Food that Takes You Home: Cooking the Books with Aliette de Bodard

ObsidianBlood-144dpiWhether author Aliette de Bodard is writing about space stations or Aztec monsters, her attention to detail with regards to food (and everything else) is exquisite. Two cases in point: the short story “Immersion,” (Clarkesworld, June 20, 2012)* and her omnibus Obsidian and Blood (Angry Robot, 2012).

A resident of Paris, France, she regularly blogs her adventures in French and Vietnamese cooking on her website.

Aliette de Bodard visits Cooking the Books to discuss cooking and writing about food within and across diverse cultures, as well as what Aztec monsters eat.


One of my favorite stories in Clarkesworld this year was “Immersion.” It uses smells and memory to talk about culture and returning to lost culture.  Almost from the very beginning, when Agnes looks at a cup of coffee and doesn’t recognize it, we realize how distanced she is from everything. Within that world, how did you decide to focus on food?

For me food comes pretty naturally – I come from two cultures, French and Vietnamese, that are totally obsessed with food.  It is what you are, what you come from. It is also a way of gathering family. When I was growing up, food was very important because it was one of the strongest ties that my maternal family had left with Vietnam.

But I didn’t actually come up with the idea to use food originally.  I came up with the idea of setting it in a restaurant. I knew I wanted to write a story about these immersers that would be these helpful, contextual feedback loops that would turn creepier as the story went on.  I couldn’t find the story that would go with them – I had the technology – I was doing my exercise late one evening and as it often happens, my mind drifted. And I realized I wanted the story to be set where you could have the intersection of cultural identity and the problems posed by tourism.

adb_clarkesworldOne of the ways I experienced those problems, as a child and also as an adult, is that there could be very alienating moments in your life that revolve around food. Like, for instance, the fact that people find fish sauce disgusting is just odd to me. Because I grew up with it. It’s very powerful because it’s a staple that you see every day, that you eat every day, that you are prepared to geek over, and you have people facing you who think ‘no one in their right mind would ever eat this.’

One of the things that struck me especially when we were in Vietnam is that there’s a very big split between Westerners and locals.  There’s not as big a split between locals and other Asian people. One of the ways they manifested was attitude toward food- even ways of eating Asian eating is very communal – you set the dish in the center of the table and you pick at it with chopsticks. Then you have French and British tourists asking for forks and knives and not understanding that you have a communal meal.  And also sticking to “safe” dishes that don’t look too weird.

That’s in “Immersion” too – the technology translates ‘weird’ food and advises the wearer against certain things.

I actually crowdsourced that one. That was the funniest bit of writing research ever.  I asked on my Twitter – “Suppose you were a Westerner, what would you find disgusting about Vietnamese food?” And I got TONS of answers.  Some of them were really weird, like ‘dog’ and I was like ‘we don’t eat dog.’ But some were really useful. In the end it was a compromise between dishes people would actually recognize and dishes that were actually typically and quintessentially Vietnamese. And those were what ended up in the story.

I recall some of them were very odd.  Some made me think ‘I don’t understand why anyone would be disgusted,’ while others made me go ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen this dish.’ Though I’ve only been in the part of Vietnam that my family is from – so there quite certainly are dishes I haven’t seen.  People also suggested dishes that were less common but that would have been mostly festival dishes. So I couldn’t use them because it would be like going into a restaurant and ordering a whole Thanksgiving turkey on a regular basis. As much as I liked them, I thought ‘this is not quite going to work out.’ And I wanted a list of dishes that was fairly diverse.  So I didn’t want the same concept over and over.

The enthusiastic reaction to crowdsourcing showed me that some people have very strong opinions about Vietnamese food.

Do you find these are themes that you return to in your work like the idea of smells triggering memory? Or returning to food as an expatriate?  The restaurant scenes in “Immersion” are at substantial remove because they’re on a space station.

I thought of the space station not at a remove, but as the origin of the food. I thought that this space station would be a new motherland for the food so that the remove would effectively be the second person character, Agnes, experiencing it from the view of an outsider–while everyone else would be totally immersed in the food. That was the idea–not sure how it worked out for external readers!

The whole triggering smells theme – for me, smells hold very strong memories – especially the smell of food.

I remember the first time I actually managed to make the lemongrass chicken dish that is in the story.  When I made it, I remembered being six, sitting at the dining room table watching my mom bring the dish to the table.

I actually come back time and again, to that concept of smells being a stronger pull than visual memories, as it’s certainly been the case for me.

For instance?

For a story with food an actual trigger for memories, one of them is “The Waiting Stars,” which hasn’t been published yet. It will be in Athena Andreadis’ The Other Half of the Sky (Spring 2013, Candlemark & Gleam), an anthology of feminist space opera that will come out next year.

In “The Waiting Stars,” I have a character who was taken as a child from her people and doesn’t remember anything from her childhood, but from time to time she’ll have intense triggers that are caused by food.

And in the Obsidian and Blood series – I had lots of actual food moments to the point where my copy editor threw up his arms and said ‘look, all the food porn has to be minimized because  you keep talking about them over and over again.’ Best copy-edit ever.

What kind of meals appear in Obsidian and Blood?

There are a lot of maize-based meals. A lot of things they fished from the lake – crunchy fried newts and frogs and fish.  I don’t think they had much meat because they were in the middle of marshes and had overhunted their game sources, so they had birds, but not much in the way of large meat animals – they raised dogs and turkeys for food but didn’t have oxen or what we’d think of as farm animals like hens or cows.

In the Obsidian and Blood books, you take on what the gods eat and what the monsters eat as well.

I can’t remember what the gods eat, but the monsters definitely. I drew a lot of them from Aztec culture, and they eat all sorts of unpleasant things because of course they are monsters!

For example, the ahuizotl eat human fingernails and eyes.

They looked like some kind of otter, and I thought I would go with the more fantastical one that described them as having clawed hands at the ends of their tails because that made them creepier.  An otter would have been a little disappointing, even though an eye-eating otter has a very frightening vibe, and is no longer quite so cute.

How hard was it to write those scenes?  As someone so aware of the way things taste and smell, how hard is it to write a monster that eats something that is absolutely not for eating in other settings?

I think that what isn’t for eating in other settings is always relative – the odds are that someone somewhere has tried the food that you find disgusting and/or has made it a staple of their diet. Though I have to say that fresh human eyes and hearts do go a little beyond what I’d think of as attractive myself, and it helped that I didn’t have to write from their point of view. As it happens, it was from the point of view of a single character who also found that eating eyes was not normal and slightly disgusting and slightly frightening, not really far from my own thoughts.

There was a brief passage where Acatl merges his mind with the beast of shadows and he starts finding human hearts attractive to eat – and I used this as a way to go into full-on creepy mode.  From the point of view of the beast, this is going to be the best meal ever. But from the character’s perspective, that’s forbidden food.

It works for food and any other cultural thing – for the beast, it wouldn’t have been forbidden.  And when the narrator does realize what was happening, he was repulsed by it. So I could get to that point in the scene where he does realize what is happening and is like “Ew. Human Hearts.”

When you cook, are you a recipe person or are you do you wing it?

It’s kind of like novels – I like having an idea of the original recipe, if I’m doing an unfamiliar dish. If I’m doing a familiar dish, it’s a bit different.

If I’m not familiar, I’ll have a list of ingredients and find I don’t have half of it because my Vietnamese cookbook assumes fruit and herbs that you can’t find in Paris.

So I will replace as required. For instance: plum sauce is for sweetness, what works for that – oh I know, hoisin sauce with maybe a little lime tartness. I will get creative when I taste something and think it needs a little something.  I have been known to put soybean paste or fish sauce in Bolognese tomato sauce.

You don’t want to get me in that sort of mood if you don’t like fish sauce. Otherwise, it’s awesome.

Let’s talk about authenticity and cooking. You have a great essay on your blog about cuisine and culture. And you write about food in such diverse cultures, including the Aztec and Xuya. How do you keep the different cultures’ foods straight in your head?

The Aztecs and the Asians have really different foods and very different ingredients, so they are easy to keep straight. Though I am being a little dishonest here in the sense that if you have two cultures cohabiting this close for a number of centuries, odds are their cooking would have a lot more overlap than what they do. It is essentially me taking current Chinese and Vietnamese food and putting it side by side with what Aztec food was like four centuries ago.

It’s a balance choice because Xuya is a complicated alternate history, and I can’t deal with everything changing at the same time.  I focused on the differences in outlook and crossing over from one culture to another.

So it’s better from a narrative standpoint to have things be very different so that it’s very clear that you have cultural conflict. In reality what would happen is that you have ingredients mixing and merging. For instance, in Vietnamese current food, you have very definite French influences. You have sandwiches, which were obviously brought over from France because Vietnam didn’t have bread before French people showed up.

And you have dishes taken straight from Chinese cuisine, like bánh bao, a kind of pork bun– you can find the same thing in Cantonese cuisine and you will find it south of Vietnam quite easily as well. So I’m sort of basically winging it in keeping the cuisines separate, but in reality I think it would be very different.

Let’s look at the bigger idea of writing about diverse cultures and authenticity. You’ve written about authentic cooking on your blog. There are lots of writers trying to write both in the cultures that they are familiar with but also to reach out to unfamiliar cultures and write within those.  How difficult is it to attempt winging it and making a believable world, but also attempting authenticity at the same time?

I think authenticity for me is a loaded word.  There were a couple really awful books about Chinese culture and people were like ‘oh wow! This is authentic.’ And what they meant was, it was plausible.   It jibed with the mental image that they had of China and it felt real to them.  But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they had an understanding – and it definitely didn’t for me. They must have had some really weird stereotypes.

(As a side note, it always makes me uneasy to always talk about China: I don’t have direct associations with the country except that China colonized Vietnam and left a lot of cultural practices there. But it’s easier to take China as an example because there are so many books about it, many more than about Vietnam. So I’m picking easy examples, but I could be wrong.)

So the word ‘authenticity’ is used in cookbooks and in more general terms to open a door to things that would be plausible to certain people, but also to shut people off from attempting things, at the same time.

Yeah, I think it is. The other side of the coin is that authenticity is also used as a construction of identity against other people. Particularly in cookbooks, you can clearly see it.

If we’re talking immigrants – you can talk about hyphenated American experiences, but you can also talk about hyphenated French experiences and have that be a same thing. It seems to me there’s a very strong attempt to forge an identity defined around what people remember of the motherland.  And it’s exacerbated of course by the fact that as an immigrant, you’re not treated very well at all and other people have caricaturized images of you. This can lead to a strong need to feel pride in being different–if you’re treated differently, you might as well revel in it.

But at the same time, the difference of the nth-generation to the motherland has got to be quite strong and quite distinct compared to the nth-generation who actually remained in the motherland. As time goes on, you will drift further away and form a very specific identity… you become part of a slightly different culture– and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just the way things are.

So authenticity is really fraught because it comes from this desire to completely be part of your motherland, of where your ancestors came from.  But at the same time, it’s an impossibility.  But that’s my personal point of view and my personal experiences–I know not everyone will agree with me on that and that different people will have very different experiences of growing up as part of a hyphenated identity.

With authenticity, you also have to address outsiders writing from the point of view of insiders. For instance, white Americans writing from the point of view of Vietnamese people in Vietnam. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do well, but I think most people underestimate how hard it is to do well.

There’s a tendency for people to seize on what they think is cool and awesome, except it’s very commonplace for someone who actually lives in the culture, so you get this very skewed view.  And there’s also a huge subset of people who actually produce really crap stereotypes – more often than you think — obviously not realizing it or they would stop.  Popular media and in particular Hollywood ingrains that – there’s a general reinforcement of that.

Without cheapening it, I think that’s another axis of authenticity.  Especially when you are a Westerner doing a non-Western culture, you have enormous power and you’re using the language and the tropes that are familiar to the people you are directing your story to.  It’s easier for you to come up with a storyline that will speak to your people.  I can come up with a storyline that will speak to French people because I’m French and I sort of know how they work, if that makes sense.  So you dress it up in attractive clothes and you sound better than people from inside the culture, which is where people get pissed off.  There are cultural ramifications that I don’t think people are necessarily aware of.

So writers don’t want to go into a culture and make it plausible to people outside the culture, but implausible to the people inside of it?

It’s the current power balance –if you had many Asian writers being translated into English, you’d see how many bad representations of Asian people there are in the media.  (were I to write my Aztec books again, I’m not sure I would deal with that issue the same way – it’s a never-ending job of educating as a writer).

What is your favorite meal that you have written about?

I think it’s the lemongrass chicken from “Immersion”.

For me, lemongrass chicken is a personal childhood dish.  Having the opportunity to put it in a story was a very interesting experience for me.  And also because the story sort of didn’t work for me until I figured out that there was a restaurant setting and a dish to anchor the story:  the lemongrass chicken ended up as a central component and not just as background setting to make the story more believable.

I also wrote a novella before that centered around the preparation of a meal – it’s coming out in December. “On a Red Station, Drifting,” follows a family who goes through a devastating war and explores what they do to survive.  There’s a fair amount of food porn and there’s a scene that takes place in the room with the fish vats where they brew fish sauce. I was very proud.

My husband read it and said ‘you know you have to cut down on the food porn.’

We’re very glad you didn’t cut down too much on the food porn!  Thank you so much for visiting with us today.


Ga Xao Dam Gung Sa: Chicken with Lemongrass and Macerated Ginger, from Aliette de Bodard

Recipe type: Main
Prep time:  20 mins
Cook time:  30 mins
Total time:  50 mins
Serves: 4

A wonderful mix, tart and spicy and redolent with the smell of lemongrass (recipe from Bach Ngo’s Classic Cuisine of Vietnam).

Ingredients

    • 300g chicken
    • 1 stalk lemongrass
    • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
    • 2 tablespoons ginger, pounded with mortar and pestle
    • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
    • 6 tablespoons water
    • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
    • ½ teaspoon sugar
    • 3 cloves garlic
    • 1 large onion
    • Sprinkling of black pepper

Instructions

1.     Mix the ginger and the vinegar. Set aside.

2.     Prepare the lemongrass stalk: discard any dried outer leaves, discard the upper two-thirds of the stalk, and slice the remainder paper-thin. Slice the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Put the chicken in a bowl along with 1 tablespoon of the fish sauce, and sprinkle black pepper. Add the lemongrass. Mix, and set aside.

3.     Mix the cornstarch, sugar, water and remaining fish sauce, and set aside.

4.     Chop the garlic, and slice the onion into wedges.

5.     In a large-bottom casserole dish on medium fire, put in oil, and fry the garlic for ~30s, until fragrant. Add the onion, and cook until soft. Add the chicken, and fry for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Cover, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Then stir in the ginger-vinegar mixture and the cornstarch-fish sauce-sugar one. Mix well. Cover again, and cook for 5 minutes. Then uncover, set heat until the sauce boils, and finish off by congealing the sauce (basically, make the cornstarch boil and thicken).

6.     Serve with rice.

Notes
The lemongrass stalk can be replaced with 1 tablespoon dried lemongrass, but it will need to be soaked in warm water for 2 hours and chopped very fine.

(More of Aliette’s recipes can be found here.)


Aliette de BodardAliette de Bodard lives in Paris in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and three Lovecraftian plants in the process of taking over the living room. Her speculative fiction has won the British Science Fiction Association Award and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her trilogy of Aztec noir Obsidian and Blood is published by Angry Robot, and her novella On a Red Station, Drifting is forthcoming from Immersion Press.  You can read more about her on her blog, and on Twitter.

Photo credit: Inès de Bodard


*You’ll find “Immersion” in the table of contents for Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Seven.

Read more Cooking the Books – The updated library of interviews is here.

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