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A painting, a letter, upside-down peppers

It all goes into making Vietnamese papaya salad
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  February 10, 2010

A REFRESHING SET OF FLAVORS: With a special story to boot.

"While I wait, I beat the peanuts," says Hop Nguyen, a custom clothes designer in her home kitchen in Yarmouth, Maine. She's teaching me how to make green papaya salad from Bac Ninh province in northern Vietnam. She's waiting for the spaghetti-like strips of unripe papaya and carrot to lose their stiffness as they soak in salt water. She uses a meat tenderizer to tap peanuts, sealed in a Ziploc bag and covered in a towel, so they break into pieces the size of small gems.

As she's about to mince a hot pepper, I ask, "What kind is that?" It's bright red, the size and shape of my pinky finger. "It's called heaven point pepper," she says because it grows not hanging toward the ground, but pointing upward. I marvel at this image, and more. She sharpens a knife on the back of a ceramic bowl. She carves a carrot into a delicate flower. The salad, finished with peanuts and whole basil leaves, is refreshing, with a special multi-faceted crunch.

But what's really amazing is the story how she ended up here. Thirteen years ago in January in Vietnam, she was riding her bike home from English class in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans. The air was smoky, the gutters next to the road filled with trash. All the motorbikes honking their horns looked like a stream of fish rushing to their spawning ground. As she came up to the archway at the Temple of Literature she saw a letter that someone had dropped on the sidewalk. She doesn't know why in all the commotion the letter caught her eye, or why she stopped her bike to pick it up. The intended recipient's address wasn't far so she went to deliver it, but the person no longer lived there. She kept the letter for 10 months — sealed. Then one day, she opened it.

In the letter, someone named Benjamin Birney wrote about life in the United States. Hop wrote to him to say that she'd found his letter on the sidewalk. He wrote back, explaining that a year before he'd been visiting his godfather in Vietnam. On the last day of his trip, he met a teenager who showed him around town and asked him to be his pen pal. Hop wrote back. She was 21 studying to become an English teacher. Maybe she could be his pen pal instead? Ben typed his letters. Hop wrote hers by hand. Four years (about 48 letters) later, Ben typed and Hop read: "I love you." Ben went back to Vietnam, and they traveled the country together for a month. Hop was often giving him Vietnamese lessons in a notebook so when he wrote in the notebook: "Will you marry me," she translated it for him: "Em se cuoi anh chu" But then he pulled a ring out of his backpack. Thrilled, nervous, and surprised, she said, "Yes."

When Ben left Vietnam that first time, before the letter Hop found had even been written, his godfather gave him a painting by a popular Vietnamese artist. When Hop finally arrived at Ben's house in the US, a fiancé visa in her purse, she could not believe what she saw. The painting his godfather had given him was of the exact location where she'd found the letter: the arch in front of the Temple of Literature.

Find the recipe, how-to-photos, where to find shredded green papaya, and more on Lindsay Sterling's blog:

Related: Vinh Sun BBQ and Restaurant, Some strong choices, Busy options, More more >
  Topics: Features , Culture and Lifestyle, Asia, Vietnam,  More more >
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