Food and Literature

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.


Recipes for Peace: Arab Cuisine Garnished With a Message Of Coexistence

A bilingual feminist from an Arab village in Israel makes a potent appeal for peace—with food.

In the introduction to her vegan cookbook, Recipes for Peace, Kifah Dasuki describes her mission this way: “This is more than an ordinary cookbook, though. I wrote it in two languages—Hebrew and Arabic—side by side from a place of great love and with a real hope for change. A hope to fight fear and hostility and to nurture love and compassion.” For Dasuki, compassion is unconditional. Person to person, human to animal, language to language, compassion is fundamental to the building of a new world free of the “fear and frustration” she feels have been her lot. And this book is one building block she will contribute to the new world.

As she personalizes her recipes with anecdotes and reflections from her life, Dasuki isn’t shy about the challenges she has faced as a woman from the Arab village of Fureidis (which aptly means “paradise,” she notes, though in her darker moments she also calls it a “hellhole”) in Israel. She attributes her ambition and resilience to such challenges. Possibly her most vivid anecdote describes her first day of university in Tel Aviv, during which she encountered the word “proportzionaly,” a Hebraization of the English word “proportional.” As she didn’t know the word at the time, feeling inferior in her foreignness, she went crying to her dorm room. Later in the semester, she recognized for the first time how a difficult but honest dialogue between Hebrew and Arabic speakers can lead to mutual understanding. With this foundation, she began to actively bring people together for such conversations from all parts of the extremely diverse Israeli society. READ MORE…

Recipes in Translation: Traditional Southeast Asian Soups for New Mothers

Postpartum recipes have been passed down orally for generations in Asia. Now a multilingual cookbook is attempting to preserve them.

In many Asian cultures, new mothers are offered delicious dishes and nutritious soups after giving birth. The postpartum recipes fortify a new mother and ensure sufficient lactation for her newborn. These centuries-old traditions have been kept alive through orally sharing recipes and cooking for one another from one generation to the next. However, with growing assimilation of Western culture and a lack of documentation, this shared cultural knowledge may soon be lost.

Interested in the preservation of these recipes, in 2014 students who were a part of the Asian Pacific Islander Health Research Group (AAPIHRG) at UC Berkeley started a Postpartum Nutrition Folklore Project. We interviewed our mothers, grandmothers, and other relatives to document the recipes in their original languages and then translated them to English. Some of us asked our mothers or grandmothers to cook the dishes and soups in person so we could write down clearer instructions (and sample the delicious recipes!) Others conducted the interviews via phone calls and video chats. Most of us were bilingual so we did the English translation by ourselves and asked friends and family members to review our spelling and punctuation. Ultimately, we collected over thirty recipes from six different cultures—Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian and Filipino—and published them as a multilingual cookbook titled From Mothers to Mothers: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes.


Risotto alla Milanese: A recipe by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Most important is to assign to the rite a mind fearful of the gods...grant only the finest of ingredients.

Welcome to the Asymptote blog’s new monthly column of recipes in translation! We’ll feature incredible dishes from around the world that are a joy to cook and an adventure just to read. 

The preparation of good risotto alla Milanese requires quality rice of the Vialone variety, with a wide grain somewhat harder than that of Carolina rice, which has an elongated, almost tapered form. A rice that isn’t entirely hulled—that is, not entirely stripped of its pericarp—finds favor among the true connoisseurs of Piedmont and Lombardy: the farmers who use it in their own kitchens. A careful observation of the grain reveals a coating of the residue of its shed film, the pericarp, a tattered walnut- or leather-colored garment of the lightest fabric. When cooked properly, it makes for excellent risotto that is nutritious and rich in the vitamins that distinguish common wheat and seeds with their shell-veils. Peasant-style risotto from these types of rice turns out particularly exquisitely, as does risotto alla Milanese: somewhat darker, it’s true, after and despite its golden baptism in saffron.

The classic receptacle for the preparation of risotto alla Milanese is a round—or even oval—tinned copper pan with an iron handle: the old, heavy pan that, after a certain point, we stopped hearing anything about. It’s a precious fitting of the old and ample kitchen: it was an essential component of the “kitchen copper” or “coppers”—one that the old poet, Bassano, did not fail to enumerate in his poetic “interiors” where, more than once, with lunch digested, the gleaming coppers hanging from the brick backsplash soak up and refract a ray of the setting sun. With the old copper abducted, all we can do is put our faith in its substitute: aluminum.


Jamón, Jambon, Ham

"Each product comes from same part of a pig: the upper hind leg where thigh becomes rear. The consensus ends there."

In the 1992 melodrama Jamón Jamón a lovers’ quarrel turns violent. Class tensions drive the conflict. Jose Luis’ (Jorge Molla) parents own a factory. He falls in love with one of the workers, Silvia (Penelope Cruz), and gets her pregnant. His parents reject their plan for marriage and hire the fit, sexy Raul (Javier Bardem) to seduce the young woman. Raul sells jamón, with dreams of bullfighting and underwear modeling. In a spate of anger, Jose Luis arrives in Raul’s trailer with a club in hand. Legs of jamón hang from the ceiling. To defend himself, Raul grabs one of the hams and uses it as a weapon. Jose Luis meets a slick, salty end.

The film retains its Spanish-language title in its American release, with a parenthetical (Ham & Ham). Jamón Jamón evokes something aromatic, sensuous. The legs of ham that hang from the ceiling in Raul’s shop are lithe and firm. The translated title Ham & Ham highlights the campy humor of the movie, but misses on the sex appeal. The image conjured is not of golden and burgundy cured meat and fat, but of the pink, clove-studded, maple-glazed behemoths featured at holiday feasts or Easter brunch. It’s more Jaime Lee Curtis than Javier Bardem. The French Jambon Jambon hardly fairs better, rousing images of the boulangerie staple: le parisien, two slices of cooked ham sandwiched between a half a baguette, slathered with butter.  READ MORE…

Bicycle Thief Lunch

"The diners leave concern and worry outside as they pass through the restaurant doors."

Father and son stand on the quay of the Tiber, contemplating their next move. Antonio’s thin and wavering form towers over his baby-faced son. The pair has failed to find Antonio’s stolen bicycle. Both wear defeated expressions.  The future looks grim. Antonio cannot work at his job plastering the city in advertisements without a bike. The modern city requires mobility and his has just been taken.

They stand in front of a restaurant, a proper place with coiffed children eating pasta and waiters in button down shirts and aprons. Antonio knows he cannot afford lunch out but offers his son a pizza nevertheless. As they walk towards the restaurant he says, “Why should I kill myself worrying if I just end up dead?” He is desperate but refuses to give in to misery. Bruno lights up. The two enter excited to forget for a while both the bicycle thieves and the eventual return home empty handed.

A band plays perky tunes while bourgeois diners sit around in fine hats smoking, eating and drinking red wine. Antonio bursts into the restaurant. He hesitates in the entryway for a second, soaking in the line he has just crossed with his son in tow. They exchange a few glances—Bruno uncomfortable and unsure only proceeds after his father assures him that they can sit at a table in this restaurant. Antonio and Bruno take a table without a tablecloth. Behind them, a family eats lunch. The youngest son sits back-to-back with Bruno, hair greased just so in a crisp white shirt and button down. He pulls a melted cheese sandwich away from his mouth, stretching the curds to their limits.

Antonio tries to order a pizza. The waiter says, “This is not a pizzeria.” The distinction between pizzeria and restaurant surprises Antonio: a reminder, a gentle nudge, that this establishment serves other food to other kinds of people. Unlike the terraces and zinc bars in Nadja, the public at this restaurant is selective. The family just behind father and son serve as a counterpoint. That lunch is big and festive: pasta, sandwiches, abundant wine, laughter, tablecloths and clean hands.  The diners leave concern and worry outside as they pass through the restaurant doors. They have the luxury of time and money, both of which buy them prolonged distance from the war-torn city beyond the restaurant walls.

Instead of pizza, Antonio orders mozzarella on bread and a whole bottle of wine, despite the waiter’s suggestion of a half. He tells Bruno to save room for dessert. Antonio beats along to the music while Bruno looks lost. Antonio gulps down his first glass and says, “We can do anything we want, we’re men.” He will not be restrained by social position. Eating lunch in this restaurant is a quiet provocation. They push the physical boundaries of the city by sitting at a table in such an establishment. In his choice to forget and to ignore his material circumstances, to indulge in the luxury of not working, Antonio insists on his and his sons’ right to the same spaces and food as the classes who have the permanent luxury of selective vision. (It is true that his wife is at home working throughout this whole scene, and whole film: the fact that they can do whatever they want because they are men is critical.)

The boy behind Bruno eats mozzarella on bread as well (what looks like a grilled cheese sandwich to me) with a fork and knife held properly and managed with grace. When the food arrives at his own table, Bruno tries to manage the fork and knife, oversized and awkward in his small hands. Antonio says that they will be happy for now. Bruno gives up with the cutlery and takes up the sandwich in his hands, pulling it and stretching the melted cheese to an impressive distance. He checks to see if the boy behind him has noticed—no. He sees what he wants to and when he wants to. Bottles of champagne arrive at that table while Bruno keeps pulling his sandwich, gobbling up the cheese, and pulling again, racing before the mozzarella gets too cold to stretch.

The floating pleasure of eating and drinking together lasts about a minute before Antonio remembers that his bicycle was stolen, they will have to pay the bill and leave the restaurant without the insurance of work the next day.  He begins a set of sad calculations of the money that could have been were his bike locked up safe outside. An otherwise ordinary lunch scene displays the social and economic divisions of a city torn apart by war, struggling with development designed to leave certain people behind while others turn a blind eye. Through eating something different somewhere different, Antonio takes himself and his son on a brief trip to an alternate reality. It works for a short time. The mozzarella gets cold, the numbers add up, and they reenter the public.


Nina Sparling currently lives in Paris where she is a middle school English teaching assistant. Between classes, she writes, waits tables, and bicycles to pass the time. After a year and a half working as a cheesemonger in Brooklyn, she likes to surprise people with fun facts about curd and convince the French that Americans can make cheese too.  She also keeps an irregular blog, Salt to Taste, about cooking and eating without regard for details or Instagram.

Read more from Italy:

Cooking Her Way to the Top: Chef Rossi on Feminism and Kosher Hot Dogs

"Rossi tells a story that deeply satisfies the consumers’ appetite."

The Raging Skillet isn’t like other food writing. There are no pictures. Chef Rossi doesn’t bother with the finer points of locally sourced organic vegetables. The recipes rely on her own systems of measurement: a dollop, a shake, a shot, a coffee cup. She believes dishes will work out, even without weighing ingredients to the gram or composing the perfect image (and appropriate filter) for Instagram. The only weddings Rossi writes about are ones she caters. When she writes about cooking, it’s to describe flipping thousands of burgers or deboning a hundred pounds of salmon. Her patience is thin, her work ethic tough. READ MORE…

Au Comptoir, Au Terroir: Eric Rohmer’s Nadja à Paris

Nina Sparling's latest essay on foreignness, film, and fluidity between private and public spaces.

Eric Rohmer’s 1964 film, Nadja à Paris, follows a Nadja Tesich through the city. Tesich is an exchange student at the Sorbonne, living at the Cité Universitaire at the southern edge of the city. The film is short—just ten minutes. There is no plot; Nadja leads Rohmer, he in observation of her movement through the city. Nadja narrates the film in a voice-over. The film treats Nadja’s position as a habitual stranger, a regular foreigner. She is not French, nor does she desire to be. She learns the habits and patterns of the city and participates in them as she is: a Yugoslavian-American studying in a city that is not her own. The habits she adopts fixate on two spaces, le terrace and le comptoir. READ MORE…

What’s a Tomme Cheese?

In her continued column about food & language, Nina Sparling examines just what—and how—"tomme" cheese has come to mean

Some words for foods are easily translatable. The word’s functional meaning shifts effortlessly between tongues. Tomato and pomodoro both indicate Solanum lycopersicum, member of the nightshade family. Poulet, pollo, and chicken look the same rubbed with oil and garlic roasting in a hot oven. In these cases, there is little room for deliberation: oil, butter, wine. Rice, wheat, corn. Their translations are patently accessible. Learning the words for foods in other languages is particularly satisfying. There’s immediate sensory recognition: the words indicate familiar tastes, smells, textures, and sights. The intimacy with what we eat follows. In learning to say tomato in another language, we begin to feel in it also.

But this question of feeling is where it gets finicky. While most anything carries a “literal” meaning in another language, its usage and implication remain awkward in translation. A New York bakery and a Parisian boulangerie operate in different ways. In both places flour is mixed with yeast and water, let to rise and baked. Yet we do not eat bread in the same ways, and the bread we eat is not the same.

Take, for example, the French word tomme. My first day of work at the cheese shop a colleague asked me what kind of cheese I liked. Tomme, I said. He was quick to call me out.

Tomme is not a kind of cheese. Be more specific.” READ MORE…

Women, Cooking

On women, place, and nourishment

I have never been able to cook from Madeline Kamman’s When French Women Cook. I read the recipes and my mouth waters: noisettes de porc au pruneaux from Claire in Touraine and tarte à l’orange from Magaly in Provence. Yet I cannot convince myself to cook them. The lists of ingredients appear too systematic for food that has more to do with familiarity and wisdom than measurement.

The herbs in my fridge have spent too long away from the earth, the red ocean perch far too many hours out-of-water. The stage is wrong: a railroad apartment in West Harlem with dusty windowsills and dreamed-of copper pots could never measure up to a grandmother’s worn-in kitchen. I dream of meeting these women, listening to them, absorbing their habits and tricks. More than their food, I want their knowledge. READ MORE…

Discovering Terroir

In Part 4 of her series on food and literature, Nina Sparling talks terroir—in France, and in Dany Laferrière's Haiti

The word is known: terroir. It has become familiar in English, borrowed from French instead of translated. The word means soil or land. To discuss the terroir of a region, of a plot of land, imbues the subject with meaning and history: terroir is tradition.

Terroir isn’t about being close to where your food grows as a consumer but rather describes the experience of place. It describes the taste of a place. Understanding it comes from the experience of being from and living somewhere. There is an understanding in France that specific foods come from particular places. Every other item in a market is a produit du terroir, de somewhere: poulet de Brest, fleur de sel de Guerande, crottin de Chavignol, and so on. Terroir also points to an obsession with authenticity and tradition—one could argue that the worst of French nationalism and identity expresses itself in terroir. Indeed, exclusion and tradition are both part of its usage in France.

Yet the term also values the communities and weathered rhythms of a place in a more general sense. Food and people come from somewhere: both are rooted. This, the understanding that food and eating are basic and essential to how we inhabit the world—that personality and society are connected to the land and what it produces—is where terroir pulls me in. Dany Laferrière illustrates this aspect of terroir in his novel Pays sans chapeau. The work is fiction and autobiography, part memory and part story. In it, the narrator returns home to Port-au-Prince after twenty years living in Montreal. The city is in disarray, grappling with political instability and violence. He returns to his mother’s house, where the most vivid scenes and memories occur over plates of shared food.


Au Marché, with Emile Zola

Nina Sparling finds Emile Zola's Les Halles in an NYC farmer's market. Part 3 in a series on food, literature, and translation

Runners zipped down the bike lane, out to beat the rising temperatures. We arrived at Skillman Avenue, just west of 43rd Street, a little after 7am. The sun was rising, the sky still lit with the glow reserved for early-risers and weekend revelers. It was opening weekend at the Greenmarket in Sunnyside, Queens. Ron parked the truck with a jolt and I almost spilled my coffee. The cider, oversized apple turnover, and apple farmers had not arrived yet. Patrick pulled up behind us, honking. He would unload crates of integrated pest management apples and tomatoes, challenging the expectations of seasonal produce. He works with Jesus and together they take home thousands, I’m sure. READ MORE…

Drinking with Boris Vian

Part II in a series on food, literature, and translation—this time featuring Boris Vian and his classic "L'ecume des jours"

There is a way a room full of people drinking cocktails feels. It is distinct from the stale fog that spills from a fridge packed with six packs, and it is altogether different from the rosy-cheeked stupor induced by a case of wine. There is a severe and attentive atmosphere to the room. The alchemy of balancing sweetness, bitterness, and bite in a few ounces is mysterious and tempting. There is a self-awareness that comes with drinking an old fashioned, an edge to the precarious glass that a Manhattan arrives in. There is also enormous satisfaction in drinking a good one. The pleasure doesn’t last long—the drinks are always short and expensive. READ MORE…

Colette’s Kicked Fish versus Pizza via Bushwick

A new column by Nina Sparling on food and translation

It was January in New York and exceptionally cold. I took refuge in the kitchen and picked the complicated recipes, the ones that would prove that I could, that I had the patience and humility to follow the details of the book. I pulled the Roberta’s Cookbook off the shelf. Roberta’s opened in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the winter of 2008. The restaurant is a couple hundred feet from the Morgan Avenue stop off the L train, one of the vital organs of the neighborhood. Industrial buildings turned post-grad housing with complicated zoning laws line the streets. From outside the restaurant it looks like a bunker. The cookbook was new to the collection, a gift I had given my mother. It lay horizontal atop my parents’ mass of weathered, yellowing, greasy cookbooks.

The cookbook has high-design photographs of food and blurry low-res pictures of PBR-fueled parties side by side. The narrative between recipes is crass and anti-corporate. The restaurant and its clients have found emancipation from domesticity, freedom from the boredom of home. The food shows an attention to detail and creativity. There are nods to simplicity with a dose of the unexpected: a plate of blistered padrón peppers with savory lemon curd and fennel pollen. The plate comes to the table still smoking. The peppers appear to vibrate in the noise: loud people and loud music. Pizza arrives, seared in the eight-hundred-degree wood-fired oven by the front door. The food resonates in the space: it’s delicious, it’s quick, and it’s informal.

In those pages, eating dinner is a performance.