Immigration, geography and history are major catalysts for cultural change. With regard to Vietnamese foodways, you can trace the evolution of the cuisine to how populations have moved around. Case in point is the phenomenon known as Viet-Cajun, which stemmed from Viet-Americans who settled in the American South and fell in love with seafood boils. The result has been a plethora of Vietnamese crawfish restaurants – noisy, themed establishments (you’re invited to write on the walls) that serve super spicy boiled seafood with a classic Viet dipping sauce of salt, pepper and lime. Scenes such as the photo above taken by Penny De Los Santos, are pretty common at these Viet-Cajun restaurants.
The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) asked me to research and make a symposium presentation on Viet-Cajun eateries as it they’ve developed in California. There are many complexities to story, which is one about generational shifts as much as it is about fusion food.
If you want to know more, you can listen to my SFA presentation or read an essay on it in the newly released Cornbread Nation 6 anthology of Southern Food writing. The Cornbread Nation book club just kicked off with a discussion of the Viet-Cajun. Join that conversation or add your comments here on topics such as: Have you eaten at one of these places? What are your thoughts? Is Viet-Cajun here to stay?
Being a Foreign in Your Own ‘Hood
It’s interesting to note that while Thai people are familiar with Vietnamese food (they’re neighbors), Viet cuisine is a novelty in other parts of Asia. Manila-based Tracey Paska recently interviewed me for this magazine article on Vietnamese cuisine, tradition and in particular, street food:
Sans Rival Manalogue - Vietnam Palate It was for Rustan’s, a high-end gourmet supermarket that’s currently doing a campaign on Viet food. Tracey used to live in the US, where she ate at Viet restaurants in Falls Church, VA and Minneapolis. When asked about the popularity of Viet restaurants in the Philippines, she wrote:
My sense is that Vietnamese food has not yet reached the level of familiarity or popularity as other Southeast Asian cuisines (namely Thai or Singaporean), although there are several restaurants in and outside of Metro that serve very good Viet food. The most popular ones are chains such as Pho Hoa and Pho 24 (I believe both originated in Vietnam), while two highly regarded restaurants are Ba Noi in Makati City and Bawai in Tagaytay (just south of Manila). The owners of the latter two are both Filipina ladies married to Vietnamese gentlemen. Personally, I find that the menus in 3 of these (I have yet to visit Bawai) are somewhat limited compared to what my husband and I enjoyed in the States. For instance, Pho 24 offers only one kind of bun [round rice noodles], and it's listed on the menu as Grilled Pork Noodle Salad. As such, I feel there is still a long way to go before the full range of Vietnamese cuisine is familiar and appreciated.
Both Filipino and Vietnamese cooking rely on fish sauce so perhaps someday we’ll see a little blending of the two cuisines in the Philippines. The tropical Southeast Asian climates and resources are somewhat similar. If you’re familiar with Filipino and Viet fare, lend us your thoughts.
It’s in Your Soul
Amie Thao has been bicycling across Europe and Asia, dispatching her observations on food and people as she pedals along. She came across my radar when she wrote about reading an ebook version of Asian Tofu on her Kindle in a tent somewhere in the countryside! While she didn’t have access to a kitchen, the cookbook reminded her of how important tofu is to her, someone who on a journey far from home. Her essay was sweet and got to the heart of the matter.
Then Amie wrote about finding Vietnamese food and people in Italy. The photo below is from her post titled “People Who Look Like Me”:
There are 3,000 Vietnamese-Italians, Amie writes, and she happens upon a shop owned by a Viet couple in Bergamo located in northern Italy’s Lombardi region. She strikes up conversation and among the quotes from the Viet-Italian woman is: “Being Vietnamese is a feeling, it is a choice, no one can force it away from you. When I go outside my home, I act Italian, but inside my home, I follow my heart.”
It is a universal truth. A person can leave their country but the soul of a country always remains with the person.