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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pham

Food of Happiness

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

Tet, the Lunar New Year, is the biggest holiday on the calendar. It’s the Vietnamese equivalent of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, all rolled into one festival stretching roughly two weeks. In Vietnam, every family celebrates Tet with lots of food consumed in multiple rounds of feasting. The one favorite dish everyone looked forward to is cha gio.

My mother makes the world's best cha gio, an heirloom recipe handed down many generations. This is our food of happiness. This dish can be found at weddings, birthdays, homecomings, and various celebrations. At times, we have even made it in the depth of despair with the hope that it might lift our spirit and hail better days ahead.

Cha gio was at our family’s reunion meal after my father was released from the Viet Cong reeducation camp. It was my maternal grandmother’s first meal after her release from the French-Viet colonial prison for running an underground medical supply tunnel. It was also my maternal great grandaunt’s requested last meal when she lay down on her death bed and announced that she was ready to depart to the other shore. And it was the farewell meal my family ate in Phan Thiet before escaping Communist Vietnam on a leaky fishing boat.

When we first came to America, Mom fried up trays of cha gio for a potluck held by the ladies of the First Baptist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana. They didn't know what it was. One of them noted that it looked like a skinny version of the fat "egg roll stuffed with cabbage and flecks of pork" served with a red gooey sweet sauce found at the local Chinese restaurant. Of course, our cha gio had nothing in common with the American-Chinese version except for the shape. Mom’s “egg roll” was a show-stopper at the potluck. The church ladies loved it so much they requested her recipe for their official church cookbook, a lovely spiral-bound volume published in 1978. Thus, Mom’s cha gio became possibly the first Vietnamese “egg roll” recipe to be published in America.

In our new homeland, certain ingredients were hard to find so cha gio became a rare treat. Chinese wheat flour wrappers were substituted for rice papers, which were harder to find. As the years passed, our connections to the old country gradually faded away. We ate more western food and less of the food from the land of our birth. Mom was aware of this. Every time she made cha gio, Mom would announce it several days ahead to get the family excited and give us something to look forward to. Sometimes, Mom made cha gio as a way to mend fences with Father after they had a big fight. When I went off to college, she gave me a foil-wrapped bundle of cha gio. She did the same for my other siblings when it was their turn. Cha gio was also the first thing she’d make for us when we came home. I can’t recall a single Tet feast or a major celebration dinner that didn’t include cha gio.

The aromas of cha gio never fail to send my thoughts flying back to our early years in America. I could see my mother in our suburban hovel preparing this expensive dish for her big brood of children. On a poor immigrant’s budget, she bought the inexpensive small crabs and sat at the table for an hour, meticulously picking out every bit of meat. When the special day came, she timed the preparation so it would be ready precisely at mealtime. She stood at the stove, frying up cha gio and handing them immediately to us, hot and crispy, so we could enjoy them at their best. When everyone had eaten, she would fry the last few cha gio for herself.

Cooking has always been my mother’s creative outlet and her way of communication. Biting into those crunchy rolls, redolent with pork and a hint of the sea, have never failed to give me a fuzzy warmthat my core. Cha gio is our family’s food of happiness, and it’s also my mother’s express ion of love.

*This essay and recipe has been published by The Kitchn for their Lunar 2022 edition. Recipes and photos can be found here.

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