Feeding my Vietnamese-American Identity

By R. T.U. Pham

An Intro: The Product of Colonization

When I first thought about what dish I wanted to create, I immediately first thought of Vietnamese food. I flirted with the idea of making phở bò for about thirty seconds until I thought about the hours long process the broth takes. I figured I would be safer if I didn’t overestimate my abilities. Thus, my second and semi-ambitious choice was to whip up bánh xèo. Bánh xèo more or less translates to “Sizzling Cake” or “cake that sizzles” in Vietnamese. It is a thin rice-flour, turmeric and scallion pancake with a hint of coconut milk, cooked in a skillet. The center is traditionally stuffed with pork, shrimp, mung beans and bean sprouts, and is coupled with fresh herbs and greens. To complete and balance out the many-layered flavors of bánh xèo, traditional fish dipping sauce called nước chấm is served on the side to add a light, sweet and salty tang to the palate.

As bánh xèo is often likened to a Vietnamese savoury crepe with a batter infused with turmeric, I figured this dish had a lot of history. Sharing similarities to a crepe, bánh xèo seemed likely the product of French colonization, but the use of turmeric, a somewhat unusual spice for Vietnamese food, and the inclusion of mung beans which originates from India, likely resulted from trade with neighboring countries.

Despite the excitement of creating this hybrid dish, my research took a slight detour as I came upon a particularly unsettling discovery. Phở bò – the iconic Vietnamese beef soup that has in recent years become a popular dish in food culture – like bánh xèo is also the “product” of colonization. While I am aware of the influences of Western colonization in Vietnam, especially by the French, I was surprised to read a recent article (2010) published in the Smithsonian that stated,:

“Pho bo is an unintended legacy of the French, who occupied Vietnam from 1858 to 1954 and who indeed cooked potau-feu, a soup-based combination of vegetables and beef, a meat barely known in Vietnam in those days and, to this day, neither as abundant nor as good as the native pork.”

I’m embarrassed to admit that initially, this discovery rather irked me.

Growing up, I have always eaten homemade phở prepared by my grandmothers and my parents. When we ate out at Vietnamese restaurants, for some time, phở was one of the meals that I could count on to be familiar; it was something I could order for myself instead of rely on my parents, when I was too embarrassed to speak in broken Vietnamese to the waiters or attempt to read the menus. It is a dish that I have so ingrained in the Vietnamese side of my Vietnamese-American identity, that to read someone casually say that phở exists as “an unintended legacy” of French colonization was a little heartbreaking. I jumped to conclusions and interpreted the writer to be dismissive of this cultural food with a lot of meaning to me, as only good because it was originally French. Granted, that’s not what the quote actually says, but there are reasons why I had foolishly interpreted it as so. To be brief, my frustrations prompted me to reflect on what I already know about Vietnam’s history, and to seek further answers. I was prompted to understand, why it is that I was so readily able to embrace the hybridity of bánh xèo and other foods in Vietnam (bánh mi or baguettes, bánh flan, coffee, apparently the list goes on…), but not phở? Why did I get even angry to learn that phở had other origins beyond Vietnam?

Perhaps, this anger had less to do about French colonization of Vietnam per se, as it did with the confusion I felt growing up trying to navigate my Asian-American identity, including the powerlessness I sometimes experienced in defining myself. This essay is as much about my Vietnamese-American identity as it is about understanding the ins and outs of bánh xèo. And while I’d like to delve into more historical detail, this paper will rely more heavily on my own personal history and my archive of memories.

A Detour Part 1: Who is the victim?

This paper was hard for me to start, because I knew that exploring my connection to Vietnamese food would ultimately require me to delve into the murky waters of my Vietnamese-American identity, one that I still struggle to understand and define today. There are memories of arrogant pride, and then memories of shame, memories that were seemingly always on the extreme ends of these spectrums, never quite forgiving. But I think I will begin with an anecdote, that isn’t quite my story, and I hope not to misrepresent it.

Last December, I visited the review panel for (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War: An Asian American Literary Review Special Issue at the Asian Pacific Institute (2015). My maternal grandma had just passed away, and I was feeling all sorts of things including immense guilt that I couldn’t communicate in Vietnamese with her, and would never have the chance to ask and understand her experiences, to learn deeply who she was as a person. At this panel, Artist Anida Yoeui Ali performed a piece on hers and her family’s experiences as refugees of the Cambodian – Vietnamese War, fleeing from Batumbang, Cambodia to a refugee camp in Thailand that was different from but near the Khao-I-Dang Holding Center. She presented personal photos from 1979 of her and her family at the camp. She was only 5 years old at the time. I was so moved by Miss Anida Youei Ali’s story, that I resolved to tell her so at the end of the panel. This was the first time I had ever heard of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, and I had, perhaps mistakenly, told her so. I will never know what her facial reaction to my admission truly meant, but I will forever recognize this moment as having caused Miss Anida Youei Ali unnecessary pain, especially by unintentionally invoking historical erasure.

This was the first time I had heard about the Cambodian – Vietnamese War. I had selfishly only meant to express that I appreciated Ali’s story, and planned to educate myself so that her family’s experiences do not go unforgotten, especially in the Vietnamese community. The conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam had been rooted in decades of growing Vietnamese communism, which escalated into invasions and attempts to impose Vietnamese governance over the peoples of Cambodia. This is not unlike hostile imperialist domination exhibited by other countries around the world. This Vietnam was such a stark contrast from the Vietnam I naively understood as victims of colonization by the French and Chinese. Or more familiarly, the country victimized by war and oppression under the Northern communist regime. This was the Vietnam that I had learned to identify with.

A Detour Part 2: A Cultural Identity Crisis

I think my Vietnamese American identity has always been one rooted in the unspoken war that I had nothing to do with, but it somehow had everything to do with me. Had there been no war, my parents and their families may have never come to the United States as refugees and my parents would never have met each other. To this day, I don’t fully understand what had happened, but my experiences growing up surround this sense of multilevel victimization. Growing up, I internalized this alienating sense of victimization, which sometimes could only be remedied by sharing meals and connecting to my family through food.

Nearly every war-driven Vietnamese immigrant and subsequent Vietnamese American generations have experienced some loss in connection to the war — home, family, friends, heritage. And just about every conversation I’ve had with generally white Americans usually included the mention of how much this war was hated, protested. The multiple times I’ve been confronted with these questions and comments about the Vietnam war, has made me wonder if I was supposed to know. Is that what it means to be Vietnamese is to be associated with this war? Do all these references to the war suggest that I was not American? Did my inability to speak knowledgeably and respectfully about the Vietnam war make me less Vietnamese? It’s not that I didn’t want to know about the war, but asking older generations to revisit the pain with me seemed disrespectful. Learning about my family’s history from a textbook just seemed weird, so I resolved to wait until I was older, after hopefully having relearned how to speak Vietnamese, that I could speak with my grandparents. I couldn’t fully mourn with my parents or grandparents who didn’t wish to revisit these memories with a young me, nor could I fully relate to Americans. The only things that I could speak to was the tension of feeling sadness for the many lives lost, but gratefulness that my family and I are here today. There was always so much pain regarding the war, that I simply assumed and began to associate Vietnam as a victim of war, not one who would wage it. These are only simple, example-beginnings to the constant struggle between knowing how to feel and questioning whether I was different. While this “otherness” that I internalized would be amplified in other ways, it came down to the same feeling of not knowing where I belong.

Eating Vietnamese food and more importantly sharing these meals with my family, has been one of the strongest ties, connecting me to my family and my culture. I have wonderful memories of family reunions with people seated around long rectangular tables or large circular tables that could fit all of the food to feed everyone to be shared and eaten “family-style.” Especially when I ate with relatives where language barriers hindered communication, sharing the same Vietnamese meal that we all could identify with and relate to was one of the best ways for me to bond with them.

While I’ve always felt guilty about not being able to talk to my maternal grandmother who speaks zero english, unable to tell her about my friends, life, school, I at least knew some phrases that seemed to be the most important and often times about health and food. Most importantly, I could tell her, “I love you,” and “I miss you.” But when she would ask me, “have you eaten yet,” as both a cultural greeting and a question of whether I am eating well, I also knew how to respond, “Yes, thank you, grandmother. I have eaten already.” I remember a time when I visited my grandmother and my mom had told her that I tried to eat, “mit” or jackfruit and had liked it. I chimed in, “Dạ, bà. Con biết ăn. / Con ăn được” “Yes, I know how to eat it.” Jackfruit is a tropical fruit more common to South and Southeast asia, and is particularly unusual to find in non-Asian grocery markets in America. When my grandmother responded surprised, but with the compliment “con ăn giỏi lám,” or “you eat very well,” I felt like I made her proud. And also with my paternal grandmother, out of respect I always make sure to finish eating what is served in the bowl, even if I am full and feel like I em overeating, to emphasize that I appreciate the food she has made me and how delicious, “ngon lám,” the food is. Even though some of these phrases are simple, there are customary elements to talking about food that imparts one grandmother’s endearing concern for my health or the respect that my other grandmother’s efforts of love represents by feeding me. And simply sharing a meal was an expression of love.

It can feel lonely to be in between. I felt neither fully Vietnamese due to language barriers that made it difficult to connect and communicate with family members, nor did I feel fully American – despite speaking english fluently, my experiences and my skin color told me otherwise in the context of the neighborhood I grew up in. I love my grandparents so much, and I love that I’ve had the experiences of spending time with my grandparents while dining, like taking my paternal grandfather out to his favorite buffet. But as my maternal grandmother has passed away, and I mourn the silver-haired woman who’s cared for me unconditionally with all my flaws, I also can’t help but be frustrated that I couldn’t tell her everything that I need her to know. I’m not sure that sharing meals and sitting with her were enough. Food through sharing a meal, is the bittersweet connection that has allowed me to connect with my grandparents, but in the case of my paternal grandmother the only connection when I know there was so much more I could have done.

Veering Back to the Main Course! Sizzling Cakes and a Balanced Plate

Vietnamese American community members in the Bay Area had published a cookbook in 1992 to encourage the younger generations to eat healthy and reconnect with their Vietnamese heritage through cooking and eating these recipes. The community members noticed changes in dietary habits of young adult Vietnamese, which included dining out “twice as often as the average Vietnamese” at fast-food restaurants with few vegetables. This was a cause for health concerns, as these meals were not well-balanced nutrition-wise. The Vietnamese have incorporated the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang into their understanding of food. This “balance of foods” can be achieved by balancing hot, dry (yang) and wet, cold (yin) with the incorporation of the five elements, water, wood, earth, fire, and metal. This balance of yin and yang or in Vietnamese (Âm dương) can also be reflected in the meal of bánh xèo.

As previously mentioned, bánh xèo is a rice flour pancake that is always served with fresh greens and herbs. Though there are many ingredients (including the distinctive turmeric and coconut milk) and different flavors when eaten with the vegetables and dipping sauce (salty, sweet, bitter) when you bite into it, there is a balance of textures and flavors. According to the Món ăn Việt Nam cookbook, “fresh vegetables are considered am (cold)” and “the Vietnamese often serve fresh vegetables with meat in order to counteract the duong (hot) effects of the meat and fat.” This explains why the cool, fresh lettuce or mustard greens (Âm / yin) is served to balance the hotness and oils of the overall pancake stuffed with pork and shrimp, (dương / yang). The overall saltiness of the pancake should be balanced by the slight bitterness of the fresh greens, but lightened by the aromatic mint, basil and cilantro herbs used as additional garnishes. To bring the meal to a complete full body, pinches of the bánh xèo wrapped in greens is dipped in the slightly sweet, sour nước chấm. Nước chấm itself is the ultimate balance of Âm dương. It’s a fish-sauce based dipping sauce made by dilution of fish sauce with water, and mixing in, sugar, lime juice, red chili peppers and finely chopped garlic. These ingredients in the dipping fish sauce harmonize the five elements through the flavors of salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter.

While not explicitly mentioned in Món ăn Việt Nam, bánh xèo, or referred to as “stuffed rice cakes” in the cookbook, also has a balance of textures. The batter on the inside of the rice cake is slightly softened, especially if the traditional mung beans are included with all the other stuffed ingredients, but should be cooked to have a crisp outside.

Cooking With my Cousin! Cibopathic Intuition

After deciding to make bánh xèo for class, I reached out to my cousin who is a personal chef and has especially connected to Vietnamese culture through food. While cooking with Carol, something that stood out to me was that she would mention several times that bánh xèo is one of her “favorite things to eat of all time,” but that she couldn’t really pronounce the name. While she had been fluent speaking Vietnamese when she was younger, she can no longer speak Vietnamese now. She told me stories of how she would act as translator for our grandmother in grocery stores when my family had lived in Michigan. I thought of another cousin who recalled driving my grandmother through the crazy southern California freeways to Vietnamese grocery stores, and how my grandma would point to the carpool lane to get to the stores faster. I felt a twang of jealousy that they had these interactions with my grandma. Reflecting on my own Vietnamese-American identity I wondered if Carol’s ’s comments were similarly rooted in these deeper feelings that I also have about not being able to speak Vietnamese, and finding connections to my culture through food. I wonder if Carol is speaking from a similar place when she mentions this.

Cooking bánh xèo for this class turned out to be a rather unusual process in that all of my attempts to make the pancake increasingly became worse and worse, but the very first try was the best success. Carol had been surprised that I had chosen to cook bánh xèo instead of something easier. Whether it was luck or the presence of an experienced chef, cooking bánh xèo for the first time was relatively casualty free. Carol was surprised by how well they cooked in comparison to her past attempts, and I wasn’t entirely sure how different her recipe could have been because I was following a recipe she had found online. I was comforted by these first attempts but little did she or I know, that when I would make these a couple weeks later for the third time by myself for the class dinner party, I would be smoking up my apartment and causing a storm in the kitchen. For this first attempt, I turned up the stove and poured my first batter to pan. I felt so satisfied to hear for the first time in real life, the the amazing searing sizzling sound of the cold batter hitting the hot pan and the crackle of the cooking pancake. We had pre-cooked the shrimp and sauteed mushrooms to add into the pancake after batter hit the pan. I could smell the coconut from the oil frying up the bottom half of the pancake. As soon as I could take the handle and shake the iron cast skillet so that the pancake would slide on the bottom, I knew I would not have any sticking problems that would prevent me from folding the pancake over to tuck away the stuffed mushrooms, shrimp and bean sprouts.

Photo 1,2

Mushrooms, Shrimp and Fresh Greens. Bánh Xèo cut to show the insides.

The first bite was a mixture of surprise, excitement and familiarity despite having only eaten bánh xèo no more than five times before this class. My dad says it’s normal for restaurants to forget the actual mung beans because there are already so many ingredients in the dish, so I was insistent in including the beans that steamed into a bright, sunflowery yellow colored paste. While the pancake was piping hot off the stove, coconut oil infusing into the skin on my fingertips, the greatest warmth came from recognizing without searching for the mung beans in the bite. The smooth, subtle hint of earthiness and sweet, took me back to memories of a more simple rice, mung bean and corn dish that I would eat for breakfast with my dad before elementary school or with my maternal grandma. It recalled memories that were a little more distinct than making nuoc cham, which I had also done for the first time this night with Carol.

Making nước chấm was fun, but I catered it more to Carol’s taste. The amber of the sauce that probably better kept the integrity of the fish sauce base and lime juice was much deeper than the lighter, clearer sauces I was used to from southern California restaurants that diluted the recipe with more water and infused sugar. When I made the fish sauce again for the class dinner party, I made sure to make it lighter in color and sweeter. I liked it that way simply because of familiarity, but the sweet and spicy sauce rounded out the the salty pancake, with the lime cutting through the oilyness.

Photo 3,4
Second attempt to cook bánh xèo by myself.    And it was burnt.