Step one: she quickly put together some snacks for us to sample.

  •  Using her homemade fish sauce, we sampled the fresh tofu and the fried tofu which contained pieces of fried onion
  • The Red Sticky Rice with pieces of Vietnamese ham
  • The Tofu Pudding, served in small bowls over which she poured a sugar syrup with slivers of ginger and coconut milk
  • A spoonful each of Fermented Rice (the digestion aid)

We were happy to sit and munch but Mai was all business. The fresh spring (or salad) rolls had to be made.

She quickly gathered the ingredients together: lettuce, Thai basil, and mint from her garden, Chinese chives, and slices of the ham. She boiled the dry rice noodles and we helped peel the shrimp. Moistening the rice paper briefly, she showed us her technique for tightly rolling the cylinders with the shrimp with green Chinese chive visible through the wrapper. We each practiced the technique.

 The dipping sauce, (which Mai believes is the whole point of eating the rolls) was a fragrant and delectable mixture of flavors: hoisin, peanut butter, and coconut soda. As a final flourish, Mai added fried shallots and a bit of pickled shredded carrot to the dipping sauce. Wow! Completely different from restaurant salad rolls.

As with any unforgettable meal, the food was only a part of the pleasure. As if each morsel stirred up  an association, Mai spoke of her family, geography, gardens and poetry. In 1954, Mai’s Catholic family moved from the North to South Vietnam to avoid communism. While she has never been in North Vietnam, her parents and grandparents passed on their northern customs and habits.

“I was named for the 18th century poet Ho Xuan Huong but my parents replaced Xuan with Mai so as not to shock my grandparents…”

Known for her independence, intellect, and subtle and sexy wit, this famous poet from Hanoi was also was very irreverent. Rather than classical Chinese, she wrote in Nôm, the Vietnamese language that has nearly disappeared. While more than a thousand years of Vietnamese cultural history was written in this language, less than 100 people  can read Nôm today. The Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation*** hopes to save the language.

Homegardens and Margins

Now, this got me to ruminating about the importance of the margins in culture. Home cooking, home gardens, minor languages, poetry..are these not elements of the margin not the mainstream? I don’t want to offend home cooks, gardeners, translators, and poets by using the word ‘margin’. But I’m not marginalizing anyone, simply acknowledging that certain highly important activities exist and thrive on society’s margins.  

The reason I write about home cooking is that there’s a dearth.

There are two ways to look at marginal activity.

  1. There’s strength in numbers: A custom or habit dies out when it’s not longer necessary. When an activity is marginal, it’s on its way out. (example: the shirt collar button) 
  2. We’re only as strong as our weakest link: When a custom or habit is replaced by a new behavior, the old habit might slip into the margin but will still persist. Sometimes people will attempt a rescue! (example: Nôm)

The second way of looking at this is, to my mind, the optimistic and true approach. Whenever I worry about the ‘branding’ of humanity or fear a dreary sameness leading to decline,   I inevitably come across small, disorganized, whimsical powerhouses of marginality.  

 In Dr. Virginia Nazarea’s book Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers,**** she speaks movingly about marginality and memory with regards to heirloom  gardeners.

“If modernity is ‘forced amnesia’, then there is a need to reinforce the range of dreams and choices that triggers countermemory…Seedsavers pose a subdued but persistent challenge to what those around them take as given and help break the spell of ‘organized forgetting.’…From the margins, seedsavers deploy a message of worth rather than protest wherein the currency is joy instead of anger, the motivation hope instead of frustration.”

In her Germplasm project at the University of Georgia, Nazarea and her associates studied how Vietnamese immigrants arriving in the 1970s reproduced their native gardens with great success. Nhan Couch was a participant in the study and her homegarden below is a delightful example.  I love the entire design of the garden, especially the “BBQ pit with pokeweed growing out of it.”

Outside her kitchen door, Mai has a small but robust garden filled with herbs and greens. I asked Mai about the diagram of Nhan’s garden. “This model of garden is very common in rural areas of Vietnam” she said, adding, “I think they do a very good job of organizing their gardens.”

  Copyright © 2002 Introduced Germplasm From Vietnam: Documentation, Acquisition, and Propagation.  All rights reserved.

Trying this at home

Back at home, I was all fired up to make a Vietnamese dinner.

 With Mai’s instructions, I attempted the black chicken, so called because the skin is a deep purplish black. This fierce-looking little bird was to my surprise, very meaty. The other surprise was the flesh with its dark and light striations. Once cooked, the chicken looked a bit like bluefish and I believe, is an acquired taste.

To make this dish, I had purchased a packet of herbs, lotus nuts (which look something like dried hominy) and red dates. At Hong Mai, there was an entire shelf devoted to special herb packets each for different preparations. “Very practical!”

Black Chicken

I attempted to write down the recipe as I remembered it. Fortunately, Mai made some adjustments. Here goes:

  • Soak the lotus nuts overnight.
  • Wash the chicken, removing the head, feet, and innards.
  • Dip the chicken in a pan of boiling water and then rinse in cold water.
  • To cook the chicken:

Method #1: Put the chicken into the bowl. Put all of the herbs and lotus nuts around the chicken or stuff the chicken with the herbs, dates and lotus nuts. Personally, I prefer to put herbs and lotus nuts around the chicken. Pour 1 teaspoon of fish sauce into the chicken. And then put the bowl into a steam pot. Cook about 1 hour.

Method #2: You can use slow cooker to cook instead of steam pot. Put chicken into the cooker and spread out all of herbs and lotus nut around chicken. Pour 1 can of coconut soda and 1 teaspoon of fish sauce into the chicken. Cook slowly about 2 hours.)

  • Cut up and serve with steamed rice.

 Mai Huong’s Salad Rolls

It takes a little practice to make these rolls but once you’ve got the hang of it, it goes quickly. If you do this a few times, you will begin to arrange and offset the ingredients so that the rolls will looks very pretty with the shrimp and some greenery showing through the wrapper.

 I. For spring rolls: (about 8 to 10 rolls)


  1. Round rice paper wrappers (banh trang or ‘spring rolls skin’ – Mai used a package with a large red rose on it)
  2. Rice noodle (Mai used a vacuum-packed fresh rice stick noodle -banh pho tuoi in a pink package from the Sincere Orient Food Co.) 
  3. Chinese chives 
  4. Lettuce, several leaves
  5. Mint, basil, cilantro –  small bunch of each
  6. 1/2 pound pork belly ( or thinly sliced roast pork)
  7. 12 – 15 shrimp (double if the shrimp are very small)

Boil rice noodle until it becomes al dente, drain and rinse with cold water. Boil pork belly until well done and slice thinly. Cook shrimp with salt in a dry pan until red and cooked through. Peel  the shrimp and if large, slice into halves. Wash the lettuce and herbs.

 How to wrap the spring roll:

 Fill a large bowl with warm water. Dip one wrapper into the water just to moisten. (Do not soak)

Lay wrapper flat. In a row across the center, place 3 shrimp, 2 pieces of pork, a handful of rice noodle, the lettuce and herbs, leaving about 2 inches uncovered on each side. Fold uncovered sides inward, and then tightly roll the wrapper, beginning at the end with the lettuce. Set aside.

Continue with remaining ingredients until all the rolls are made.


II. Dipping Sauce:

  1. Shallot, 2 cloves, sliced thinly
  2. 1 tablespoon cooking oil 
  3. Hoisin sauce (1/2 cup)
  4. Peanut butter (1/2 cup)
  5. Coconut milk (1/2 cup)
  6. Chicken stock or coconut soda (1/2 cup)
  7. Sugar (1 teaspoon)
  8. Chili sauce (optional if you like spicy)

Stir fry the shallots with oil about 2-3 minutes in the pan.  Set aside. Mix hoisin, peanut butter, milk and coconut soda (or any broth such as chicken soup or pork broth that we have from boiling pork) in a bowl. Pour this mixture into the pan. Stir well until everything is a caramel colored blend. Pour some sugar into the sauce. Taste. Add some chili sauce if desired. Stir in the shallots.

A promising start to the year.

My experience with Mai led me down some new paths from jackfruit to poetry to heirloom gardens to a photograph on the Luxembourg garden gates to extraordinary humans. Ho Xuan Huong, Hiên Lam Duc and Virginia Nazarea.

Thank you Mai and Margo.

Almost a year ago exactly, I saw an extraordinary exhibit of photographs of the people of Mekong river. The beautiful photograph at the beginning of this piece is from that exhibit and the photographer, Hiên Lam Duc generously permitted me to display it. (Doubleclick to enlarge the image.) To see more of his work, go to http://www.lamduchien.com/

*This description of jackfruit (word for word) is repeated on at least 50 websites. So everyone agrees.

**For information on Vietnamese culinary and medicinal herbs, go to this website: http://vietherbs.com/

*** For more information on saving the Nôm language, go to http://nomfoundation.org/vnpf_new/index.php

****Dr. Virginia Nazarea’s Heirloom seeds and Their Keepers, Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity , 2005, University of Arizona Press is available through Amazon and other sources.