Fish Sauce and Maple Syrup

In this Montreal novel, a Vietnamese restaurant evokes a homeland

The dense cultural history of Vietnam, a history of upheaval and conflict but also of persistence and survival, serves as backdrop in Kim Thúy’s latest novel, Mãn. Thúy writes with a deep sense of the dichotomies of Vietnam’s history—the French takeover in the 1800s, the breaking apart of north and south for political gain, and then the Vietnam War, from the mid 1950s to 1975, which created more pain, chaos and loss for its people.

Thúy was awarded the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction in 2010 for Ru, her debut novel, which told the story of a Vietnamese-born woman who left her country as a boat person and settled in Quebec. The title character in this second book also leaves Saigon for an ostensibly better life in Canada. Thúy herself emigrated from Vietnam to Montreal in her childhood. Despite parallels between the author’s life and her character’s, Mãn lacks some of the substance that would make her altogether believable.

Mãn’s name means fulfillment, although she seems anything but fulfilled. She is the product of three mothers: her young birth mother, the nun who found her abandoned in a vegetable garden and eventually the woman she calls Maman, a teacher, spy and gifted cook who helps her find her vocation as a chef. Mãn drifts through her life, accepting things as they are, “never asking why or how.” When Maman finds her a Vietnamese husband from Montreal who has returned home in search of a bride, she leaves to be with him in Canada. She cooks in his restaurant, working from a simple menu and the techniques she learned from Maman, who eventually joins her in Canada. With Montreal’s Vietnamese hungering for the familiar tastes of home, the clientele grows. It is not long before Mãn is caught in a whirlwind of success, seemingly unaware of its growing force. A cooking workshop, a recipe book and a television show eventually lead her to Paris, where she has a passionate affair with Luc, a French chef. Although she does not suddenly find the fulfilment promised in her name—both of them are married with children so the affair cannot last—she finally understands and desires it.

Thúy paints a nuanced portrait of the newcomer experience, aside from Mãn’s celebrity status and emotional love affair, which are really background events in the story. The insularity of Montreal’s Vietnamese community is implied, but so, too, is the warmth of its culture. For Mãn, the foreignness of Canada does not lie in its vast landscape or in its divided Franco-Anglo culture. Rather, she notes the details of mundane conversation with the man who cleans her oven: “He was the one who taught me to use the weather as a greeting. ‘Nice day.’ ‘It’s hot.’ ‘It’s hailing.’” In these ways, she slowly adjusts to her new life.

Mãn’s diners come to her husband’s restaurant for the connection food offers to Vietnam. Their memories and their cuisine are bound together and to a concept of home. She understands the power of this connection and the responsibility she takes on by serving traditional specialties: “Just one dish per day. One memory at a time.” When she serves a soup of poached fish with vermicelli, shrimp eggs, caramelized pork and pickled garlic, one man is brought to tears because he tastes “his land, the land where he’d grown up, where he was loved.”

Her food is familiar flavours, a sense of comfort, and has its place in history—in short, it is identity. Mãn gives her diners a place to taste and, however briefly, relive lost parts of their lives. The dishes described in the book have a level of sophistication not often seen—or tasted—here. At times, the meals are simple. Rich salmon, an iconic Canadian ingredient, with a salad of tangy green mango and spicy ginger, is defined by its clean, balanced flavours. More complex dishes call for unusual and exciting combinations: “Like friends of long standing, fish sauce goes perfectly with maple syrup in a marinade for spareribs, while in a soup made with tamarind, tomatoes, pineapple and fish, celery is a worthy substitute for the stems of elephant ears.” Mãn’s control over her ingredients stands out against her general passivity. The dishes she creates hint at a complexity of character that is otherwise hidden. The food descriptions are so vivid that I would have loved a few recipes sprinkled throughout the book to experience the food along with her customers.

Ever present in Mãn is the knowledge that cooking and eating are cultural encounters. Mãn says “culinary traditions are passed on secretly, like magic tricks between master and apprentice, one movement at a time, following the rhythms of each day.” They are passed on through personal histories, but also through public ones. Vietnam’s history is marked by violence and struggle in imperial, international and civil conflicts. Its cuisine reflects that history but, in Thúy’s telling, it also resists it. In the kitchen, cultures meet rather than clash and are brought into harmony with one another. Mãn understands this harmony and her ability to create it by working with other chefs underlies her success. She says:

These collaborations confirmed for us that mainly we were creating the same balance of tastes in the mouth but by using ingredients specific to each chef’s region … In traditional Québécois cuisine, beef meatballs are cooked in a brown sauce whose consistency and colour resembles the one based on soya and fermented black beans that garnishes grilled Vietnamese meatballs. In Louisiana, fish is coated in Cajun spices to blacken it, while the Vietnamese use lemongrass and minced garlic.

The portrayal of characters and their relationships is less compelling than the descriptions of food. The same broad strokes that work so well to allude to Vietnam’s history fail to give enough depth to the characters. While Thúy’s poetic tone works to convey a distinct atmosphere, it tells us little about Mãn herself. She is probably a young woman, but her age and any other notable characteristics remain undefined. With only minimal lines of speech, it is unclear how she relates to those around her. As a narrator, she is not quite introspective or observant enough to offer us developed insights. Her husband and Maman are nearly invisible, both present more as ideas than as rounded characters. By contrast, Mãn’s friend Julie is very present. She is a powerhouse of optimism and goodwill whose purpose seems to be to move the narrative forward in a way that Mãn’s passive nature does not permit. In many ways, the book feels more like a tone poem—an ode to Vietnam, perhaps—than a fully developed narrative.

Ultimately, Mãn stands out as a tribute to Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese cuisine, showing how the latter sustains the former. Vietnam is less the subject of the story than its taste and its texture.