There’s a Vietnamese song that starts like this: “Ten years pass by without seeing each other, I thought love had grown old/ Like the clouds that have flown by so many years, I thought we had forgotten.”(*) It then went on to say, as you might expect, that the narrator still yearns for that love like ten years ago. An even more dramatic thing happens to me: I still crave xôi khúc with the same passion of the last time I had it, which was twenty years ago.
The lady who sold xôi khúc (xôi cúc if you’re from the South)(*) near our elementary school was old. In her sixties at least. She was clean, so Little Mom bought xôi from her. We never had xôi khúc from anyone else, and I don’t remember seeing anyone else selling it. Loosely wrapped in banana leaves like all other xôi(*), her xôi khúc beamed with the smell of ground black pepper in the bean paste and the cool, herbal flavor of the steamy sticky rice. After the lady stopped showing up in the mornings with her basket, we stopped having xôi khúc for breakfast.
Xôi khúc is too much of a hassle for living-alone home cooks. First of all, you need the leaves that make xôi khúc xôi khúc: the not-so-popular-and rau khúc (“rau” is greens)(***) whose English name I could find only after I found out its Japanese name from the blog of a Vietnamese expat in Japan, and I don’t even know Japanese. The Japanese use this grass in their kusa mochi, a category of grass mochi to which the yomogi daifuku belongs. De javu. The Vietnamese grind it up and use the juice to knead sticky rice flour into a dough and make xôi khúc. The dough coats a ball of savory mung bean paste, the whole thing is laid between thin layers of sticky rice and steamed. In the end, you get a handful of something with grains of sticky rice on the outside, so its appearance is like xôi, and a ball of grassy sticky rice dough with bean paste filling on the inside, so its construction is like bánh (anything made of dough). Hence its name varies: bánh khúc, xôi khúc, xôi cúc (the Southerners’ simplified pronunciation).
Today, I’ve reunited with xôi khúc. This small store in Bellaire, packed with xôi, chè, savory foods and customers at 9 on a Sunday morning, sells xôi khúc, 1 đồng 1 viên ($1/ball), each ball as big as a lemon, two of them fit snuggly in a white styrofoam box. The rice scoop digs into the tray. A slight bounce and the soft sticky rice separates. A familiar peppery smell infiltrates my veins. The guy asked if I’d like to top them with a few spoonfuls of fried shallots. Yes, please!
(*): Vietnamese lyrics: “Mười năm không gặp tưởng tình đã cũ/ Mây bay bao năm tưởng mình đã quên”. The song is titled Mười Năm Tình Cũ (“love dated ten years”). You can listen to it here.
(**): xôi is steamed sticky rice, either mixed with beans (sweet xôi) or eaten with meat (savory xôi). I’ve written about xôi bắp (corn xôi) and xôi đậu (peanut xôi) before.
(***): Gnaphallium affine, Jersey cudweed in English, hahakogusa (ハハコグサ in Katakana or “母子草” in Kanji) in Japanese. My inner linguistics savvy especially likes the Japanese name: 母 (haha) is Kanji for mother, 子 (ko) child, and 草 (gusa) grass: so rau khúc is Mother [and] Child Grass (mẫu tử thảo).