Food from the Symposium: France and Vietnam

I’m so happy to be one of the newest contributors to The Pandora Society! I’ll be talking about food and culture (and how the two mesh and influence one another) as well as a touch of food history. Look for a post or two about Victorian food technology, etiquette, traditions — and, of course, I’m open to any suggestions (simply email me at winemedinemecinci at gmail dot com!).

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My first order of business, however, is a little recap of my presentation at The Steampunk Symposium 2015. It was a true pleasure to present about the influence of French colonialism on Vietnamese food, and though our session was small (but mighty!) we had a fantastic conversation about all sorts of food-related things.

For the slide deck I used for my presentation, click here.

First, we talked about pre-Colonial Vietnam, and the areas indigenous offerings — rice, herbs, soy sauce, and bird’s eye peppers (one intrepid adventurer noshed on some of the dried ones I brought).  Then, we talked about the items France brought that have influenced Vietnamese food — beef, butter, coffee, European vegetables (like carrots, for instance), cafe culture and French bread.  We then talked about various Vietnamese dishes with French influence and their French counterparts.  You can see some of these examples on my slides.  It’s interesting to look at how a culture takes an existing dish and makes it their own.

Sriracha by Ted Eyten

One thing we touched on briefly that deserves more time is the concept of authenticity.  Can you have authentic food when you’re not living in the country it came from?  Frankly, no. Why?  There are a couple of reasons:

Terroir:

Terroir is all of the environmental factors that are unique to a region that makes food taste the way it does.  Think about it this way: have you had a New York bagel?  Have you had a bagel outside New York?  Did they taste the same?  They likely didn’t, because of the water in New York City — the mineral content changes the way the bagel tastes.  You can get close, but it’s never identical.  It’s why grapes grown in one region make wine that tastes completely different if grown in another, even if it’s the same kind of grape.  Even if you have similar ingredients, the food won’t taste exactly the same. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just different.

Memory

Food memory is important, and we often hold dearly to our family and cultural traditions. It’s why, on many American Thanksgiving tables, you can find the same dishes now as you did in the 60s, or 80s. In the U.S., Vietnamese immigration started post-Vietnam War, and those people brought 1970s Vietnamese food with them. Think about how much American food has changed since 1975 (when was the last time you had Watergate salad?), food in Vietnam has changed, too. However, 1970s Vietnamese cooking is what these people knew, and thus non-Vietnamese Americans know as Vietnamese food.  This is changing, as many second-generation Vietnamese-Americans are looking at their roots and reinterpreting them, or visiting Vietnam to see what Vietnamese chefs are doing with their cuisine. If you’re local to Cincinnati, take a look at restaurants like Quan Hapa and Pho Lang Thang (one of the owners, Duy Nguyen, helped me out quite a bit with this presentation) to see how chefs are reinterpreting favorites and modernizing them.

Another example is Red Boat Fish Sauce. Nước mắm is, as Nguyen told me, Vietnamese salt and pepper. This sauce, made by Cuong Pham, is the “best of the best” fish sauce. He wanted a product that was high quality, reminiscent of the fish sauce that was often reserved only for friends and family of fish sauce producers. It’s got a high protein content and isn’t watered down like many competitors.  This follows the trend of chefs looking to elevate traditional ingredients. It’s good stuff– everyone in the room got to try some.

Cauliflower banh mi from Pho Lang Thang

Diaspora

There are some items that we, as Americans, identify with Vietnamese food that aren’t actually traditional Vietnamese ingredients. Sriracha is one of these.  Sriracha was created by Vietnamese immigrants for Vietnamese-American tastes. It’s a chili-garlic sauce that is ubiquitous (the Oatmeal has a great cartoon about it) but it’s as American as Heinz ketchup (which is, coincidentally, rooted in Vietnamese fish sauce).

French cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine are now inexorably linked.  Is there any cuisine that is completely untouched by history or outside influences? Probably not.  There is nothing (for me, at least!) more fascinating than figuring out what makes that food– and culture– what it is. Look for more of that in the coming months from me on The Pandora Society!


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