The last meal Lan ate on her homeland was forbidden. Refugees were not allowed to bring anything onto the boat. No food, no jewelry, no extra clothes. You had to look like you weren’t trying to escape. If you carried too much, the Viet Cong would know that you were trying to flee. But she was so hungry, and so nervous, and that nem chua (sour garlic pork) looked so good.
Saigon had fallen. With its fall brought an exodus of refugees, escaping by air, by land, or by sea. Months ago, the family gathered around the dining table. A difficult decision lay ahead. Four members would be chosen to make the treacherous journey to escape. The chances of death were high. You could be caught by the Viet Cong. Or pirates. Or swallowed by the sea.
Lan volunteered to go on the boat. She was the 10th out of 12 siblings. She loved her mom, and her mom was dying. The best chance of saving her was to escape. If Lan survived the trip, maybe, she could sponsor her mother out of Vietnam to another country where hopefully she would get better medical care. The final four were: Bach, Khoa, Khai, and Lan.
Lan looked at her younger sister, Bach.
“I’m so hungry,” Bach said.
“We can’t bring anything,” Lan whispered. “We can’t risk it.”
“Just one last meal. People eat. People who are not trying to escape eat. We can eat.”
So they bought the nem chua and sat by the dock, waiting for the night to settle in and the moonlight to guide them to their ark. Sisters going into death to seek life, eating their forbidden sour pork.
Vietnamese legend says the moon is a woman in love. Centuries ago, the world was burning up because there were too many stars surrounding it. Hậu, a talented warrior, saved the world by vanquishing the stars. For his heroic task, Hậu was given the elixir of immortality. But Hậu wanted to share this elixir with his wife, Hằng Nga, so he hid the elixir in their home.
One day, one of Hậu’s disciples broke in to steal the elixir. He threatened to kill Hằng. Hằng drank the elixir to keep it out of the hands of the evil student. The magic immediately pulled Hằng into the sky and towards heaven. But her love for Hậu was so powerful that the goddesses let her stop at the moon so that she could still be able to see Hậu. There she lives with her rabbit, forever suspended in between earth and heaven. In Vietnam, the moon represents love.
The night before Lan’s journey she hugged her mother tight. “Look up at the moon, my daughter. No matter where we are on this planet, it will be the same moon,” Lan’s mom said before she set sail to find a new world.
Lan is my mom. The moon and the stars guided her boat to freedom. Although she was not able to bring any materials with her, she brought our heritage. The stories of her people are already within her.
I never got to meet my grandma. She died before my mother was able to make it to America. But when I eat at chef Kevin Tien’s restaurant, Moon Rabbit in Washington D.C., I taste the nem chua my mom and Bach talk about. I feel her love surrounding me.
I’m a regular here. From my first bite opening weekend, through every meal since, Moon Rabbit is has become my favorite restaurant. It’s a place I take every opportunity to share with someone new. The whole team at Moon Rabbit welcomes you like a guest in someone’s home, sharing new flavors on each plate they serve. The experience still feels new every time chef Kevin cooks his life onto a plate. Even in this new world, this new generation, this food is steeped in heritage. The food here is love.
Moon Rabbit overlooks a dock. After dinner, I step out into the night. The air is crisp. The boats gently bob in the waves. The water twinkles in the moonlight.