The Postcolonial Kitchen: Vietnamese Recipes from Marguerite Duras’ Childhood

Duras’ recipes illustrate how cooking—like literature, like memory—is a subjective experience in a continual state of being perfected.

The prolific French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras is perhaps best known for her novel The Lover, winner of the 1984 Prix Goncourt, as well as for her 1959 Oscar-nominated screenplay Hiroshima mon amour. In 1987, she published a collection of texts entitled La vie matérielle (Practicalities), in which she relates “everything and nothing” relating to her life, from her work to everyday thoughts. Duras was an avid cook and had intended to include some of her recipes in the collection, too. Ultimately, though, while some recipes made it into La vie matérielle, most did not. After Duras’s death in 1996, her son Jean Mascolo sought to rectify this by publishing the slim volume La Cuisine de Marguerite (Benoît Jacob), a collection of his mother’s recipes as recorded in her handwritten notebook. After a false start in 1999 when Duras’s literary executor blocked its sale, the book was finally republished and circulated in 2014.

The recipes in La Cuisine de Marguerite are a captivating mix of flavors and influences. This can be expected from any collection of recipes curated over a lifetime. However, given her international experiences, Duras’s collection ranges wider than many others. Traditional French fare is sparsely represented in her recipe book, with leek soup, vichyssoise, and chicken liver pâté scattered here and there among the more plentiful offerings of further-off origins: nasi goreng from Indonesia, rougail sauce from Réunion, spare ribs from the U.S. The recipes are mostly brief, though some are characterized by spirited notes, such as her instructions for Dublin coddle (“The Irish will tell you: add more wine […] Don’t listen to them.”) and gazpacho (“The Spanish use broth in the place of water. They’re wrong.”). In the preface to the book, Jean Mascolo writes that the book “has no other pretense than to evoke Marguerite Duras in a daily activity that she did not hesitate, with a smile, to make as creative as her writing.”

Among the most personal recipes in the book are those originating from the place of Duras’s birth in 1914: the Gia Định province in French Indochina, near what is now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Duras was the middle child and only daughter of two schoolteachers who had answered the French colonial government’s call for volunteers. Her father died early on, plunging the family into poverty, after which her mother allowed the children near-complete freedom. Unlike the other colonists, the siblings were allowed to play with Vietnamese children, and Duras spoke fluent Vietnamese. She had no taste for French foods—the Normandy apples and the meat that her mother occasionally served the family—preferring rice, soups from street vendors, and fresh fish cooked in nuoc-mâm, Vietnamese fish sauce.

Adolescent Duras complained of belonging to nowhere. She was too European to be considered Vietnamese but separate from the other French colonists, whom her biographer Alain Vircondelet described as the “well-heeled bourgeois who play tennis in the afternoons and who lounge by night in the deck chairs of white palaces.” Instead, Duras traipsed barefoot through the jungle, eating mangoes from trees, looking for monkeys.

Duras left Vietnam for France when she was seventeen and never returned. She often revisited her memories of Vietnam in later life, though, both in writing and cooking. And yet, how separate are the two endeavors? As Duras wrote, “You want to know why I cook? Because I love it…It’s the most antinomic place from that of writing, and yet one has the same solitude, when one cooks, the same inventiveness.” The kitchen and the writing desk are both constrained by limitations of time, of distance; both are flavored by memory without being able to truly recreate the past. Duras’s recipes below illustrate how cooking—like literature, like memory—is a subjective experience in a continual state of being perfected.

In my translation of the recipes, I have attempted to maintain the handwritten, personal feel of the original texts by preserving any numerals or missing punctuation, as well as the informal spontaneity of the writing.

Bon appétit.

How to cook rice

Listen: rice, here’s how it has to be made, once and for all, remember what I’m telling you now. First, all dishes require rice labeled “fragrant” in a plastic bag, generic, available in Vietnamese markets. Even this rice needs to be washed. One reason more to wash the other rice, the branded one, that’s nicely packaged and paraded on television. It must be washed under running water, rub it between your hands under the water to remove the remaining husk clinging to it and the dust and the smell of the jute sack—the smell of cargo—which is that of petrol oil. Smell unwashed rice and smell washed rice, you’ll see the difference.

Wash the rice between four and seven times to be sure. To cook it, here’s how. Put the washed rice into cold water and in the following sacred proportions: two heights of water to one height of rice. For four centiliters of rice, use 8 centiliters of cold water: that’s it. Bring the rice to a boil and then put it on a diffuser over the lowest heat there is. Cover the pot very hermetically. After several minutes, look at the rice. If it’s still dry, add just a little bit more water, stir it, smooth it, and put it back on to cook. It’s very quick. Maybe 5 minutes in all, or less. In Indochina, they make it in terra cotta pots. They don’t touch it while it cooks. At the bottom of the pot forms a sort of cake of burnt rice that the children eat with molasses. Another piece of advice: never buy the glazed rice of the U.B. type. The French brand T.A. is nothing exceptional, but washed it’s edible.


It’s the national dish of Cochinchina, Annam, and no doubt Tonkin. Never can you eat it in France because in Indochina, the pork is butchered together with the fat and the rind. That is to say that it’s what makes the meat complete, the fat to be eaten with the meat, the jelly to make the sauce more savory. You boil the cut of pork. After 1/2 hour, you stop the cooking. You put a bit of the pork broth into a small pot with some sugar, 6 to 8 cubes. Caramelize. As the sugar turns dark, right as it begins to smoke, open the windows for the smell, step back from the stove, and pour over the caramel several drafts of nuoc-mâm: almost immediately, a nuoc-mâm caramel forms. Pour it all into the pork broth. Melt what’s left of the caramel in the small saucepot several times if necessary and add in oil. Cook another 3/4 hour, 1 hour.

It keeps for days and days. The same meal can be made with fish. I was raised with this dish that is eaten with white rice.

Drink: Hot tea, lightly brewed.

Thit: meat.

Khô: dried food. Here, dried shrimp, comprising the nuoc-mâm.

Vietnamese omelet

It’s difficult. It requires very gentle heat and time. The secret is patience. The dish must be made in a skillet set over a diffuser.

Brown some ham or unsalted fatty pork. Cut into tiny pieces. You may also add half a clove of garlic, grated. When the pork is browned, add very finely minced leeks. Add pepper. Do not salt. When the leeks and the pork are well-mixed, cooked, add the black mushrooms soaked in boiling water (washed very well first), rice vermicelli, and bean sprouts. Before the eggs, add the nuoc-mâm, a generous draft, but careful the nuoc-mâm is quite salty. Add no salt or very little. Taste.

It has happened that I have ruined this dish, and I didn’t understand why. The eggs must have overcooked. It has also happened that I have been successful beyond what I had thought possible, I don’t know why this is either.

Photo credit: Jean Mascolo.

Caitlin O’Neil is a doctoral candidate in French linguistics and an Asymptote Copy Editor, currently at work on her first book-length translation.


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