Food and memory


POSTED: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I'm continually amazed by the vividness of my food memories of Vietnam in 1994. I remember best what struck me then as strange — and 15 years ago, everything in Vietnam seemed strange to me, especially the food.

Only eight years earlier, Vietnam had embarked on “;doi moi”; (economic renovation) and reopened its long-shuttered doors to the West. I was to be a volunteer teacher at a college in Bien Hoa, a semirural town where no American had lived for 19 years — not since the U.S. military had abandoned its largest wartime air base. If I ever felt a need to escape, Ho Chi Minh City was only 20 miles away.

I lived in a converted teachers' lounge between two other offices on campus, and I arranged a “;meal plan”; with the owner of a campus canteen — Ms. Loan, a widow who lived in a back room with her son, daughter, two adopted children and a dog that eventually was stolen by thugs working for a dog-meat restaurant. She was a hefty, vivacious, enormously caring woman with a tendency to shout, and the meals she prepared for me for $20 a month were fantastic.

In true Vietnamese style, all her meals displayed stunning variety. In addition to white rice, there was always “;canh”; (a spicy-sour soup comprising tomato, pineapple, seafood, tamarind, chilies and cilantro), boiled or sauteed vegetables and a main dish of fish or chicken. And she never forgot dessert, usually whatever fruit was in season, served with salt or fish sauce.

All this variety and freshness was a different world to me. Suddenly, my days started and ended with exciting combinations of wonderful tastes and textures. I found myself sitting down to complex yet balanced meals: salty, spicy, bitter, sour and sweet, all on the same table.

As the year progressed, I looked farther afield for new experiences, many of which revolved around food. Once, an early-morning outing yielded an old cafe along the Dong Nai River where, under a flowered trellis, I breakfasted on fried eggs with pepper and cilantro, a warm French baguette and iced coffee. Unscripted weekends often resulted in rowdy bacchanals of warm beer hosed from kegs and giant prawns served with pepper and lime juice. On random evenings out on the town, strangers would invite me to join them at a sidewalk “;banh xeo”; (sizzling crepe) eatery.

It was through my Bien Hoa friends, and the wedding, birthday, death ceremony, school and holiday events we attended — and our trips into the remote parts of the province — that I was provided entry into Vietnam's food culture. I didn't always embrace the experience, but there were moments when I discovered worlds that I didn't realize existed. Those were the experiences that helped me approach food more openly, if not always courageously.

One happy consequence of Vietnam's new affluence is the spectacular boom of food choices. It was almost a necessity for me to take a bus into Ho Chi Minh City for a rendezvous with a Western menu every couple of months. I felt as though I wouldn't survive without a taste of imported hamburger, cheese, pepperoni and black olives. In 1995, when a Baskin-Robbins opened on Le Loi Street, it was as if Michael Jackson had parachuted into town. City residents would congregate at its corner location and, under the sweltering sun, watch people — mostly foreigners — shovel expensive ice cream into their faces.

Today's world is dramatically different from 15 years ago, but in Vietnam the extent of change is like several eras bundled into one. For good or bad, the changes doi moi ushered in have been breathtaking. Vietnam's pursuit of renovation has transformed the natural and social landscape along with the attitudes and ambitions of its people.

Now that they enjoy greater spending power, many Vietnamese have begun to envision food as more than just a means to survive. By invoking their country's rich culinary repertoire, they are deepening and expanding the sense of what it means to be Vietnamese.

If food is a reflection of culture, what more can be said? Vietnam is back on the map and jostling with the best cuisines of the world. And if the country worries about how to maintain harmony between the old ways and the new, perhaps it can look to its burgeoning food scene as a source of inspiration.


David Joiner maintains the food/travel blog theworldtastesgood.blogspot.com.




Pork dish is a favorite of the new year celebration

        Vietnamese stewed pork with coconut juice is popular especially during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and is considered a southern specialty.

It is best served on a bed of crunchy, slivered cabbage.


This recipe was passed to me by a friend from Ho Chi Minh City.





        Courtesy Nguyen Linh

        2 pounds pork shank or belly, cut into 2-inch cubes

        3 large shallots, chopped

        1 piece garlic, chopped

        3 tablespoons fish sauce

        3 tablespoons sugar

        1 tablespoon vegetable oil

        12-ounce can of young coconut juice (or water from 1 coconut)

        Mix pork with shallots, garlic, and fish sauce.

In small pan, caramelize sugar. Add to pork mixture and let stand for 30 minutes.


In wok, heat oil. Add pork mixture and cook, stirring often, until pork browns slightly and becomes fragrant. Add coconut water until it covers pork mixture. Bring to a boil, then skim surface to keep liquid clear.


Cover wok, leaving it 1/3 open. Lower heat and let simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until liquid is reduced to less than half.


Salt to taste. Serves 4.


Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including salt to taste): 420 calories, 16 total g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 135 mg cholesterol, greater than 1200 mg sodium, 18 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 13 g sugar, 49 g protein