From French Fries to Fish Sauce:


by Tammy DeWitt Lê

When I started putting nước mắm (fish sauce) on just about anything and everything, I knew I was beginning to really appreciate Vietnamese cuisine. This delectable condiment imparts a sweet and salty taste to food and once you get addicted to it, it's hard to cook without it. Meat, fish, vegetables... just about anything tastes better with a splash of nuoc mam. Many will warn you not to smell it or worse yet, spill it (I learned this the hard way when I broke an entire bottle all over my kitchen floor leaving a putrid smell I could not get rid of for days). My story will tell you more about my admiration of nước mắm, but what I hope to illuminate best is how a tall, blue-eyed American girl like myself came to adore and respect Vietnamese food and culture.

My first experience with Vietnamese food was with that ubiquitous Vietnamese soup of beef and noodles, otherwise known as Phở. I was taken to Công Lý restaurant ( a Phở restaurant in Austin) by my good Vietnamese friend who I had met at work. She educated me on the important fact that you can only get good Pho at a place that specializes in it. Walking into that restaurant, I can still recall the strong smells of that anise-laden Phở broth and fresh herbs. So strong is the smell that you really need to change shirts after eating Phở since your clothes get saturated with the aromas.

So we sat down to order and I listened with interest as she bantered back and forth in Vietnamese ordering up a "Phở tái lớn", which cost only $4.95. When the Phở came, I was a little shocked to see raw beef hanging over the edge of the bowl and looked up at my friend with alarm (I do consider myself slightly daring when it comes to food, but I just wasn't up to eating raw beef). She eased my concerns by dropping her beef into the hot bowl of soup, thereby cooking it on the spot. The moment of truth had come, so I scooped up a big spoonful of bean sprouts, beef, noodles, and Pho broth and sampled this traditional Vietnamese soup. The taste was simply delicious and I've been a Phở fan ever since. This experience also taught me what I've named "the 3 fundamentals" of eating out for Vietnamese food:

1) It's cheap
2) It's good and
3) It's a big portion.

Maybe that initial voyage into the land of Phở helped pave the way for me to marry a Vietnamese man. I'm not really sure, but I do know that my husband Thai is Mr Right for me. Being married to him has given me a unique passport into the wide and varied land of Vietnamese food and culture. His perspective has shown me how to cherish the spirit of an indomitable country of people and learn more about their ongoing love affair with food. From the Bánh Cuốn to Bò Nhúng dấm to Cá Kho tộ, many of my favorite dishes are now Vietnamese. Though I am American, ours is a Vietnamese household. Our house has that distinctive Asian smell of cooked rice and seldom are we without an industrial-size bag of premium quality rice or nouc mam. And of course we don't wear shoes in our house and have many pairs of chopsticks. Even our dog has Vietnamese tendencies, and gobbles up leftovers with lightning speed when they are cooked with some nước mắm.

When trying to decide where to go out to eat on occasions, my husband's choice is always the same: "If it's up to me, honey, you know I want Vietnamese." Our frequent trips to Vietnamese restaurants leave me craving some of the staples of Vietnamese cooking: pork, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, and of course nuoc mam. I soon learned it wasn't enough for me to just enjoy the food, I wanted to be able to make it fresh myself. Though my husband tolerates an American burger from time to time, his heart, stomach, and childhood memories are fixed on Vietnamese food. So I set out to become an accomplished cook in Vietnamese cuisine

I started out cautiously with Cơm Thịt nướng, which came out pretty well (thanks to that fish sauce!). Then I moved on to Cá Kho Tộ, which took a few tries to get the carmelization just right. Soon I felt ready for the big leagues: Bánh Xèo. I planned a family dinner party for my in-laws, including my father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law (might as well let them all see me succeed or fail). Well, the stress was on, but I felt I could compete. While I stood sweating and stressing at the stove, pouring out that yellow batter over and over, I cautiously peeked in on the guests as they ate and asked, "Do I now qualify as Vietnamese?" My father-in-law beamed at me with a mouthful of Bánh Xèo and proclaimed: "Yes, you do!" It was a rewarding moment for me and keeps me motivated to enjoy and excel at Vietnamese cuisine.

You may wonder why I, an American, embrace Vietnamese food. One of the main reasons is that I've come to understand the larger meaning of food in Vietnamese culture. Every time my mother-in-law asks us for dinner, it is a social affair. We crowd around the table drinking wine and exchanging stories and the food somehow takes second place to the more important family time. Growing up in the Hamburger Helper generation, I always appreciate this fresh and delicious food that is prepared from scratch with the comforting aroma of fresh herbs.

It's also fun to eat Vietnamese style, which means the food is placed on the table in endless amounts (not so good for the waist) and you serve yourself. It's almost unheard of to eat the way most Americans do: with allotted portions of each food on your plate. I still can't understand how my Vietnamese relatives stay so thin; I have witnessed absolute gorging sessions. One contrast I've really noticed between how Americans and Vietnamese eat is how they feel about eating. Americans are very obsessed and worried about eating. They eat foods they enjoy, yet seem to regret it. They love their fast food, yet condemn it at the same time. Vietnamese are much more lackadaisical and truly enjoy eating, whether it's fattening or not. I like this healthy attitude about food.

The nutrition of Vietnamese food is another reason why I like it. While typical American food is heavy, fattening and rarely includes anything green, Vietnamese fare is much more nutritionally balanced. Don't get me wrong, those Vietnamese love their beef, fried egg rolls, and pork fat, but the meals are balanced out with some sort of rice dish and almost always some vegetables or greens.

Now that I feel I'm mastering my Vietnamese cooking skills, the next milestone is the language. I have to admit I do sometimes feel left out when everyone is speaking Vietnamese (though my sweet husband is always quick to translate). We sometimes talk about living in Vietnam, which I would love. That's the only way I feel I can truly learn the language. And I'm sure I'll get some good cooking tips from the locals.

As I watch our 12-month-old daughter, Alexandra, grow up, I feel she is truly lucky. She has parents who love her, but even more special, she comes from two cultures: American and Vietnamese. Just like our features have been blended on her beautiful face, she will learn to revere both languages, cuisines, cultures, and people. And I'll even try to teach her how to make Bánh Xèo one day.

Tammy DeWitt Lê

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