by Yia Vang
One of the dishes I loved growing up was Mom’s squash shoot soup. I loved the simplicity of it, the earthy, nutty taste, the soft texture, and the warm nourishing feel it left in my body for hours after eating it. It was a dish I saw her make every summer into the fall, as the winter squash ripened in her garden. Mom would go to the backyard and, a few minutes later, show up in the kitchen with a handful of prickly greens, baby squash, and a few big yellow blossoms. To me it appeared that she’d just throw it all in a pot with water, lemongrass, a few pieces of fried pork rind, add salt, and, voilà: a bowl of magic.
As a teenager, I didn’t pay much attention to her garden. I was always too busy with schoolwork or sports or socializing with my friends. I didn’t know what she grew or how she grew it, and I was never curious enough to ask. My entire experience of her backyard was occasionally stepping outside to find her for some reason and being told to water the plants, which immediately caused me to regret having gone out there in the first place. Sometimes she’d tell me to go pick a few things, such as green onion, cilantro, mint, basil, or rau ram, which is Vietnamese coriander, for the meal she was cooking. She would ask for what she wanted in Hmong since she didn’t know their names in English. Sometimes I understood what she needed, and other times I would come back with the wrong item, which caused her to make fun of me. When I stared at her blankly or asked if she meant such and such, she’d tease me for not understanding Hmong, and I would be embarrassed. So, my relationship with the garden was a mystery, primarily associated with difficult tasks that highlighted my lack of fluency in our mother tongue, which further distanced me from it as well as from her.
At eighteen, when I left for college, I also left her garden and her food. Little did I know that her food was what had kept me anchored to who I am, that it was planting seeds of my value, my culture, and my people—that embedded in her recipes were the ingredients of love.
Later in my college years, as I learned more about my culture from Hmong friends who had a different relationship with their parents and our culture, I began to catch glimpses of the beauty of who we are. When I went home, I began to see Mom’s food through different eyes, taste it with a different palate, and watch her cook with more curiosity. The seeds that had been planted in me slowly started to germinate as I watered them with my own love and attention.
During one late summer visit when I was in my thirties, I finally asked her to make the squash shoot soup I had been craving.
How to Make Squash Shoot Soup
Yield: for a mother and daughter
Prep time: a lifetime of being a daughter
Cook time: more patience
Step 1: Allow nature to lead
We walked out back to Mom’s garden. The fence was lined with a variety of herbs and vegetables. Her plants were tall and brimming with life. I had no idea what most of them were called, but I did recognize the cilantro, which was by then about hip high and flowering, and the lush bunches of mustard greens, some of them with yellow flowers on their tips. Behind the mustard greens was a trellis of pea shoots, and Mom told me she had gotten the seeds from the woods. I didn’t ask her exactly where in the woods she got them, but they were wild peas, and she said she was growing them more for the shoots than the peas, which she didn’t really like to eat. I also saw buckets of mint, Thai basil, and green onions. The lemongrass grew in a corner by itself, towering over the other herbs.
Her winter squash had started to spill over onto the grass beyond the fence. Baby squash were starting to form with their blossoms still attached. When I asked Mom how she’d learned that the squash shoots were good to eat, she just shrugged and said, “That’s how it’s always been. That’s what I was taught when I was little. You didn’t eat winter squash only when they were fully grown. At each stage, there was something available to eat.”
Next, we went to the lemongrass, and she cut off a stem at the root, the sweet citrus smell quickly filling the air. I loved the smell of lemongrass.
I asked Mom to put the plants down so I could take some pictures of her hands.
“Why would you want to take a picture of these hands,” she asked, seeming embarrassed. “They are so old. They are not young like they used to be. These hands have known hard work all their lives. They have sewn many paj ntaub and worked in many fields. They can’t sit still. They are always working.” She rubbed her hands together and turned them over to observe them as she spoke. She told me how stiff her index fingers had become, and that she couldn’t sew anymore. She said that she hadn’t done much sewing in the last three years. To me, however, her hands looked strong and earthy.
For as long as I can remember, Mom was always growing something in her backyard. Her garden was her life. It was the beating of her heart. She grew up with dirt beneath her feet and between her fingers. The pulse and rhythm of nature were etched in those hands. She knew by touch, by sight, by smell, the exact stage of growth a plant was in and how much longer it needed to ripen or exactly when it was ready to be picked. She could identify plants even when they were barely four leaves out of the ground. Without consulting a calendar or listening to a weather report, she knew when it was time to plant, when to harvest, and when to break down her garden and prepare it for the winter. Intuiting nature required her to be prepared for the unknown, to relax into uncertainty as she listened with curiosity and possibility. If some plants didn’t grow, she didn’t fuss about it. She just figured out what to do differently the next time.
Step 2: Keep it simple
We brought the squash and lemongrass inside and set them down on the kitchen counter. Mom took a pot out of the cupboard, filled it with water, and set it on the stove to heat.
She washed the lemongrass, pounded on the stalk to get some of the juice out, and folded it into two-inch lengths. Then she wrapped the top few inches of the leaves around the stalk and tucked the tips inside to make a neat little package. Once the water started to simmer, she added the lemongrass to the pot. Then she went into the fridge, took out a few pieces of the pork rind that she had fried a few days ago, and added them as well. The oil from the pork rind was going to contribute a delicious flavor to the soup.
I asked her if you could make the soup with other kinds of meat, and she said yes. You can also make it with fresh chicken or you can make it vegetarian. I asked her about Hmong spices and sauces and why Hmong food is so plain and simple.
“In Laos,” she told me, “we lived in the mountains and didn’t have access to all these different spices. All we had was salt and fresh herbs. Salt is all you need to flavor food and draw out its taste. In Laos, you don’t use anything extra. You make things simple and easy. You don’t have so much time to spend cooking over the stove. You want to make what’s necessary and have more time for sewing, farming, and taking care of the family.”
In Laos, Mom would wake up early in the morning to make breakfast and prepare lunch to take with her for the day. The rice would have been soaking overnight and she’d cook enough to also make dinner. During harvest season she would make the rice at home and cook the greens at the farm, using the little fire pit in the farm hut. If the greens were not yet ready to harvest, she’d use whatever vegetables were available to her. The meals were simple, consisting of rice and greens that were either sauteed with pork oil or made into a soup flavored with lemongrass and salt. The food the family ate on a daily basis was mostly vegetarian. Having a clean palate allowed her to know the optimal flavor of the dishes she cooked. Meat was for special occasions such as during celebrations or ceremonies. Hmong cuisine was not designed to tantalize the palate; it was meant to nourish your soul and give you energy for the day.
Step 3: Attention, not pressure
Mom picked up one of the squash shoots and expertly snapped a small stem off a bigger one, then peeled off the outer fuzzy skin. Following her lead, I grabbed a stem and determined where to snap it, but it didn’t break off the way hers did. Instead, it bent over and juice started to seep out, making it even harder to snap the stem, as if it were protesting the way I was handling it. I had to practically yank it off. It was not happy. The tip had now become soggy, making it difficult for me to peel off the fuzz. I looked over at Mom again to see how she did it. The snapping sound popped from a stem that was clearly pleased to be handled by her, and again the skin happily stripped off.
“How come mine doesn’t come off like yours?” I asked, picking up another piece to demonstrate how the stem was behaving in my hands. I got the same result as before: a soggy stem that wouldn’t snap off, making me use a bit of force and leave some of the fuzz intact.
Mom immediately knew what I was doing wrong. “You’re using too much pressure. Do it lightly” she said, picking up another piece to demonstrate. The stem danced in her hands as though it were tickled to be held by her. All the fuzz perked up, and she lightly snapped it at the point where the smaller stem joined with that of a larger leaf. It popped right off, singing into the silence. The skin on the edge of the stem waited patiently to be peeled off its fuzzy coat, happy to be exposed by her hands.
After the demonstration, she put the peeled shoot in the bowl to join the others. The way she tended to it, with confident yet light hands, allowed it to relax and do her bidding. She treated the shoot as if it were a part of her. I was treating mine as something separate, a piece of sustenance that was a pain in the ass to clean so that I could eat it. I saw it as an unnecessary burden, whereas Mom treated this preparation as a ritual, creating a space for the shoots to demonstrate their true essence. Under her attentive hands, they were alive; under mine, they protested and hid.
I picked up another shoot and allowed the fuzz to brush across my palm and fingertips. I’d always experienced it as prickly and grating on my skin, something I hated stripping off but knew I had to in order to eat the shoot. Now, as I gave it my full attention, I noticed that the fuzz was not prickly but rather tickly, and felt soft, like dipping my hands in goose feathers. I ran my hand from root to tip and could almost feel the tendrils wanting to wrap themselves around my fingers. There was a leaf that was slightly larger and darker green than the others, and I asked Mom if I should keep that part or not.
“That leaf is too old,” she said. “Just keep the young ones.”
I, lightly but confidently, snapped the young stem from the older leaf, and this time it popped off. I picked at the fuzzy skin and watched it come off the stem all the way down to the tender leaves. Then I peeled another and another. After a few rounds of this, I noticed that when my attention was fully focused on the shoot, it was easier for me to peel the skin. But once I thought I was in the groove and started thinking about other things, my hands would get heavy and the shoot would not obey. So, I was forced to bring my attention back and feel it in my hands.
Mom moved swiftly and finished peeling the rest of the stems while I made my way through a few. She kept her attention on me and what I was doing at the same time she focused on snipping the shoots and keeping an eye on the boiling pot of water, making sure that all things were in the right place, moving at the right pressure and speed. She turned down the heat under the pot because the water was bubbling too hard. Then she put the squash blossoms in the bowl with the peeled shoots and told me to rinse everything. As I rinsed the shoots, she put the few baby squash she had picked on the cutting board and sliced them in half or in quarters, depending on their size. I felt as if I were one of the ingredients she was moving along, making sure I did my part in a timely manner.
Step 4: Approval reveals the hidden gifts
Mom told me to put the baby squash pieces in the soup first to give them more time to cook. After they were placed in the pot, I took the bowl over to the sink to wash the small pile of dishes and put them in the dishwasher to dry. Then I took out a few bowls and spoons and set the table.
Once I’d done that, Mom directed me to put the shoots in the pot and add some salt, but not too much. I wasn’t sure what was too little or too much, so after I’d added some, I asked her to taste it. After she did, she added a bit more, and we let the soup cook a few more minutes. She told me that you want the squash to be tender but not completely broken apart. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, so I kept my attention on the pot, stirring the soup periodically and pulling out a shoot to test it for tenderness. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but every once in a while, I’d ask Mom if it was ready, to which she would respond, “Is it soft yet?” I told her I wasn’t sure, so she’d come over to test it. Once she was satisfied with the tenderness of the shoots, she added the blossoms for the last few minutes of cooking. The blossoms wilted and added a pop of orange-yellow color. The sweet nutty aroma with a hint of lemongrass had been filling the room. Then, finally it was ready.
I put a bowl of rice, the squash shoot soup, and Thai bird’s eye chili pepper ground down to a paste on the table and we sat down to eat. I spooned some rice into my bowl, then added the squash shoot soup with a few pieces of the baby squash and some of the chili pepper. The smell of the blossoms steamed in front of my face. If you could smell the color green, this is what it would smell like: a subtle, earthy, late summer smell that comes as the fall moisture descends and nudges the heat particles into the soil. I took a spoonful of rice and squash shoot and took a bite. The taste of the soup was grassy, sweet, and nutty; nourishing. It was hearty and warm and at the same time light and delicate. The leaves of the shoot teased the tip of my tongue with a soft fuzz. Then, the earthy taste of the baby stems left a thick wet kiss at the back of my mouth on their way down. My body exhaled after that first bite. The nutrients soaked into my veins, and I could feel myself become one with the scene. There was nothing else but me, that bowl of warm rice and squash shoot soup, and Mom.
I imagined she was having the same experience I was. We ate in silence for the first few minutes as I reflected on the time we’d spent cooking that day. Instead of criticizing me for doing it wrong, she’d patiently shown me how to make sure I got it right. As I eased into her instructions and allowed myself to be directed by her, she focused her attention on what I was doing, moving me from one task to the next. The more receptive I became, the more her intuitive mastery revealed itself to me.
Through our cooking together, I came to understand that it wasn’t she who had to learn English in order to guide me, or she who had to understand the value of an education so that she could see how hard I was working. She knew those things. She wanted me to have a good education and be the best version of myself. But she also wanted me to be connected to my roots and to grow from there. It wasn’t she who had to give me anything or acknowledge me in order for me to feel my value. It was I who had to climb down from my high horse to feel, see, and understand her. It was I who had to recognize that I had value in myself and have the self-confidence to appreciate her. As I stopped trying to make her see things from my viewpoint and allowed myself to just be with her, she revealed her gifts to me. I didn’t have to adopt her ways and settle down to a life of family and gardening. I just had to see her. To be open, to appreciate her and engage with her, and receive the gifts she had to offer me. There was a strength and order to how she moved in the kitchen, in the world, that I had not seen until I was willing to be taught by her. There was an elegance and simplicity to her movements, which were rooted in a language of nature. Instead of thinking that her nagging and complaining meant she was critical and unloving, I began to understand that she complained because she knew exactly how something needed to be in order to align with nature. There were no words in our modern vocabulary to communicate what she knew, and I slowly came to understand that it was up to me to build a bridge between us and communicate those gifts to others.