When My Mother’s Cooking Becomes a Global Ph(o)nomenon

Posted on July 13, 2012

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Pho, that ingenious Vietnamese concoction, is an incomparable and sacred broth. Spiced with roasted star anise, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, charred ginger and onion, and made savory by fish sauce, the soup is brewed at a low heat until the beef falls off the bone and the marrow seeps. It inspires passion, and it is as endemic to Vietnamese culture as the Vietnamese language itself.

But since the Vietnam War ended, the soup, too, has become like the Vietnamese diaspora — a global, well, phonomenon.

So much so that among my own clan, whenever we gather from all over the U.S., Canada, France and England — to celebrate a wedding, say, or mourn the passing of a relative — “pho-talk” often tops the list of our conversational topics. “I was in Athens last year and guess what?” Someone will start, and someone else will rise to the challenge. And so begin the rowdy banter and tall tales.

It is a kind of game of one-upmanship, both to show off our new cosmopolitan sheen and to marvel at how far we’ve come since our initial expulsion from our beloved homeland as refugees. For within the culinary experience is the theme of our journey itself. Cousin B., the rowdy kid back home, has become a manager for a big high-tech company and travels widely. He has eaten pho in Rio de Janeiro. Uncle P., who lives in France, has eaten pho in Tanzania and in Rio de Janeiro.

Friends and relatives have eaten pho in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, Mexico City, Paris, London, Melbourne, Seoul, Bangkok and yes, even far-flung Dubai and Johannesburg. We gossip. We tell pho stories, often while savoring the soup. It’s as if knowing another far-flung city that serves what was once our national treasure eases our nostalgia and appeals to our hope for prosperity: wherever there’s Vietnamese, there’s pho.

In Ubud, Bali, Vietnamese pho has taken on a delicate taste. Served with fresh snow peas and a wedge of lime and no other garnish to speak off, except a sprig of an amazingly spicy and fragrant basil, it’s a delight, especially when the waitress blesses the soup with a white orchid to enhance the spirit of the broth.

…I happened to be in this outskirt area of Sydney and read about a museum that was putting up an “I (heart) Pho” exhibition, right? It took me a second to realize that it was an exhibition of our soup. So I went, of course. They served pho inside the museum and even imported a pho stall from Saigon, to reconstruct Saigon street food inside the museum. Then I saw teacher P. from Le Qui Don high school. Can you believe it? Of course, we ate pho together. So far from Saigon, but there we were, teacher and student, three decades later, sitting on a wooden bench, slurping, laughing, just like old times — except we were on another continent.

In Nargakot, Nepal, high above the clouds, there’s this hotel that sometimes serves pho on weekends. Beef is not available but buffalo meat is used. The meat is a little bit chewy. But with such clear air and strong wind, everyone — the tourists, the people in town — everyone knows when they’re making pho, even the bloody yetis.

Did you read about “the story of Fo”? So this Vietnamese man who joined the merchant marine when the war ended, he was homesick of course, but there’s no home to go back to. So he kept on sailing. One day he ended up on this island called Reunion. Far down the beach, he saw a little makeshift restaurant with coconut trees and thatched roof and, though he should really have been getting back, he headed for it. A dark-skinned, elegant-looking mademoiselle greeted him with a bright smile and gave him the menu. Conch and fish, he’d had plenty, but as he scanned the menu with the boredom of someone who had eaten too many exotic meals, he saw at the bottom of the page a word that caused him to sit up and stare: “Fo.”

You guessed it. It’s pho, but after many generations. Still, who would complain about spelling when the broth simmered in the kitchen? There was no rice noodle to what survived, no star anise smell, not even fish sauce. The mademoiselle with a slender figure and a bright smile made noodle out of tapioca. She rubbed it into uneven strings between her dexterous fingers, then boiled them.

Yet it was “un plat Vietnamien.” Green onion was sprinkled on the soup and a waft of ginger was enough to tell him “quelque saveur de son pays” had indeed survived. When he asked her how it was that a Vietnamese-like dish ended here, she shrugged and said, “Mais, moi aussi, suis Vietnamienne” — I’m also Vietnamese.

“But how? Impossible!”

“Five generations ago. But I’m still Vietnamese. It was my ancestors who left me the recipe,” she said with utmost seriousness.

Five generations ago! He searched his high school memories and a piece of history made itself clear through the monotonous voice of a flint-skinned, bespectacled teacher who smoked while he lectured. In 1888, the French exiled King Ham Nghi and his entourage when they refused to follow French rules.

The story ended when he was late for his ship. Incroyable, non?

…Did you hear the story about a pho place in a colony in Antarctica? This Vietnamese woman, right, she’s married to a scientist and they lived there and among the tundra and glaciers and penguins she grew bored. So one day…

Have broth, will travel.

Here’s mine…

I was young then, barely out of college. While backpacking through Europe, I was invited on an excursion by a friend from UC Berkeley, my alma mater, who knew someone who lived in a castle in Belgium. “It’s a surprise,” she told me and said nothing more. We got off a train in the middle of nowhere, north of Brussels. And walked for half an hour. We passed pastures and ranches and then we entered a wood. Then, there it was, a castle with its drawbridge across a moat. There were roman statues on the lawn. I remember stopping on the drawbridge and sniffing. I hadn’t expected it. But there it was, that complex aroma wafting in the air — cinnamon and cloves and fish sauce and star anise and beef broth. Someone was making pho!

On that summer afternoon, standing over a moat with my friend ahead beckoning me to enter the European castle, that pungent and savory aroma seemed to have wafted across several continents. Smelling it, I had something close to an out-of-body experience. The smell of my Vietnamese childhood had superimposed itself on a new landscape, and all at once I was happy and nostalgic, and I felt that, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself for a few years yet, were I to become a writer I would try to capture that delightful sense of transnational dislocation.

I followed my friend down the stone steps to an enormous kitchen, one that could easily fit 30 chefs. At its far end stood an elegant Asian woman in her mid-30s. She greeted us with a gracious smile and she spoke in Vietnamese: “There you are! I’ve been waiting and waiting. I thought the two of you got lost in the wood.”

As she fed us her pho soup, she told her story. Once a high school teacher in Saigon, she’d lost her job after the war. One night she and her sister fled in a crowded boat out to sea. A Belgian merchant vessel picked everyone up and brought the lot back to Belgium.

Impoverished, she and her sister resorted to living in the basement of a church in a town outside Brussels. One day, a local baron, who had hoped to become a priest but his family forbade it, saw her while he was praying in church. They looked at each other. He fell in love. She was hesitant. But they married. Now the mother of two children of noble blood, she would sometimes catch glimpses of herself as she glided past the gilded mirrors along the old castle’s corridors and shudder, wondering, Who is that? Is that me? Other times, when entertaining European royalty, she felt as if she were on a movie set and kept waiting for the director to yell “Cut!”

* *These days if you search the Internet for the words “pho soup,” you’ll likely get tens of thousand of hits, from Wikipedia to various chefs giving recipes and writers waxing enthusiastic to critics providing reviews and scholars writing academic papers on the soup’s origins. The Campbell Soup Company took it mainstream in 2002 by canning pho broth and aiming it at mainstream eateries. Even Food Network has chefs teaching its audience how to make pho. There is even a new word for it: Phomance. According to the New York Times, “quick search will find that it’s used in two wildly different contexts. There’s the jocular use, describing an overly close emotional relationship with Vietnamese food, which is often accompanied by cellphone photos of the dish in question.”

But just where did this soup come from? What’s almost certain is that it came from North Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, about a century ago. What is less certain is how. Seminars on the dish have scholars from all over the world arguing whether the word came from the French word feu (“fire,” as in the dish pot-au-feu) or whether it descended from the word fen — Chinese for “rice noodle.” Star anise, native to southwest China, is used in combination with Vietnamese fish sauce to give pho its distinctive flavor, but French onion is also used to sweeten the broth. Cardamom comes from India but noodle is definitely Chinese. Yet in Vietnam beef was rarely used until the French came in the late 1800s.

It may sound like a contradiction to say that a distinctly Vietnamese dish most likely has both French and Chinese influences, but it isn’t. Feu or fen, pho is indelibly Vietnamese because it incorporates foreign influences. Like the country whose history is one of being conquered by foreign powers and whose people must constantly adapt to survive, the soup has roots in so many heritages yet retains a distinctive Vietnamese taste.

Long ago in parochial Dalat, that lovely hill station the French built on a plateau full of pine trees, I would wake up on the weekend with that exquisite aroma of pho permeating our villa on top of a windblown hill. Downstairs in my mother’s kitchen, the clattering sounds of dishes and bowls and chopsticks were welcome music to the ear. I can, despite the years, still hear it: Mother singing downstairs, her ladles clattering against the pots and pans, the steady chopping sounds of the cleaver on the worn wooden block.

That insular, serene world has irrevocably changed and can now only be had in the recalling. So many of us have scattered to all corners of the world. But I take comfort in knowing that that delectable pho aroma, too, has perforated the world.

Andrew Lam

The Bun Cha Obsession

Our roving artist/photographer/author falls in love with bun cha and takes us on a culinary tour of Hanoi’s sidewalk food stalls.

I resent the fact that for 17 years of my life, I did not know bun cha existed. I lived in cities in central Vietnam. Bun cha is a product of the north. How many bowls of bun cha could I have eaten in 17 years? How many bowls have I already missed? Come to think of it, I did not go to Paradise (read: eat my first bowl of bun cha) until I was 30 years old, when I came back to Vietnam after living abroad for more years than I care to remember.

It was my first visit to Hanoi, at the end of a five-week trip to my homeland. My companions were two American radio journalists who saw safety in established restaurants serving Vietnamese food that in fact could pass for French. Or British (read: no spices, or taste). (Sorry, we tried to take this out. But he insists. Ed.)

“He’s going native again,” my colleagues noted eight, 10 times a day as I charged through crowds and crowded shops to satisfy an energetic, persistent, exuberant -okay, okay, out-of-control – hunger for Vietnamese fruits, spicy bowls of gorgeous noodle soup, sweet tapioca pudding with lotus seeds, and other culinary delights

Being home after 15 years was pure happiness. Eating all that Vietnamese foods all the while was divine. And being in Hanoi was a dream come true. But few things can compare to eating bun cha. In Hanoi. On the streets.

One fine fateful day during that trip, I got my companions to “sidewalk” it with me. Actually, when I saw the tables and stools on that sidewalk, I just sat down. My companions didn’t have a choice. “What are we eating?” one asked.

“Vietnamese food,” I announced. I had no idea. “You’ll like it.

“I didn’t know we had stumbled upon a bun cha stand (Or, to tell the truth, a bun cha squat. The stools were so low, you might as well be squatting.) Imagine my face when the woman brought out the enormous plate overflowing with every kind of vegetables and leaves and greens. Then came the plate of white noodles. Then the bowl of broth. Golden and clear, like the color of the finest cognac. (Really? Ed.)

And then I could smell it. The aroma. The soft, sweet perfume of the grilled meat and meat balls, and the thinnest slices of cucumber. The whiff of Vietnamese seasoning sauce, nuoc mam, thinned and textured with just a drop of oil. All so inviting in that bowl of golden broth. (I’m going to lunch. Edit this later. Ed.) A feast I’d never before known. On a Hanoi street. Right in front of me, ready for my consumption.

It was magic. I attacked the food. Devoured it. I made it all disappear inside me, faster than you can say “Bun cha!”.

In the six years since that trip, I have returned to Vietnam several times. And the first thing I do in Hanoi is, well,…you know. Can’t help it! I have to have bun cha. Have to have it now! And hurry up, would ya, please? I want to go next door, eat another bowl. No, one isn’t enough. Are you kidding? I haven’t had one since my last trip to Hanoi. Pleeaaase.

Last December I actually had a day in Hanoi in which I subjected my stomach to three bouts of bun cha. (Do you have to admit this, really? Ed.) Okay, shame on me, I know. I had bun cha for breakfast. Had it for lunch. Had it for dinner. Just couldn’t resist. (I’m reasonably sure I’ll do it again. Just make it soon.) The only thing that helped the shame was the fact that I didn’t eat all three bowls of bun cha at the same place in the same day. (Some self-respect left, huh? I’m impressed. Ed.) ( I only had the one bowl next day, at another bun cha stand, okay?)

So what’s with this bun cha? (Hey, nice title for a book. Thanks.) Bun cha is an impossible obsession (Any Freudian analyst reading this? Please call. Ed.)

All right. For you calmer, more rational souls, I’ll conceded, bun cha is just a noodle dish. It comes, as mentioned above, in three components: the green (veggies), the white (noodles), and the golden (broth).

The veggies. Let’s see. Red leaf lettuce. Green leaf lettuce. Basil. And mint, and cilantro. The one that’s purple on one side and green on the other, and some type of shaved celery that’s all beautifully curled up (hey, I’m not a botanist or biologist or vegetarist, okay?) Also, a triangular leaf called diep ca which has a delightful tangy and lemon taste to it. I’m missing about four or five, maybe eight, other kinds of green leaves and herbs that normally accompany this fabulous meal. The pile of green leaves simply looked like some Amazon jungle. (Now, now. Ed.)

The noodles provide the white in this green environment. Noodles are noodles, but these are of the medium-thickness variety, and the whiteness attest to their freshness. Dated noodles turn a shade darker, and they stick together. At good bun cha places, the noodles should slide off each other easily.

The meat. The piece de resistance. Ah. My English fails. Sweet, succulent bite-size pieces of pork, grilled on charcoal fire. Some wrapped in la lot, large, round and crinkled grape leaves with a delicate flavor. Some seasoned with garlic, black pepper and the slightest touch of chilly sauce.

The broth. Just before you are served, the meat is dipped into the broth, which is made of a touch of fish sauce, thinned with a mixture of sweetened vinegar, water and lime. It should be clear, with just a fragile swirl of oil from the grilled meat. No one ingredient should overwhelm another. A few slices of the thinnest pickled cucumber at the bottom of the broth provide a bittersweet taste.

The delight. Pick up a few strands of noodles, and a few of the green leaves, dip it in the broth. On the way back out, gracefully pick up a slice of the grilled pork and bring it all to your mouth. You should feel your tongue going all tangy and sweet at the same time. Relish the texture of the raw leaves, the smoothness of the noodle, the sweetness of the meat, and lemony taste of the broth. At this point, open your mouth and say, “Ahhh.” Follow that up with an “Uhhmm.” You’re in paradise. (Edit this later. Out for dinner. Ed.)

Never mind the Ed. Just repeat the whole procedure, again. Enjoy. And when you’re done, look over to the corner. See that man with a grin as wide as the Halong Bay? That’ll be me. If I’m not there, try the Kim Dac restaurant (at number 1, Hang Manh Street, in the old quarter). The Kim Dac serves only bun cha. (Just your kind of place, isn’t it? Ed. I’m back.)

Look carefully, the place tends to be really crowded at lunch, which starts at 11 am. Some evenings, it isn’t open, or closes early. One of the reasons I like the Kim Dac is the fact that the stools are actually the right height. And there are three floors, so if the ground floor is all full, keep going upstairs; but sharing a table is acceptable, encouraged, or plain unavoidable. Hanoi residents tend to leave you alone when sharing a table, but why not smile and talk to them, learn something from a native? Only, you must be careful if you happen to speak a language they understand.

When I last ate at Kim Dac, a caucasian man across from me started to speak German to his two Vietnamese companions. From the other end of the table, a voice piped up (German spoken with a northern Vietnamese accent.) I then heard the man protest that he wasn’t German at all. I understood this ( I don’t speak German) because the man’s protest was in Vietnamese. (Confusing, Ed.)

Soon, I was doing the ping-pong table number: turning my head from the Vietnamese man speaking German to the caucasian man replying in Vietnamese, and back again. My bun cha was getting cold. Suddenly, one of the Vietnamese with the caucasian man spoke up. It was in English, with a French accent. Then the white woman next to me replied in English, with a British accent. My bun cha was really cold by now, and since I had nothing in my mouth, I burst out: “This is too international for me!” To which the British lady said: “Oh -you speak English? Are you Japanese? (You’ve lost me now. Can we go back to the noodles? Ed.)

By the time I could resume eating my beloved, if cold, bowl of bun cha, we were all talking to one another, in all kinds of languages. The caucasian man turned out to be a Swede who’s been working for the UN in Vietnam for 15 years, and he’s married to one of the best known Hanoi painters. He emphatically told me: “This is the best bun cha restaurant in Hanoi.” I agreed. (He’s been eating bun cha for much longer than you, hasn’t he? Ed.)

At the rate I eat bun cha, I am glad there are other places to go in Hanoi. Tong Duy Tan Street, at the end of Hang Bong Street, where five major roads merge, is absolutely the place to visit. It’s a whole alley of restaurants and food stands. There are all kinds of dishes served in this little alley. Young men will park your motorcycle for you, and then you can select your spot (but it would be nice to park where you are going to eat. The men work for individual stands.) Tong Duy Tan is famous for its ga tan, a medicinal chicken soup, but there are also xoi stands, gluttonous rice served with stewed pork, or the restaurants offering Chinese-like fried noodles.

Best of all, there are four places serving “Paradise.” None of them has a name; just look for the word bun cha painted on pieces of plywood hanging outside. Squeeze your way through the bikes, motorcycles, customers and “valet attendants,” etc. Sit under the verandah of the old French houses and try a bowl of bun cha. Talk to the old women if you can. Tong Duy Tan eateries have been around for four or five years, but the women have been in Hanoi for many more years, and they all have great stories. And they’re the sweetest grandmothers.

One of them beamed a black-teethed smile at me one day as I was indulging myself in my bun cha obsession. “You must be from the South,” she said.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“People from the South just seem to eat nothing else. They all come here and eat bun cha all the time. Every day. I’ve seen you. You were here yesterday, weren’t you?”

“Chau me bun cha lam, thua ba a,” I replied. A bit of an understatement. But it’s embarrassing to admit one is obsessed. “I love bun cha very much, dearest grandmother.” (Yeah, we know. Ed.)

* * * * *

Published on 4/1/95

Nguyen Qui Duc

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