Words and images by Dana.
I have this memory buried in my head that keeps popping up lately. I was about 18, living downtown Toronto, skateboarding home from a college class. One of my roommates was waiting for me on our Kensington Market stoop, apparently we needed to talk about his concern that the cavalier vegan philosophy major I was dating was “causing me to lose my ROAR!” I knew exactly what he was talking about, I had been trying on a *new* version of myself for the sake of pleasing this fella. My roommate was right, my “ROAR!” had been compromised. The next day, I broke up with the philosophy major and went record shopping. Back then, that was all it took.
Thirteen years later, this random memory keeps coming to mind and I think I know why. I have been having a really hard time adjusting to life in the suburbs. Feeling disconnected from everything I knew for 27 years of my life (my friends, my career, my city) and since I can’t [with clear conscience] blame my kids or my loving husband for these changes, I’m taking out my frustrations on the general lifestyle of the suburbs. I’m not totally out-of-line with this. Honest.
For three years I’ve tried to make this place feel more like home. I’ve volunteered, openly supported local food and creative scenes, joined writers groups, mom groups, yoga classes up the ying and the yang. I just can’t seem to integrate into a community that seems so involved with materialistic property and status. After all of the hard work, instead of feeling a sense of pride, I’ve been left judging myself, wondering how much more I need to change to fit in.
I’ve tried spending as much time as I could back downtown, but jamming in a 2-hour commute between school drop-off and pick-up has been exhausting and proving pointless. The city life I once knew is long gone. While I was preoccupied with breastfeeding and diaper changing in the ‘burbs, my favourite coffee shops were converting into condos and my friends, well, they were moving on. I started to wonder whether it was in fact the city that I missed or the life I once knew in it.
Continuing on my hunt for family-sized yard vs. city girl compromise, I’ve been focusing on the cultural elements that I still crave – the people, the music, the food.
This past winter, I found some comfort in Markham’s Chinatown district. Driving an hour west, I would pass countless grocery stores to reach a T&T Chinese Supermarket, just to soak in the familiar scents of my old Toronto neighbourhood. I would roam the aisles filled with foreign symbols, trying to interpret the nutritional facts; smelling the exotic produce one-by-one, from long beans to lemongrass; counting the belly-up fish floating to the top of the fishmonger’s tanks. On my first trip there, I spent over 3 hours just roaming the aisles. It was the most “at home” I had felt in years.
Back in those student days, I survived on big, hearty, cheap bowls of ramen and phở from Chinatown. So, it felt appropriate to use David Tanis’ homemade phở recipe (written below) as a sentimental excuse to travel an hour for my groceries. I’ve since fallen in love with shopping for oxtail, short ribs, fish sauce and Chinese spices. Skipping along the aisles as I collect ingredients that I could very well purchase closer to my house (but without all of those nostalgic aromas).
Sometimes we just need to take comfort through our senses.
It’s a lousy feeling, feeling that you don’t belong somewhere. I realized, crying over my last bowl of homemade phở, that I may be the one perpetuating that feeling. Dwelling on the failed attempts to connect and seeking acceptance from strangers will never make me feel at ease. The memories I have, the flavours I create from them, and the family and Apronites that I have to share them with make me happy. Who cares what is outside that front door? Maybe home truly is wherever your heart is – mine just happens to be stirring a boiling pot with a laptop nearby. I like that, time to start taking inspiration from what I already have and hopefully the other pieces will fall into place.
I think I feel a small “roar!” coming on.
Based very closely on David Tanis’s “Pho (Vietnamese Beef Soup)” recipe in Heart of the Artichoke
Serves 4 to 6 generously.
- 1 1/2 lbs short ribs
- 1 1/2 lbs oxtails or beef shank
- 1 large onion, halved
- 1 3-inch piece unpeeled ginger, thickly sliced
- 6 quarts water
- 1 star anise
- 1 small piece cinnamon stick
- 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/4 tsp whole cloves
- 6 cardamom pods
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tsp sugar
- salt and pepper
- 1 lb dried rice noodles
- 1/2 lb fresh bean sprouts
- 1 sweet red onion, thinly sliced
- mint sprigs
- cilantro sprigs
- basil sprigs
- 6 scallions, slivered
- 2 serrano or 6 small Asian chiles, finely slivered
- lime wedges
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the short ribs and oxtails and boil for 10 minutes, then drain, rinse the meat, and discard the water. This step rids the meat and bones of impurities and results in a cleaner-tasting broth. It’s a step that’s common in many Asian cuisines, including Chinese.
Set a large heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat, add the onion, cut side down, and ginger, and lightly char for about 10 minutes, until the halves are charred but not quite burnt. Add the short ribs, oxtails, and the 6 quarts of water and bring to a hard boil, then turn down to a simmer.
Add the spices. Then add the soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and salt and pepper and let simmer, uncovered. Skim off any rising foam, fat, and debris from time to time.
Check the tenderness of the meat after about an hour. It will probably take an hour and a half for the meat to get really fork-tender, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
When the meat is done, remove it from the pot, take the meat off the bones, and reserve. Put the bones back in the pot to simmer in the broth for another hour and a half.
When the broth is done, taste it for salt and add more if necessary. Strain it through a fine-mesh strainer. Chop the cooked meat and add it to the broth. At this point, you can either cool and refrigerate the broth for later use, or proceed.
When you’re ready to serve the pho, put the rice noodles in a large bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for about 15 minutes (possibly longer) to soften, then drain.
Heat the soup until it’s piping hot. Prepare a large platter of the garnishes. We’re especially fond of mint, cilantro, scallions, and lime wedges, but here’s your opportunity to customize.
Line up the soup bowls. Put a handful of noodles in each soup bowl and scatter some bean sprouts on top. Add a few raw onion slices. Ladle the broth and a bit of boiled meat into each bowl. Pass the platter of garnishes and let everyone add their own herbs, scallions, chillies, squeezes of lime, etc., as they see fit. Oh, yeah: and don’t forget the Sriracha.
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