Every morning at six, sometimes five thirty, my dad went to the market with my mom’s grocery list, and on the way back picked up something fresh for my breakfast. He had to be extra early if we wanted xôi that day, because the warm morsels folded up in banana leaves wouldn’t last past six thirty. Sweet xôi was a popular morning food, until they started putting in lap xuong and pork floss and turned it too close to a lunch thing. But our xôi lady, and later her daughter, never made anything but sweet sticky rice in their loyal steamers. Every morning, sitting on a plastic stool and head half-covered by the cone hat, they surrounded themselves with three or four shining aluminum wok-like basins on the low table, neatly cut squares of banana leaves, old newspaper and rubber band in the side basket. Those aluminum basins often had peanut xôi, black xôi (which actually looked purple), and one other speciaux du jour. My mom was so concerned with my health that she would pick off all the peanuts if my dad got the peanut xôi, and I got really bored with black sticky rice and sweetened bean paste, so there was no telling what I would get for breakfast. On rare occasions it was corn. My favorite.
Without the seed coat and the yellow tip, each kernel was all soft, white and plump, must be twice its natural size. The sticky rice too was gummy, hardly discernible from the corn. I’d try to eat all the sticky rice first and save my precious puffs for last. Our xôi lady always covered the white palmful with mash mung bean, a big spoon of sugar, and a pinch of fried shallot. Arguably the fried shallot tempered the “sweetness” of this xôi, but it’s not as crucial as sugar and sweetened mash bean. Something I didn’t realize until years later.
We moved sometimes at the end of sixth grade, then again, this time across the Pacific, at the end of eleventh grade. My chance of eating corn xôi dropped like the housing market in Detroit. Partly because the cling wrapped stuff on styrofoam plates doesn’t at all look like Ms. Điệp’s warm morsels. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw it at Kim’s Sandwiches, not wrapped up but in aluminum trays behind the counter. Sure, they put it in styrofoam boxes when you order, but that’s still better. I got two for five dollars.
It might have been bad timing. I blamed it on our late morning arrival: xôi is best when it’s just thirty minutes out of the steamer, cool enough not to burn yet warm enough to keep the sticky rice gummy and moist. Our xôi was cold and dried up. But it was also bland. Lack of sugar in corn xôi made it un-corn-xôi-like. The grains and kernels were coated with mung bean powder, not mash, hence we got a heap of powder-coated grains and kernels instead of corn xôi. This is the Northern Vietnamese style, but frankly it’s incomparable with the Southerners’ sweet twist.
On a brighter note, Kim’s Sandwiches’ savory xôi, with roasted chicken and green onions, proved worthy of toothwork. Although the sticky rice was also cold and dried up, the meat was plenty and flavorful to boost.
Xôi bắp and xôi gà ($2.50 each) from Kim’s Sandwiches
(in the Lion Supermarket area)
1816 Tully Rd 182, San Jose, CA 95111