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Kitchen Romance

A recipe for spring rolls turns out to contain all the ingredients for culinary love

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I am in love again. The swooning kind you think you’ll never find after your teen years. The kind that makes you daydream of romantic adventures in exotic lands.

It was love at first bite when a friend and I visited a popular Vietnamese restaurant and I was introduced to spring rolls, a sumptuous food I had never tried before. The delicate steamed wrappers were filled with pungent fresh herbs that exploded in my mouth, and the tiny bits of veggies and translucent noodles came alive when dipped in the peanut sauce served on the side. We decided that a spring roll “fix” was in order and that we’d learn how to make them.

Paying the bill, my friend asked if an Asian grocery store was near by. Ten minutes later, we drove up the street to Barnes & Noble, bought Nina Simonds’ Asian Noodles ass a references, and headed for the Asian market, where we stocked up on fresh cilantro, basil, Thai peanut sauce, and whisper-thin rice wrappers.

Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in my kitchen, shredding small mountains of carrots, our mouths watering as we softened rice-stick noodles in warm water. Painstakingly, we separated lettuce leaves, washed herbs, and lined up ingredients in a neat row. We filled a frying pan with water, brought it to a boil, and gently slipped in the first rice wrapper.

Using a small spatula, I lifted the wrapper out of the steaming water. When it began to slither back into the pan, I nabbed it with the tips of my fingers to keep it flat on the spatula. Not smart. Well, no pain, no gain.

Applying ice cubes to my seared fingers—and with a new resolve—I tried again, using a larger spatula. Success! Finally, I could stuff the wrappers.

Fresh spring rolls on the table, I reached for the peanut sauce. Nobody warned me that Thai peanut sauce is so hot that it should be served with a fire extinguisher. I switched to hoisin sauce and was happily, and healthily, dipping away, knowing full well that this would be a long-lived pairing.

As the night wore on, the spring rolls brought back memories for my friend. A Vietnam veteran whom I’ve known for more than 20 years, he told me stories about his life and reminisced about his service in that war-ravaged country. He spoke with simple eloquence of its lush beauty and the quiet gentility of its people.

The few Vietnamese people he sees these days mostly work in restaurants like the one we had dined in earlier. My friend always speaks to them in their native tongue, which elicits heartfelt smiles. A lifelong soldier, this thoughtful man seems somehow to have seen beyond the destruction of war to appreciate the fragile loveliness of other cultures, a reverence that he now shares with others.

Such reverence does not come cheap.

Because he has been closer to the long-suffering culture that created it, my friend enjoys Vietnamese cuisine in a way I never will. But thanks to his guidance, and to the shared labor required to make spring rolls, I have a deeper understanding of that culture. And I am in love.