Back Arts & Culture » Culture » I Grew up Among Ducks in the Mekong Delta. They Always Remind Me of Home.

I Grew up Among Ducks in the Mekong Delta. They Always Remind Me of Home.

On a recent ritual walk around my suburb, I was held up by the sight of a middle-aged man with his “fur kid.” I introduced myself and when he heard the word “Vietnam,” his eyes lit up and with a smile as he tumbled out the words: “The Mekong Delta. Ducks.”

“It is teeming with ducks there,” he continued. “Their quacking still echoes in my mind.”

A gaggle of feathery friends. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Ducks in the yard

With canals and tributaries meandering through endless paddy fields and shady villages, the Mekong Delta is a paradise for ducks. Almost every house has ducks in their yard. So did my maternal grandma. She raised ducks for death anniversaries, for the Tết holidays, and for every other occasion. Like Mekong people, ducks excel at improvising. Her ducks usually heaped their nest with layers of dried banana leaves beneath a thick clump of banana trees. When she was tired of eating duck eggs, either hard-boiled or as omelettes, after 28 days, she would see fluffy pastel yellow ducklings waddling behind their mom to the nearby ponds for their first swimming lesson.

My mom raised ducks too in order to cut the grocery bill and earn some extra money. But her ducks never had a chance to lay eggs. As soon as they were fat, she would take them to the market. She carried them in two tight hand-woven reed bags, three on each side. They would lie quietly on top of each other with their heads sticking out and eyes wide open, seemingly resigned to their fate of being slaughtered and plucked. Those she didn’t take would end up on our table.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

One of my chores was to feed our ducks twice a day. Watching them gobble their food and then waddle away with satisfaction was like watching a sold-out event. Their diet included duckweed or finely chopped morning glory stems and leaves mixed with rice bran powder and water. But their favorite food was rice snails which they ate so fast that snails had no time to breed in the pond where my mom rounded them up. They were not allowed to wander in the yard because they’d furiously peck at anything along their way. On occasion, my father hand-picked snails for them from the rice paddies. They gobbled up as many of the shelled gastropods as they could and even fought each other for them. Then, contented, they would lie down under the thicket of banana trees by the pond. The glowing water with the promise of shrimps and insects no longer alluring to them.

Killing ducks for meat and more

Despite not building emotional bonds with her ducks, Mom would perform a ritual when slaughtering them. She would pat its head and whisper, “Come back in another life form, my dear” and then pluck a speck of feathers from the duck’s throat, just below its head, to offer a space for her to make a small incision. She would deftly cut through that featherless spot with a well-used knife she always kept sharp between butcherings.

As she made the incision, she would direct the flow of scarlet into a white ceramic rice bowl containing a smattering of sticky rice. As the last drop plopped into the basin of blood and rice, she would carry the duck carcass to the pot of boiling water that I was responsible for. The duck’s lifeless head would flop from its body of waxy white feathers.

I was distressed to witness the slaughtering of a duck that I had fed daily for months. I could clearly remember each one when they were still bundles of yellow fluff and how they happily come waddling towards me each time I approached with food.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Silence hung in the air between Mom and me in those moments. When resources are scarce there is no waste and each part of the duck was used with respect: from its heart, gizzard, liver and intestines to its feathers, head and feet, and, of course, blood. The feathers were put aside to dry in the sun and later placed in a plastic bag to be sold to ve chai buyers. Those women would tour through houses and villages on their old rustic bicycles, seemingly always during our lunch hour when we were taking naps. As they pedaled we would hear them call out: “Any recyclables and duck feathers for sale?”

Lost in the pantheon of duck cuisine

Once a year, when yellow mai flowers bloomed, Mom cooked pork belly stew with duck eggs. We would wait the entire year to savor the Tết food. She explained, “It is worth the wait. If we eat it every day, we will not cherish it and look forward to it anymore.” She would simmer hard-boiled duck eggs and pork belly in an ocean of coconut water for hours. When cooked off, the coconut water turns into a soft golden glow which is rich and sweet and makes both eggs and pork golden brown as the eggs became crunchy and the pork tender.

But other than this once-a-year speciality, Mom had an unfixed duck menu I assumed no Michelin-starred chef could imagine. Sometimes, she would cook duck curry with a generous pinch of turmeric, chunks of carrots and sweet potatoes and a sea of coconut milk. Sometimes, she would do braised duck with caramelized coconut sauce, fish sauce and a mountain of ginger. It tastes gingery, which is very pleasant. The secret of this dish is the two cuts of ginger: the thin strips for chewy texture and spicy flavor, and the minced for faster seasoning.

Duck meat is categorized as yin (tính âm) in traditional cooking for its cold properties, so it must be cooked with ginger known as yang (tính dương) ingredients for their hot properties in order to achieve hot-and-cold equilibrium. It sounds mythical. However, both are used in every home for as long as my great-great-grandmother could remember. They complement each other perfectly like the white and the black in the yin-yang symbol. Ginger must be cut on a wooden chopping board to enhance maximum flavor. This applies to garlic too. She taught me so, and I took tremendous pride in sharing it with my husband who loves to put ginger and garlic in every dish we cook.

The duck blood spilled into the uncooked sticky rice? That mixture would be boiled into blood pudding. Mom would boil the thickened blood in the broth of any dish she cooked such as congee, curry and stew. When cooked, it is firm like a pie and has a chocolate color. Duck blood pudding is mottled white with sticky rice which provides a slightly sweet flavor and chewy texture. We ate it with duck meat and fish sauce with minced ginger.

Occasionally, Mom made duck congee for a family treat. At that time, our home was a bustling hive of activity. She chased the fattest duck, butchered it in half, and submerged it in a pot of boiling water with roasted rice. Once the duck was tender, she placed it on a plate to cool and then cleaned every speck of meat off the bones. My sister and I would dash around the garden to chop a young banana stem and pick rau răm for banana stem salad. The salad would be tossed with the meat she tore earlier. It would be served with warm duck congee and the dipping sauce of fish sauce and fresh minced ginger. I polished off duck congee like a hungry wolf and wished Mom would cook it again the next day, as did other family members.

Roast duck served at a Saigon eatery. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The dish I liked best was the roast duck which Mom only did on my paternal grandma’s death anniversary. She brought ducks she slaughtered to a nearby roasting shop. To munch the roast duck, we first waited until the incense sticks on the ancestor altar — where my grandma always offered a tight smile in a plum red velvet áo dài she never wore in her life — burnt into ashes. It was crispy and succulent with golden brown skin and pink aromatic flesh. After chomping down one big piece, I would lick my fingers so clean that they almost disappeared. The aroma of roast duck always lingered on for hours after.

Ducks on show

At the open-air markets that bustle with a rainbow of exotic fruits and vegetables and a cacophony of noises and scooter horns, the ducks’ loud whistling guide people to their world. The choices are practically unlimited, from free-range ducks to confined ducks of all kinds. There are mottled ducks, Muscovy ducks, Grass ducks, Pekin ducks, and more. People can buy fresh naked duck carcasses with all their internal organs intact lying on big trays that look like giant water lily leaves. Or people can choose a decent live duck and come back to fetch the bird at the end of the shopping trip.

As a single person in the city, half a duck suited me fine for two days. An entire duck would take me further, but, without a refrigerator in the dripping humidity, it would become a mossy frog before I could finish it! I would ask the duck lady to dismember my half into bite-sized chunks. She did so with a deft snip of her well-used but scalpel-sharp scissors. On the days I failed to ask her to butcher the bird, I would end up hacking it to pieces with my mostly unused knife.

To save time, I made braised duck too. Like my mom, I seasoned the meat with caramelized coconut sauce, fish sauce and, of course, two different types of ginger. Then I let it simmer with a lid on and went about my business. By the time I heard sizzling sounds, I knew my braised duck was cooked.

Trứng vịt lộn

Next to the duck ladies sit the egg ladies. Baskets of eggs in all shapes and colors full to the brim await fussy housewives. There are chicken eggs, duck eggs and quail eggs; freshly laid or fertilized. The latter are always duck eggs and quail eggs.

Trứng vịt lộn being prepared on a Saigon street. Photo by Brandon Coleman.

Fertilized duck eggs (trứng vịt lộn) are considered a healthy and nutritious treat. They are believed to be rich in iron, calcium and even Vitamin C. There is no scientific research on this, but the maxim is passed down from generation to generation. No young Vietnamese wants to miss out on the street delicacy on a night out.

As high school students, my friends and I usually conducted a trứng vịt lộn challenge. The winner was the one who ate the most trứng vịt lộn. The reward they received was simply our applause, a kind of appraisal that was of greater importance than that of our teachers and parents. By the time my friend, the winner, was able to bolt six, I had just started to peck at the second, which turned out to be my last. After the challenge, I thought I would not go near trứng vịt lộn for a year. Its richness and creaminess remained on my breath for hours. However, in a week, I found myself gnawing trứng vịt lộn again with my friends.

Here is how we enjoy trứng vịt lộn: first, we crack the larger end of the egg with a teaspoon. Next, we peel back the broken top, just enough, and suck the sauce gently. Then we continue to peel off the shell. The hardened yolk interlaced with cooked blood vessels appears. Scooping it out with a teaspoon, we dip it in a mystifying sauce of salt, black pepper, smashed red chilies and lime juice. We munch on it with some rau răm. A burst of flavors explodes in our mouth: the yolk is crunchy and chewy and creamy; the sauce is hot and salty and sour; the leaves are peppery and spicy and minty. Our mouths are on fire and our sinuses are clear. Now the eyes of a nearly developed duckling are staring at us. But it barely disconcerts us. We have another bite. Its developed bones are so soft.

Trứng vịt lộn eaten in Saigon. Photo by Cao Nhân.

Ducks talk

Ducks have become part of Vietnamese culture both in cuisine and figuratively. My mom is a walking dictionary of duck idioms. Before my brother popped out and "rescued" her from further pregnancy, she felt sorry for my dad for being surrounded by girls, while he felt left out by his friends who all had at least one son to carry on the name of their families. When we could not help our dad with labor that required a man’s strength, Mom would tease us with a giggle: “The house is full of vịt trời (wild ducks).”

When I consistently did not follow her advice, she moaned: “Talking to you is like pouring water over a duck’s head (nước đổ đầu vịt).” Interestingly, English people use a similar phrase: “Like water off a duck’s back.”

When she saw that I was confused by something she said she would complain that I listened to her stories “like a duck listening to a thunderstorm (như vịt nghe sấm).”

If I was slow in doing something she would scold me: “‘Come on! Don’t walk like a duck (Lạch bạch như vịt bầu).” And to encourage us kids to study hard for a better life, she announced: “I promise you, if you don’t study hard, you can only work as duck herders.”

Being duck herders is not easy. They have to move thousands of ducks from paddy fields to paddy fields which are bare after the harvest. The fields promise a paradise of crabs, rice snails, insects and grain for ducks. When the sun dips into the horizon, herders round-up happy ducks for a rest. Their feet are wet and painted in mud all the time. They sleep under the stars, or a rickety hut if lucky, beside the ducks to make sure that none get lost or sick. Plus they have to collect the eggs the ducks lay as they go. And for all that effort they receive a modicum of income. Understanding that, us siblings announced in unison that we did not want to be farmers, let alone duck herders.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

To return to the friendly passer-by who happened to bring me home, a home away from home. He told me, “I will visit the Mekong Delta again.” But he swore, “I won’t eat embryo eggs again. Never again.”

Sympathizing with his unpleasant foodie experience, I said, “In early December, Taste Atlas released a list of ten disgusting street food. Trứng vịt lộn was second in the list.”

“You see!” he smiled in agreement.

Out of the blue, I heard an incessant quacking aloft. Two Egyptian geese were flying above, probably on the way home as the curtains of silk darkness were about to close.

A wave of nostalgia enveloped me. I missed the happy Mekong ducks. And my mom.

[Top photo by Bill Yeaton via Smithsonian Magazine]

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