Each week, one of our favorite writers is drafting a list of every instance their favorite food saved their life. From slices of pizza to bagels, tacos to tamales, these emotional eats remind us that food is so much more than fuel.
By Ashley Hefnawy
My name is Ashley Hefnawy, and I am obsessed with Asian food. There are a few reasons for this, the first being that I am in love with the textures and flavors. The food is salty and sweet and spicy, in perfect proportion, like a three-part yin and yang. Second, I love the condiments. They have fun names like “hoisin” and “tamari” and “oyster”—okay, so oyster as a name isn’t weird, but what does the name mean exactly? Oyster sauce doesn’t taste like oysters. So fun!
The third, and perhaps most important, reason why I love Asian food so much are the noodles. They never cease to tire and intrigue me. Soba, udon, flat rice noodles… I could go on forever, slurping to my heart’s content. But there’s only one noodle that’s actually saved my life, and that’s mai fun, also known as vermicelli.
A Vessel for Love and Spices
I went to the New School in Manhattan. My roommate at the time was dating someone who loved Singaporean food, and the two of them made it their mission to find all of the good Asian food spots in the city—no small task. They were responsible introducing me to the BBQ Beef with Vermicelli Rice Noodles (and vegetables) at Nha Trang One, the one on Baxter.
There are two Nha Trang’s, located within a block or two of each other in Chinatown. I do not know the story behind it, but I find it strange and mysterious. Are they family owned? Or is there a rivalry? It’s hard to say. The above-mentioned dish was what my roommate told me to get the first time I went. If you’ve never had it, this is what you can expect: Grilled balls of beef (weird-sounding, great-tasting), thinly sliced carrots, a sweet and sour liquid-y sauce, lettuce, sprouts, a couple slices of lemon, and cilantro all on top of a mountainous terrain of vermicelli noodles.
The best thing about noodles is that they absorb everything you put on or in them. Broth? Get in there. Veggies? Two becomes one. Spices? Let me BE ON AND IN YOU. They’re like the perfect lover: they don’t fight back, and they compliment the good things that already exist about your personality. (Where I can I find this lover? Only in noodles, I suppose.)
“You have to put chili sauce on the noodles for the dish to be totally complete,” my roommate told me, with a seriousness I could not ignore.
She knew her stuff: The spices complimented the savory beef, the sweet sauce blended with the vegetables and noodles in a way that made the spice pop even more, but I was never sweating to the point of embarrassment or discomfort. The chili sauce became another best friend, an ingredient that had to be in my cupboard at all times. I was so grateful to vermicelli noodles for introducing me to such flavors and moments of heat, but I was also grateful for the price. The entire meal cost $6 (at the time, I think they’ve upped their prices a dollar or two) which was a big deal on a college budget. The meal quite literally saved my appetite, my hunger, my belly, and my sanity.
Mai Fun is So Fun
The year after I graduated from college was a year of adjustment. I was still trying to understand “adulthood” and to me, that meant not getting drunk every single night because I didn’t have homework, and also making sure that I was fed. Whether that happened in my own kitchen, or in someone else’s, I didn’t really care.
I was living with someone who, to me, was a seasoned cook, savvy with all foods and especially those of the vegan persuasion, and someone who loved to cook a lot more than I did. At the time, I had a carousel of dishes that I was good at making, and my specialty was having no idea what I was doing, but making it taste good in the end.
Between trying to adult and living with someone who inspired me to cook, I found myself one night attempting to cook mai fun noodles at home. The evening was cold and the sun had set early. It was one of those evenings where I had tried to do it all—finish working, go for a run, AND go grocery shopping, all with the hopes of probably going out after dinner to meet a friend or two for drinks. (yes, I was shamelessly ambitious with my time management at the time).
The dish was simple: mai fun with ginger, garlic, bok choy, and chicken, garnished with cilantro and chopped scallions. All of that went into one pan at one point, and then eventually, into my belly. Upon taking the first bite, I knew I had achieved some kind of magical perfection. Suddenly my lack of time management was forgotten. The fact that it was 9:30 and I had only just completed making dinner was totally unimportant to me. I didn’t need to speak to anyone. My life was forever changed. This was the first time I had actually even tried making any kind of Asian noodle in my own home, despite having consumed them plenty of times in the outside world. In this moment and on this evening, mai fun saved my sense of independence.
The Last Supper
A couple of months ago, my now ex-boyfriend and I had just completed an evening focus group about smartphones. The session lasted for a few hours, right after I’d gotten off of work, and being the hangry type, food was all that I could think about as we left the windowless cave of foreign businessmen and smartphone experts. We were in the Flatiron, and considered dining at Eataly, only to be dissuaded by crowds and prices. We wound up walking to a small restaurant called Shu Han Ju on the cusp of the West Village and Chelsea. I’d eaten there alone previously, and thoroughly enjoyed their Ma Po Tofu.
Somewhere along the way to the restaurant, we started fighting. The fight itself is irrelevant to the story, but it was definitely informed at least partially by the fact that I was so hungry. Not to discount whatever my points were, but I couldn’t focus on anything that was being said because I was almost shaking from hunger. We ordered different dishes. He got a steak-and-peppers type dish, and I got chicken mai fun.
It wasn’t funny at all, at the time, but as I reflect on it now, I can’t help but laugh out loud. I actually took a picture of the dish, because I thought I might want to send it to my roommate (to prove that mai fun had once again, saved my life):
The last supper mai fun.
Both of us must have looked so dumb to the servers, sitting in silence with furrowed brows, voraciously eating our respective dishes and occasionally picking off of each other’s without asking or exchanging even the slightest glance. In that moment, I was grateful to not be hungry anymore, my anger began to subside a bit, and I still managed to enjoy the hell out of my meal, despite the air of anger and frustration that lingered between us.
As I sit here writing, I’m scheming my next meal. It’s probably going to be mai fun at one of the nearby Chinese food establishments. My temp job just ended yesterday, and the season of change and transition is upon me—I can’t think of a better time to have my life saved by mai fun yet again.