The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking
How two thousand years of resisting colonization produced the world’s greatest modern fusion cuisine.
The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking
When friends ask me about a Vietnamese restaurant they want to try, I’m still unsure how to answer the question, “Is it authentic?”.
As a Vietnamese-American from Houston who grew up eating traditional food almost daily, I know they typically mean to ask if a restaurant makes Vietnamese food like that of my childhood. Is the pho broth simmered with oxtail overnight, fragrant with anise and cinnamon? Are the eggrolls crackly-crispy with sweet-savory pork inside?
I have no problem describing what Vietnamese food means in this context. Some of my fondest memories revolve around exploring the Vietnamese markets of our sprawling Chinatown, pausing at various storefronts that specialized in a different snack: steamed rice rolls, fried batter and egg, or those French-influenced patê sô puff pastries encasing a beef patty.
I only began to recognize the fallacy of “authentic Vietnamese cuisine” when I first moved to New York, where Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants—heavy in Teochew and Cantonese dishes—were regarded as standard-bearers by local food media. It was unfamiliar to me, but was it not authentic to the ethnic Chinese who’d been in Vietnam for generations?
Then there was northern-style Vietnamese cuisine. On the Vice food channel, Munchies, I found a 2015 video titled “How to Eat Pho: You’ve Been Doing it Wrong”. “Have I really?,” I asked myself, as I watched the older Vietnamese restaurateur dip slices of rare eye round steak in a separate condiment dish before twirling them up with noodles. This is unlike eating pho in Saigon, where people add the sauces directly to the broth.
In a recent Taste story entitled “Why Is Vietnamese Food in America Frozen in the 1970s?”, Vietnamese-American chef and food critic Soleil Ho recounts a similar experience of surprise. In her case, Ho discovered a new contemporary street dish, banh trang nuong.
“Very few Vietnamese menus have ever thrown me a curveball,” she writes. “But the banh trang nuong made me realize just how much my knowledge of Vietnamese food relied on a static, South Vietnam–leaning snapshot of the cuisine from 1975, when most of our folks left the country.”
Ho goes on to explain the differences between pho enjoyed by northerners (a clear broth, minimal garnishings) and southerners (“a base to showcase the flagrant potency of their region’s herbs and chiles”). But this is only one example of Vietnam’s regional diversity. While the 1954 partition of Vietnam sent thousands of northerners—and pho—to Saigon, enabling rapid cultural exchange beyond north and south, central Vietnam developed more independently. With a mountainous terrain providing an abundance of spices, the region boasts an entirely separate canon of signature dishes, including a noodle soup called bun bo Hue, which is made with round rice noodles in a spice-forward lemongrass-pork broth.
To understand these various threads and facets of our cuisine—the modern and the traditional, the northern and the southern, the Chinese-influenced and the bastardized French, even the Vietnamese-American and the homegrown Vietnamese—is to know the history, and people, of Vietnam. And it’s this vibrant, proudly “inauthentic” cuisine that functions as a living document of the country’s tumultuous past, with many dishes speaking to the millennium of Chinese rule followed by several hundred years of French colonization.
One well-known early example of this is mi quang, the noodle soup originating from the central coastal province of Quang Nam. Layered with slices of pork and dried shrimp in a pork broth, the dish is best recognized by its strange yellow noodles.
“Legend has it that the dish’s noodles are yellow because Chinese colonizers preferred egg noodles, which are golden in color,” explains Tam Le, the chef of the Mexican-Vietnamese Saigonita in Ho Chi Minh City. “Because the Vietnamese preferred rice noodles, which are white, we just dyed our noodles yellow with turmeric to trick them—Vietnamese chefs, some of the original trolls.”
For all of the celebration of Vietnamese food today, there wasn’t much of it in recent times. “The Vietnamese more generally have had a lack of food throughout much of their modern history,” write Christopher Annear and Jack Harris in a survey of Vietnamese cuisine published in the summer 2018 issue of ASIANetworkExchange. “Hunger was a fact of life through the French colonial period, as well as the period of Japanese (Vichy French) occupation, during which over two million Vietnamese died of starvation.”
The adoption of the baguette (used in the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi), coffee (ca phe sua), and cheese (“fromage” became pho mai) in Vietnamese cuisine was not the result of a happy, serendipitous contact of cultures—as it is often portrayed in those rose-colored retellings of the history of colonial Vietnam. Rather, it was an act of resilience.
This kind of origin story is even shared by pho, arguably the most visible and well-known Vietnamese culinary export. In the early 1900s, the French, who had a taste for beef, began slaughtering Vietnamese cows, which had been used primarily as labor animals. Soup vendors living in Hanoi would repurpose leftover scraps from butchers to flavor their broth. Today, it’s the national pride of Vietnam.
“Viet cooks love to tweak things—they're always wanting to 'improve' things, to put their own stamp on something,” says Vietnamese food writer and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. “They're also into absorbing new cultural ideas and making them their own. It's how we've culturally survived over the years with so much foreign contact and subjugation.”
Naturally, those Vietnamese refugees who landed in enclaves like Houston, New Orleans, and Westminster, California, following the Vietnam War—over 200,000 by 1980— brought with them those same instincts of adaptability. Lacking in English-language ability and formal education, many turned to laundromats, nail salons, and, of course, restaurants to make a living. In New Orleans, the result was a small but renowned cluster of Vietnamese-owned crawfish shops.
These restaurateurs stayed true to traditional Cajun foodways. After all, Louisiana’s “boiling points” resemble the fresh seafood stands ubiquitous in Vietnam where one might spend hours snacking with their hands and enjoying cold beers.
But things changed in the late 1990s as Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana moved westward to Houston in search of economic opportuning. Here, those mudbugs they’d enjoyed in Louisiana, boiled in traditional spices, were updated with a second layer of seasoning—garlic, orange wedges, even lemongrass—applied outside the shell. A new craze was born. In 2018, celebrity chef David Chang brought the national spotlight to these experiments, calling Vietnamese food “the greatest success story of fusion food in the last hundred years” and Houston “the next food capital of America.”
“Hybrid dishes like Viet-Cajun crawfish fit into a long tradition of Vietnamese cooks adopting foreign foodways,” explains chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social in New York City. “I remember living in Houston when crawfish was really popular and cheap. At $0.79 per pound, our families went to town with the feasts. Now with added spices and ingredients like garlic butter, Viet-Cajun is still continuing to evolve to the taste and demands of the people.”
Nguyen represents the energy of a new generation on the horizon for Vietnamese cuisine, which has dug itself out of the hole in the wall reserved for “ethnic” food in America. Today, the children of first-wave immigrants who fled a war-torn Vietnam are opening their Vietnamese restaurants, bringing with them their ability to navigate the modern restaurant landscape and the desire to elevate the cuisine with higher-quality ingredients and thoughtful design.
“Historically, Vietnamese food has been considered ‘cheap’ because of the quality of products that were used,” explains Nguyen. “It wasn’t by choice. But today, I can take a very popular dish like bo luc lac and use dry aged ribeye to enhance the flavors of the dish, and maybe organic tomatoes to add an element of healthy sustainability to it.”
Within the last decade, many, like Tam Le, who grew up in Houston, have even returned to Vietnam with new ingredients and foreign foodways. At her Vietnamese-Mexican Saigonita pop-up, Le riffs on classic Vietnamese dishes with flavors she grew up with in Texas. Foreign flavors, these may be. But this time, the Vietnamese chefs who use them aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.