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It ain't pho Connla Stokes


n Dublin, two summers ago, my father found some old banh trang (Vietnamese rice paper) tucked behind mason jars of arborio and basmati in his cupboard. Rediscovering this forgotten gift from the east, and without consulting anyone in the west, he set about preparing Vietnamese goi cuon (salad rolls). In Ho Chi Minh City, through the transparent exterior of each fat yet elegantly wrapped roll, you will find three peeled prawns, a slice of boiled pork belly, two fingers of bun (airy, rice noodles), a piece of lettuce, a few leaves of hung que (Vietnamese basil), and a single, uncut chive running up the middle and out of the end, like a green fuse. Perhaps, half-confusing goi cuon with banh trang phoi suong — a Mekong Delta dish for which you make DIY rolls from an extravagance of ingredients — my father riffed off his food memories from multiple peregrinations to Vietnam while improvising with whatever he had to hand. He baked mackerel and salmon fillets, he shredded lettuce and sliced cucumbers; he plucked mint and picked just-ripened tomatoes from his garden; he boiled up some thin (made-in-China) noodles and fashioned a dip out of (Thai) fish sauce. Soon, the whole Stokes clan was gathered around this improvised smorgasbord and concocting slapdash rolls, most of which fell apart as they met their maker’s mouths. No matter (ever tried, ever failed): the meal was declared a success in Dublin. But what on earth would a Vietnamese foodie make of it?  “To my mind the fundamentals of Vietnamese are freshness and fermentation as well as improvisation — your father’s goi cuon had all of these elements, but what I like about this story is that the idea travelled and inspired others,” says Hien Ngo, a United States-trained biochemist turned restaurateur, who at his Ho Chi Minh City eatery, and home, Red Door, reconfigures classic Vietnamese dishes, or “dishes as ideas,” as their own post-modernist alter-ego selves. “Whether we know it or not, food is always a cross section of culture.” Vu Hong Lien’s Rice and Baguette, A History of Food in Vietnam doesn’t quite explain why today a man in Ireland might rather make goi cuon than a ham sandwich, nor why people like Hien are finding new modernist forms of culinary expression in the Vietnamese vernacular. It also didn’t quite have the timing to tell us about how President Barack Obama recently ate Hanoi’s most popular lunchtime noodle dish, bun cha (at 8pm in the evening) — an event that singlehandedly introduced the split shift at all central Hanoi bun cha restaurants and proved that, to date, the most effective way to win ‘hearts and minds’ in Vietnam is to pull up a plastic stool and eat among the locals.   But considering its sudden popularity around the world, it feels like the right time to take stock, and digest what we know about Vietnamese food, and Rice and Baguette proves to be just the ticket. Just one thing: the title feels like a tuning fork that’s partly in the wrong key. Rice, okay. But baguette? Even if the subtitle was “a history of carbohydrates in Vietnam,” how could pho or even bun lose out to the banh mi (pork roll), which, no matter how much it is fetishised in foreign parts, is essentially a roadside snack in its homeland? I have a second gripe: in the introduction the author proclaims, “If modern Vietnamese food had a voice, it would be bilingual for it is the offspring of a marriage of convenience between a rice-based culture and a wheatbased diet,” and that today’s Vietnamese cuisine is a “mix

Oslo Davis

of Vietnamese and French dishes.” Vu Hong Lien admits this is a startling statement (nope, just wrong) that will offend anyone who suggests that “Vietnam’s culinary culture is subject to the palate of its Chinese big brother” (that would also be wrong). The impact of France unloading its pantries into Vietnam kitchens is as undeniable as the impact of roughly ten centuries of Chinese influence (in all cultural spheres), but Vietnamese cuisine isn’t even trilingual. It is itself, just as the Vietnamese language is entirely Vietnamese, even if it has borrowed and absorbed much from other vocabularies (some more than others, obviously).  The heritage expert William S. Logan once wrote that Vietnam’s cultural (and national) survival had depended on a Vietnamese ability to “bend with the wind.” Concerning himself mainly with architecture, he pointed to the multi-layered urban tapestries of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which he said could be read like palimpsests of sorts. So, can we describe Vietnamese cuisine as similarly multilayered? If so, Rice and Baguette certainly succeeds in peeling away many of the layers, gamely beginning at the bottom, in Nghe An province, where archaeologists have unearthed mounds of 8,000 year old molluscs, “several metres high, hundreds of square metres in area” — which sounds a lot like what you’d also find on the floors of any typical (and by that I mean raucous) oc (snail) restaurant in Vietnam today, where locals feast on snails, periwinkles, scallops, cockles and mussels like there’s no tomorrow.  The book also manages to capture a sense of how important Vietnamese food is to Vietnamese people — even if we’re just talking about a bowl of rice. “Over the centuries,” writes Vu Hong Lien, “it had become ingrained in the Vietnamese psyche that no matter what, a meal must be hot and served with rice.” Fighting the French halfway through the twentieth century, Viet Minh soldiers couldn’t bear to eat cold rice (cooked at night to avoid the attention of the enemy), which is why they devised a smokeless cooking system that emitted smoke away from where the actual stove sat. Ultimately, Vu Hong Lien suggests it played a key role in the decisive 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu. Never mind General Giap: the brains behind this historic victory was an inventive cook from Hoa Binh called Hoang Cam. Imported technology also played its part in the evolution of Vietnamese cuisine. The arrival of the rice cooker, for example, in the seventies and eighties bought home cooks more prep time for crafting dishes, as did science: monosodium glutamate, an additive so commonly used in Vietnam it could be described as a “traditional ingredient.” And through Rice and Baguette there are also shout-outs for (in no particular order) Vietnam’s cross-border and international relations with the Khmer, the Cham, the Americans, Japanese, the

Soviet Russians, oh, and the Romans (in the first century AD, they had fish sauce, too — culinary wormhole theorists, you have the floor …). In many ways, the more you read of Rice and Baguette, the more you’ll scratch your head over the suggestion that Vietnamese can be boiled down to a marriage of Vietnamese and French foodstuffs and cooking techniques. To truly fathom the DNA of Vietnamese cuisine, if we acknowledge the multiplicity and complexity of Vietnamese history (as modern academics strongly advise) we also have to do away with simplistic narratives. And, of course, with all this talk of absorbing foreign influences, let’s not forget the ingenuity of Vietnamese home-cooks and chefs, who, generation to generation, and mostly anonymously, continue to both honour culinary traditions while also adapting, tweaking and inventing dishes, forever inspired by the bounty of foodstuffs at their disposal. For the record, it’s not always beautiful (Vietnamese pizza, the rice burger, the pho burger, the banh mi pho — I’ve seen them come, and I am waiting for them to go). And we know America can play this game too. Exhibit A: the phoritto (yes, that is a burrito stuffed with pho-style fillings). Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, for now, judging by the Guardian food pages, there tend to be two approaches to Vietnamese food: the first encourages authenticity; the second, like my father’s goi cuon, says, take the idea of dish and run with it. At the time of writing, the last two online columns are: “How to cook perfect pho”; and a playful interpretation of bun cha, normally made with pork, but in this case (look away, ye purists) made with prawn patties and lemongrass. The good news, for all overseas is there is more, much, much more to come, and learn. “The variety of cuisine in Vietnam is just incredible,” says Jack Lee, now the presenter of Vietnam’s MasterChef, but once a nineyear-old Saigonese refugee by the name of Ly Vinh Vien. “Where else in the world can you find a 100 different options for breakfast on a single street? The next stage for Vietnamese cuisine, overseas, is spreading the word about that variety — outside of Vietnamese communities, it’s still mostly just pho, goi cuon, banh mi and bun cha. But generally speaking, Vietnamese food ticks a lot of boxes for countries in the West that are getting more and more health conscious: low in carbs, grilled lean meat, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, a fruit platter for dessert. That’s why I believe Vietnamese food can revolutionise the way people cook and eat around the world.”   And therein lies the rub: when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine, and its worth, it’s not just a story of exportation and replication. What better gift to the world than to inspire other culinary traditions, or to change perceptions of how we can eat?  In an increasingly fluid world, the evolution of Vietnamese cuisine will only accelerate, and so too will its contribution to global dining. All of which takes us back to my father’s goi cuon — or maybe I should have told you about the time he invented “festive pho” from leftover turkey bones and bits? No matter (ever tried, ever failed), you get my point: the idea of Vietnamese food is travelling, more than ever before, and today, wherever you are, it is now also forever yours to do with as you enjoy. ☐ Vu Hong Lien, Rice and Baguette, A History of Food in Vietnam, Reaktion Books: 2016 21

On Vietnamese food's history, and Vietnamese food as an idea  

A story I did for the last issue of the Mekong Review

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