Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cold & Flu Buster (folk remedy)

It's cold & flu season and in case you didn't know this about children--they are disease vectors. Moms don't get sick days so I can't afford to get sick. Since I don't use drugs, my arsenal of cold & flu remedies is essential; my three main tools are the lemon ginger infusion, the neti pot, and bone broth. After my 2 week writing binge for my guest lectures during which I neglected my family & household and stayed up late, I volunteered in my kid's class and of course, picked something up. I've been fighting it off for a week now but it's very mild because of the neti pot nasal saline rinse and this lemon ginger infusion.

I got this lemon ginger infusion folk remedy from my mother-in-law one winter while suffering a dreadful cold. It's super easy to make and has helped me get over sinus infections, colds, strep throat, all without the use of pharmaceuticals. It falls under thuốc nam which means folk remedies distinguished from thuốc bắc which means Chinese medicine. Raw honey hasn't been refined which means the healing properties have not been cooked out and the sugar has not been simplified to pure glucose.

An ayurvedic neti pot for sinus rinsing which is super effective in preventing, minimizing and clearing up nasal viruses & bacterial infections (i.e. sinus infections, colds & flus). As someone who has had near drowning encounters in the ocean, it didn't sound like something fun to me when I first heard about this, but I was won over because 1) you do not inhale the saline water (duh!); 2) you can breathe through your mouth at the same time as you are rinsing; and 3) it helped me with reducing my seasonal allergies (when I used to get them in my eating wheat & dairy days) and with shortening the length of illness from respiratory issues. The key is in getting the right proportion of un-iodized table salt to water (do NOT use sea salt!!! The minerals will irritate your sinuses) and the right water temperature (very important: use filtered water!!! you don't want to be shooting algae up into your sinuses. If you do not have access to filtered water, boil the water at least 5 minutes and allow to cool to the desired temperature). I use 1/4 tsp of salt to 1 cup of water which is enough for one nostril and the temp has to feel very warm but not too hot to my fingers.

On to the remedy. 


You will need:

  • 2 quarts of filtered water
  • 1 organic lemon
  • 1 3-inch piece of organic ginger
  • organic raw honey or raw honey
  • optional sea salt (colored grey, pink, red, etc)
Fill up a pot with the water and get it started heating up. Wash & scrub the lemon to remove any dirt and residue. Slice it up and throw it in the pot of water. 

Remove as much ginger skin as possible, slice it up and toss in the pot.

Low boil for at least 10 minutes to extract all the Vitamin C and anti-inflammatory medicinal properties.

Discard the lemon; the ginger can be reused or not for another batch. Take a bite and see if it's still got some zing to it. Pour yourself a mugful and add honey to taste. My little twist on this remedy is rehydrating beverage or healthy "sports drink". (That's right. Gatorade is basically the same electrolytes as sea salt, citrus, and sweetener; make it yourself without the synthetic minerals, flavors and food coloring.) This is great for when you've got a fever or have been vomiting and need to restore your electrolyte/mineral balance. 

Drink as hot as possible for relief from respiratory illness. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Longan (Longing) for Durian: Phở & Food Porn in the Việt Diasporic Imagined Community

image from NaturesPride.eu

This talk was originally given to Dr. Mitzi Uehara Carter's Asian Studies students at Florida International University, Miami earlier today. The brief overview of VN history that was handed out is at the very bottom or the post. The Michael Pollan talk on "How Cooking Can Change Your Life" that was assigned as "Reading" for the class is also embedded below.

Longan (Longing) for Durian

Phở & Food Porn in the Việt Diasporic Imagined Community

The Scent of Ripe Durian
Source: durian (1).jpg
Thanks to Dr. Mitzi for the opportunity to talk about my personal experiences of war, diaspora and foodways; you bring out the academic in me, girl

Many, many thanks to my husband for keeping me from being too pedantic and boring the youths. (Really you should thank him too. I was gonna start with 15th Century Europe on the verge of colonization. He valiantly stopped me.)

And gratitude as well goes to Chau "The Nguyenner" Nguyen for the punnish title, and Grace Chow, Chau Nguyen, DanTam Vu, aunty Brianne Pham, and Lea Duong for the photos. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are mine own.

A quick note about terminology:

I use the word “food porn” and its derivative "fruit porn," here playfully in its more popular use defined by literature professor Chris Forster as “collections of photographic images… photographic conventions and a sense of excess in order to solicit a mode of spectacular consumption, of consumption (of visual apprehension) as an end in itself.” I won't be getting into the experiential and voyeuristic pleasure aspect of food porn.

When I use Việt I refer to the ethnic identity, whereas when I use Việtnamese, I refer more to the national identity. Việt Kiều (VK) means overseas Việt people (diaspora) which necessarily implies a nation centered viewpoint (see Dr. Caroline Kiều-Linh Valverde for more on VK and transnationalization).

Phở is a beef noodle soup originally from the north that has come to symbolize the national dish of Việt Nam (VN). Phở’s origins are unclear; it seems to have originated from the Nam Dinh province in the North where my maternal family is from. There are speculations that it was influenced by the French.


  • How many of you are on facebook, instagram, twitter, pinterest?
  • When your friends travel what kinds of pictures do they post to social media?
  • What are the most popular things to photograph in travel?  Sights, food, fruit?
  • What do you think this has to do with their identity as Americans?
In the Việt diaspora, souvenir photos of food, and especially fruit, proliferate. Before there was instagram or social media, there was film photography, calendars, movies, websites dedicated to Việtnamese fruit and that’s not even getting into the developing fruit tourism industry; there's even even pop music songs referencing fruit but for the purposes of this talk, we'll stick to the visual medium. I like to dub this "Việt Fruit Porn" (but don’t google that. Really. Don’t. Do. It.) This has everything to do with how food is a part of the larger narrative of identity. Nostalgia for foods and fruit in particular from back home is a neutral way to claim sentimental attachment to Việt Nam without engaging contentious political dynamics. Photos of fruit & fruit picking may have existed prior to 1975 (as you can see in the picture below on the right), but these existed in private collections and not in the public sphere where narratives of identity & belonging are negotiated--which defines the nature of diasporic fruit porn and imagined community.

Prior to the the lifting of the US trade embargo of VN, the 1980s-90s were a time period in the Việt community when liking anything about VN at the time could leave one vulnerable to accusations of supporting communism. Even second and third wave Việt refugees were suspiciously/skeptically regarded by the conservative elders for not immediately rejecting the communist government and becoming refugees in 1975. So expressing nostalgia and longing for food, and fruit in particular, was a safe way to remember Việt Nam and one's connection to it separate from its recent history--idealized and timeless.

According to Australian anthropologist Mandy Thompson,
“Vietnam is often remembered nostalgically as a place of sensory pleasure where the food tastes not only more ‘authentic’ but qualitatively better. .. Homesickness is often expressed as a longing to taste certain foods, to smell the fruits in the market and the odours of cooking. … Food from Vietnam is remembered as part of a rich sensory world which is conjured up in multiple associations. .. Phở is sometimes remembered as the sensory essence of life in Vietnam.”

Though Thompson was speaking of Australian VK, this could easily apply to US VK as well.

For this talk, I’ll be taking a look at why and how the Việt refugee diaspora reimagines its identity and its connection/disconnection to the VN National narrative of Imagined Community through food and my personal experiences. But first, I want to give some context for understanding why food is important to the way we understand ourselves.


How many people have ever eaten hamburgers? Is there a special Miami way to have a hamburger? (Answer: Cuban style with peppers & spices in mixed in the patty.)

Hamburgers represent classic American cuisine; they are made with ground beef patties and a bun and the optional condiments of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard, beyond that there are many variations. There is no one standard for making hamburger; it can be grilled, broiled, fried. There are state and/or regional differences--in some parts of California, you can get burgers with guacamole & jalapeños. There may even be differences household to household about the seasoning spices used, ingredients, and the preparation. So potentially millions of individual ways to make and eat hamburgers. And yet, this singular idea of hamburger has become a hallmark of national American cuisine. If you look at an classic American cookbook, there will be at least one hamburger recipe; there may be a few variations, but it is all still considered a part of a American national cuisine identity that becomes an international metaphor. You could be vegan, but if you were traveling abroad and mentioned you’re from the US, someone somewhere is going to bring up hamburgers, “You’re American? I like hamburgers.” Whenever someone tells me I don’t look Việtnamese, I’m too big, too freckled, too whatever it is, I shrug and respond, “I’m American-born. I grew up on hamburgers.” That shorthand answer speaks on a lot of levels.

By now, you’ve read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Another anthropologist named Arjun Appadurai applied his theory to one of the most significant aspects of culture--food. Now, food has been rooted in cultural identity for as long as humans could tell stories, but in the contemporary moment, food takes on a particular narrative about nationhood. What is cooked, who cooks it, how they cook, are all ways of reinforcing the imagined national identity, and gender & class as well.  This is imagined community formed through the narrative of cuisine. Appadurai talks more specifically about cookbooks and the formation of a national cuisine, but I am broadly applying the concept to the way foods from a particular country are talked about (the discourse or narrative) in the public sphere. We tell ourselves a story about food and how it connects us to a particular national culture and identity.

In a diaspora, where citizens physically leave the country for prolonged or permanent stays, this national identity of imagined community actually must transcend Nation-State borders too. I posit that Việt diasporic people reimagine their connection to their homeland and food becomes an integral part of how they do that.


(The moment you’ve been waiting for!)

There are so many traumatic ruptures and losses in the nature of war and the Refugee experience. In one (or more) fell swoops, one is uprooted from, even divested of one’s life, ancestry, livelihood, body integrity, home, homeland, nation, one's family and kin, community, one's social/experiential connection to history, cultural, & kinship connections, and in the resettlement(s) there can also loss of access to native food. For those who relocate across oceans and continents the gap is even more profound.

Phamily: Mom, my grandparents, aunties, uncles, bro & sis
Qui Nhon 1974
I want to talk a little bit about my phamily’s personal experiences of war & refugee flows. My phamily first became refugees in 1954, when my maternal grandparents, oldest aunty & my mom who were both small children at the time, left the North to follow the Virgin Mary south (this actually turns out to have been a CIA disinformation campaign). The influx of mostly Catholic northerners to the south also marked the migration of phở from the north to the south where it soon became southernized as a sweeter, spicier and heavily garnished version. Phở stalls began to proliferate in South Việt Nam.

My aunty, Mom siblings & me 
Honolulu 1975
In a quirk of fate, my entire maternal phamily became one of the first wave of Việtnamese refugees on April 23, 1975 not because of political connections, but through the sponsorship of my oldest aunty who had been married to a serviceman and had been residing in Honolulu since the early 70s. My grandparents, aunties & uncles who ranged in age from 4 to 21, my mom, dad, siblings, and me in utero ended up in Honolulu, which represents paradise in the collective American imagination, though reality is more complicated. My young phamily went from a traditional, conservative society in the midst of a war and tremendous social upheaval, from a country transforming from a colonizer/peasant economy to nascent capitalist development and urbanism, to a post-hippy US, a pan-Asian & Pacific Islander majority culture with its own complex history of colonization and immigration. While its cliché to think of the American melting pot and cultural diversity in immigrant-rich regions of the USA today, Hawaii was exceptional in its historical A&PI immigrant density and the fusion that resulted. It was an interesting gateway for my refugee aunties & uncles to learn to become Americans and to negotiate their Việt/namese identity.

Refugee communities have to recreate new roots, sometimes new “ethnic enclaves,” and need to reimagine their identities as uprooted, diasporic former nationals of a non-existent state in the case of Viet refugees. With the dissolution of the South Việtnamese government and almost 20 year long US embargo of unified Việt Nam, Việtnamese-ness in an American context was complicated, political, and emotionally charged. Many Việt refugees left behind family and so there was never a sense of true closure, but access was limited. There were no travel visits between the two countries; no import or export of goods or food; phone calls were expensive (and no one had phones in their homes in VN, the state-owned phones were located at the post office); and letters were expected to be surveilled.

There was a very small, close-knit Việt refugee community that was resettled in Honolulu and community connections were marked with frequent get togethers; and food cooked by womenfolk was central to those gatherings. There were enough Asian markets that many dishes could be made quite similar to, though not identical to dishes made back in the homeland. When we relocated to San Diego in 1980, that changed; we went from an API-majority to black and white low-income neighborhoods, and later to Filipino & Mexican low-income neighborhoods. For families on food stamps in those early days, it was a food desert; there were no Việt markets to source ingredients and not very many Asian markets. Womenfolk sourced substitutes at the American, Mexican and in the rare Filipino markets (or at least the “ethnic” aisle in the supermarket). Canh chua | tamarind seafood soup was made with celery instead of bạc hà (taro stem or elephant ear); spinach was substituted in place of râu muống. Families wildcrafted or foraged for herbs in rivers and mountains that have by now been paved over for development.


I also remember the first time a Việt grocery store opened in San Diego, my mom brought home a common snack in her youth, sea snails (you can call them escargot or periwinkles to be fancy). Việt produce and food products grown or produced in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia began to appear. Filipino patis | fish sauce was replaced by Thai-produced, Việt language labeled Nước Mấm | fish sauce; canned or dried Southeast Asian fruits began to appear on the shelves trying to fulfill the demands of nostalgic longing. 

Time for Durian!
Fruit has to some extent figured prominently in Việt social, cultural, and spiritual life as everyday consumption and in offerings to the ancestors or deities. Sầu riêng | durian known as the “The King of Fruits” was a particular fruit that was unobtainable, that couldn’t be captured in a can or dried, occupied a lot of longing and nostalgia. For the uninitiated, durian smells like week-old, decaying garbage left out on a scorching summer day (yeah...); the taste is akin to creamy, sweet, green onions. In the 80s, only the essence of durian was available in the form of flavored sweets, cookies and pastries imported from Thailand. In the 90s, the frozen flesh of Thai durians began to be imported, and then eventually, the entire frozen fruit.

Much of my introduction to Việt fruits came from cans or from the fruit my grandparents would sneak across the border from Tijuana: me | tamarindo (we ate this instead of popcorn when I watched E.T. for the first time in the movie theatre); mãng cầu | guyabano, custard apple; ổi | guava; thanh long | pitaya, dragon fruit; mít | jacal, jackfruit; khế | carambola, starfruit; mía | caña, sugar cane. (BTW the shared history of fruit and crops between Latin America and Southeast Asia owes a lot to the Columbian Exchange of the 16th Century). My grandparents actually grew a guava tree from seeds of these illicit guavas. I remember the year it bore fruit; it was a family event. It couldn’t have been more than a few guava, but it was divvied up and everyone got a slice and we ate it with salt & chile. The conversation that night was filled with so much nostalgia for Việt food and fruits and the memories of picking it. (Over time, my grandparents’ garden became a transported landscape, a microcosm of what their garden had been in VN from these smuggled fruits--chickens, banana trees, guava, dragon fruit, custard apples, bitter melon, squash, and of course, herbs.)

With access to Southeast Asian products in the early 80s, phở restaurants began to open at this time. Though phở was popularized in South VN in the mid-1950s via entrepreneurial phở stalls, it quickly became a part of the greater Việt culinary lexicon. US military personnel and journalists encountered southern style phở during the war. Transplanted to the US context, the phở restaurants in the US mostly featured the southern style of phở. In the US, Australia, Canada and other countries of the Việt diaspora, phở became the symbol of Việtnamese cuisine.


As the US trade embargo was brought to an end in 1994, besides family reunification and social & political transformation, food possibilities began to open. The first Việt Kiều to visit VN came back to the US with seeds and seedlings. (While US Customs and the USDA may take a dim eye of “invasive species”; this is a part of the longer history of human migration and spread of seeds/crops dating to the ancient Asia-centered world system from 4000 BCE, the 13th century world system, the Silk Road trade in the 15th Century and the Columbian Exchange in the 16th Century, and others argue possibly even further to prehistoric times. Ethnobotanist Dr. My Lien Thi Nguyen is doing some interesting work on looking at the introduction of Viet plant foods to Hawai'i.) As trade opened, VK markets in the US began to stock the heretofore unobtainable Việt herbs like ngò gai | culantro, ngò om | rice paddy herb, bc hà | taro stem, frozen fruits, and more recently, fresh fruits, and regional delicacies like cốm | pounded green rice and tương cự đà | fermented soy sauce with roasted rice powder. Durian began to be imported frozen and whole towards the late 90s. These delicacies spread quickly through the US diaspora.

While the longing and nostalgia for Việt fruits and food had existed from the moment the diaspora was created, Việt fruit porn really began to proliferate in US public spaces in the 1990s. Again, remember this is after the internet, but before social media so these were in email forwards, in special interest forums, on websites, or actual physical photographs made on film and printed out and shared with friends and family manually, photos of fruit and in particular of the act of picking fruit.

Looking over the ocean to VN, during the post-war period, public life was curtailed by austerity measures and State surveillance. After the experience of food shortages in the North through the wars, the amount of pleasure eating, eating outside the home, and protein dense meals throughout the country was limited (see Thompson for examples). Even special occasions like weddings were marked by exhortations of frugality and modesty. With its uncertain origins and potential foreign influence, phở did not fit into the State narrative of asceticism, self-determination, and sovereignty. Food was not a significant part of the official State-sanctioned narrative of identity except as a precaution of scarcity. Any individual imaginings about food and the lack of it, were done in private and not through broad social means. Fruit and phở did not occupy the same place in the collective VN imagination as it did for VK.

Through the post-embargo transnational channels of the Việt Kiều diaspora (and Western media too) influencing culture in VN itself, phở has become the de facto national dish of Việt Nam and it is subject to more attention in VN media as well as international seminars to determine its origin (why the European Commission to VN feel the need to address/resolve this is a whole nutha issue). If you google “Việt Nam national dish”, you will come up 1.3 million results, the vast majority of which are Western sources that will confidently claim phở as THE national dish. (Even the Smithsonian sought phở origins. I myself tangle with the speculative history of phở in my blog).

Phở beats out bánh chưng | a traditional lunar new year cake made of sticky rice, pork and mung beans wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Bánh chưng is a several thousand year old dish with deep social, political, and spiritual significance that is universal for all ethnic Việt people.  Bánh chưng is arguably the more authentic choice over Phở, a dish with only a 100 year history in the capital of Hanoi and a mere 60 year history in the southern half of the country, and with uncertain origins besides.

In the contemporary moment, phở has established itself as a transnational, unifying link of a Việtnamese homeogeneity despite contentious political history and is divested of regional, even diasporic variation. Keep in mind, there was no VN, no Nation-State prior to 1954. And yet, Hanoi poet Vũ Quân Phương proclaimed in 2008 that “the most important thing is that phở makes up half of Việtnamese national pride; the second half is the popular war. … Phở is the soul of Vietnam and when I enjoy a bowl of phở, I recall firstly, the flavors of my childhood" (my emphasis.) While not an entirely uncontroversial statement as it references the war from the VN victor’s perspective as the people’s wars of liberation from France & the US, it nevertheless echoes the earlier sentiment about phở in the VK diaspora at the beginning of this talk, that "phở is the sensory essence of Việt life." Thus, reinforces the singularity of phở to the Việtnamese Imagined Community.

My bro Hoàng going
bananas for pineapples.
My Cô 5 making gỏi mít non.
Revisiting the significance of fruit, when I first visited VN in 2000 for fieldwork, my relatives in VN and in the US were quick to advise me about strategies for legally bringing Việt fruit back to the US; it must be frozen and seedless. I was instructed by my mother & aunties to bring back fruits that could not be obtained in the US at that time, like chôm chôm | rambutan and măng cụt | mangosteen. Never mind that in an 18+ hour international flight, that frozen fruit is going to melt. (We didn’t even bother with durian as it is typically banned on public transportation.) By the time I made it to customs in LAX, I didn’t even have to be told to toss it. That’s right, I hauled 3 kilos of fruit halfway across the world and I tossed it when I got back. I wasn’t even trying to rationalize defrosting fruit for my dear mother who had been 25 years without tasting them to a bunch of grim, bureaucratic customs officers. I should also mention that during that visit, my relatives in VN also inveigled me, the American-born niece who they met for the first time, to eat durian, which I had heretofore disliked, to prove my Việtnamese-ness.

In 2005, when I became involved in co-writing and making a feature length independent film called Kiều, I inserted the motif of green mangos into the film based on my own childhood memories in Honolulu of picking & eating them with fish sauce & sugar with my siblings and also because of the prevalent narratives about fruit in the Việt diaspora.

Parade of anthropomorphic fruit floats, gigantic fruit offerings, and a fruit altar to the VN Nation-State made entirely out of fruit!

Fruit has become such a zeitgeist in the Việt Kiều narrative of attachment to an imagined, ahistoric/timeless, non-communist/-socialist, idealized past where warfare was non-existent, that this too has influenced the social, political, and economic positioning of fruit in VN. Fruit exports from VN now total US $1 billion. The State Department of Tourism has begun to sponsor and promote regional Fruit Festivals and newly emerging, (domestic and international) Fruit tourism (what we here call U-pick orchards) as private- and state-owned/-subsidized ways to develop the rural economy in the central and southern regions and to encourage seasonal tourism. In these narratives, fruit is divested of most contentious politics (though there are offerings to the altar of the socialist VN Nation-State) and harken to an imagined, idealized past of unified Vietnameseness.

So we see a converging of both official State and diasporic Việt narratives of Imagined Community; Việtnamese-ness is no longer as politically problematic as long as it is framed around phở and fruit. Of course, the broader transnational economics of the VK diaspora also impact VN’s receptivity to promoting a unified Vietnamese narrative. In 2013 alone, remittances from VK totalled $10.6 billion in cash, roughly estimated to be over 1/8 of VN's GDP. “IN 2011, The Viet Kieu community ... invested $6 billion in 2,000 projects in Vietnam… and another $5 billion invested by the community in unannounced projects.” That's approximately $20 billion per year in cash, investment, and charity with remittances expected to grow 10-15% each year. This VK economic power led Chairman of the Viet Nam Fatherland Front Central Committee Nguyễn Thiện Nhân to declare, “Overseas Vietnamese are an important component and a source of internal strength for the nation” earlier this year, with considerable attention from the VN government to court VK. This is a tremendous transformation from the 1975 - 2004 period when Viet refugees were considered traitors to the VN nation-state. A softening of political posturing and rhetoric on the part of the government has created more favorable relations with the VK diaspora. Even vehemently anti-communist elders like former South VN Vice President Nguyễn Cao Kỳ can return to VN and assumably take private pictures of fruit & fruit-picking under the rubric of unified Vietnameseness.

Real Food, Real Phở

Homestretch now. I want to talk now about my blog and why I write it.

For me, phở was my entry point into serious Việt cooking and later into blogging. I grew up with phamily gatherings for Sunday brunch when my grandmother would make northern style phở. I first tasted restaurant phở as a college student when I returned home for vacation and had a craving. It was nothing like the phở I ate at home. Later, when I was in grad school, phở was a popular way amongst my circle of friends to recover from drinking alcohol and/or from a hangover. While I always went along, I was inevitably disappointed by the phở; part of it was regional taste preferences, part of it was the quality & fast food nature of it, but the other more significant part is there is no spice like nostalgia, and it wasn’t my grandmother’s phở. In making phở a commodity, the sacred domestic ritual of cooking, family, and togetherness was lost; there wasn’t a place for my ritual, nostalgia, and memory at the restaurant table. (It felt akin to having Thanksgiving dinner--or whatever feast rituals your culture/family celebrates--in a greasy spoon diner.) So I began to do what you should almost never do at a phở restaurant, I began to order anything but phở. (I mean do you go to a hamburger joint and ask for calamari?)

With all the sighing and smacktalking I was doing, inevitably I had to practice what I preached. So I called my mom and asked how to make it, and I tried my hand at it. By this time, my grandmother was no longer capable of making phở and so her specific spice mix was not handed down. Over the last decade of making phở I have learned alot and developed my own spice mix and techniques. (My recipe is posted here.) After my grandmother had a stroke and it was clear she was never going to cook again, I inherited her pressure cooker and boy, that really changed my relationship to phở making. I make it much more frequently now.

Four years back, I burned out because my intensive philosophy in life inherited from my dad was going down for the cause, dying for what I believed in; my adrenal glands (which are the master glands that control all the hormones you need to live) were not functioning optimally. I get deeper into the story of my healing journey posted on my blog. Essentially I had to change my diet and lifestyle fundamentally and food became my medicine. I had a lot of food allergies and sensitivities, so I eliminated foods I was reacting to: wheat, dairy, refined sugar, soy, corn, and additives.

Required "reading" for the talk
Michael Pollan on "How Cooking Can Change Your Life"

When I eliminated wheat and dairy, I thought well, I’ll keep it easy and cook Vietnamese/Asian food following the food philosophy of "Eat what your ancestors ate" because my ancestors were not eating macaroni & cheese from a box. And you think of Asian food and you think of rice, not wheat.  But then as I started reading the labels, I realized how much processing goes into modern Vietnamese food here in the US--not just MSG, but MSG in all its iterations (hydrolyzed wheat protein, "natural flavor", soy protein, etc), wheat derivatives, refined sugar, preservatives (not just the banned formaldehyde, but FDA approved preservatives), food coloring. This is not how my ancestors ate.  So I had to find ingredients that were minimally processed.  

I had to learn how to truly make food from scratch using ancestral foodways that maximize nutrition, instead of shortcuts that come from modern living always being in a hurry and on the go, that can be counter-nutritive.  I couldn’t find a single source for recipes/blogs that made Vietnamese food using whole ingredients and ancestral foodways. So that’s when I started blogging, to reclaim and sometimes remake ancestral food ways. Some ancestral foodways I saw my grandparents practice, other things I pieced together from blogs about homesteading or whole/real food cooking.

Over the years, I've had to take my soul food familiars like phở and bring them back to the basics.  In a way, I've decolonized my diet--I've eliminated the wheat and dairy of French influence, and the industrially processed, chemically laden ingredients and products of Japanese & American influence.  I use organic, grass-fed beef bones, organic spices (when I can source them), dried rice noodles (I've yet to source or make brown rice noodles), herbs from my garden, mineral-rich grey sea salt, and real fish sauce.  The result is deeply satisfying, nutrient-dense, nourishing.  It is not the sweet phở that most phở fans accustomed to the fare served up in phở restaurants across the US will be used to. It is not my bà ngoại's phở because there is no spice like nostalgia (and to be real, she loved her some MSG).  This is my Phở. Phở real.

The soul of my cooking is a love of food and family.  For me, cooking Vietnamese food is the way I remember my grandparents who were self-sufficient, subsistence farmers before the wars and who, transplanted here to the US, had a subsistence garden no matter where they lived in the hood and carried on foodways and traditions of cooking from their upbringing.  Cooking is how I honor their legacy, and make it meaningful and present for my daughter. There is a story in each meal, a rich history in the making of it, and quality in the eating of it. Taking the time to make something from scratch using ancestral foodways infuses the food with more flavor, more nutrients, more tradition, and more love.

Food is constantly evolving.  I don’t claim to cook authentic as it was made 100 years ago by my great grandmother. There were adapted foodways that my grandparents practiced that I eschew, like food coloring, karo corn syrup or white rice flour in favor of more nutritious practices. The results are not like we are now used to eating; the appearance, colors, taste, texture are wildly different.  And, I live here in the US, this is my context.  I have a food processor and I use it.  I eat kale with everything, sometimes even my phở.  I have a family to feed and I don’t always have all day to cook so I do make shortcuts, but I try not to compromise on nutrition.  It’s been a learning process for me to challenge myself where I feel daunted (Bánh Chưng! cooking a whole hog’s head!) and to reinvent or find new ways.  So my blog is my take on ancestral food ways and LIVING for what I believe in.


I was pen-less so I didn't take note of all the great questions and comments during the Q&A otherwise I would have posted a rough transcript of them. However I do want to take another stab at answering the last question from the Q&A.

  • How is Vietnamese food different from other Asian food?

I rambled on quite a bit about the syncretic aspect of Vietnamese food--combining influences from what are now known as China (2000 years of invasion) & India (merchants), possibly Portuguese (Catholic missionaries), from the conquered Cham/Champa & Khmer/Cambodia kingdoms (in what is now respectively Central and South VN), and even France (150 years of colonization) to the native Southeast Asian palate. But I forgot to say the basics about what makes Vietnamese cuisine unique (already I'm invoking imagined community narratives here!). The spices are very different from East Asian (defined as Chinese, Japanese, Korean) cooking. Fish sauce and other fermented shrimp are a common flavoring base as is coconut water or milk. There are a lot of fresh herbs (which have an aromatic flavor as well as medicinal functions) like cilantro, thai basil, as well as others you wouldn't be as familiar with (some are mentioned above like culantro). Ginger, lemongrass, galangal are also other zesty flavors commonly found in Vietnamese cooking. Pork and seafood especially shellfish (not too surprising since a large part of VN is coastal) are very common. If you are familiar with other Southeast Asian cuisines, I would generalize that Vietnamese food is not as sweet as Thai food, not as pungent as Cambodian food (except maybe in the deep Mekong Delta where the influence is stronger), not as spicy as Thai or Laotian food. Now the assignment for this talk is to go find a Vietnamese restaurant and try it! Here's a yummy list of things to try from buzzed.

Thanks to Mitzi's FIU Miami Asian Studies class for listening to and engaging
with my talk. Thanks for telling me about Cuban style hamburgers; I must give it a try! It is fascinating to form this temporary, borg technology-enabled "imagined community" with y'all on the other side of the country to discuss diaspora, food, and contemporary social practices. While I'm no longer an academic or an anthropologist, I still love the analytic tools it provides for looking at a social phenomena (the WHAT) and thinking through the larger question of HOW and WHY people do something. I hope this gave you some food for thought about how imagined communities and how food plays out in your own lives. I mean, there's that Thanksgiving turkey or whatever special dishes your family serves; what are the imagined community narratives being enacted there?  

Enjoy your day of Giving Thanks!

Ăn Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!

Background Handout to the class
First Indochina War (19 December 1946 until 1 August 1954)

In the late 19th Century, three kingdoms (what are now called Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam) were colonized by France and consolidated into IndoChina. Following the French approach to colonization “la mission civilatrice” (civilizing mission) the Viet language was romanized (with the alphabet instead of the system of Chinese-derived characters) and the native elites were educated under the French system. The native intellectuals embraced the European idea of the Nation-State and the ideals of the French Revolution and began to agitate alongside the already up in arms populace for independence for a newly imagined national community with borders that roughly fell along the boundaries of the pre-colonial Viet kingdom territory. This became full scale guerilla war for national liberation led by the Viet Minh, a coalition of varying political interests (including royalists, nationalists, and communists). During WWII, Japan temporarily invaded and overthrew the French; there isn’t time to get into it, but suffice to say, Japan was no better as a colonizer and 2 million Viet people died from deliberately created famine. At the end of WWII, France was back in power backed by the US.

In 1954, the Vietnamese anti-colonial independence movement succeeded in ousting France from power. This was the first time since the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) that a colonized people freed themselves from European colonization and was a watershed for independence movements all over Africa, South America, and Asia and marked the decline of colonization. France and the newly formed Nation-State of Viet Nam formed an agreement called The Geneva Accords where it was mutually agreed to 1) separation of the three sovereign territories into Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam; 2) temporarily divide Viet Nam in two zones run by the Viet Minh in the north (DRV) and Bao Dai, the former emperor as a figurehead, in the south (State of VN) with a demilitarized zone in between the two, 3) free movement of people between the zones for 300 days, and 4) hold democratic elections for a President for Viet Nam, among other provisions. The US refused to sign and so did the State of VN (South).

The Second Indochina war (1 November 1955 to 30 April 1975)
aka The American War in Viet Nam or the Vietnam War in the US

Emperor Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem who was politically connected to the US as the Prime Minister of the south. Recognizing that Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of the Viet Minh, was so popular that he would easily win the election, the US decided to intervene militarily to support Prime Minister Diem and prevent the democratic elections from happening. Just over a week after the Geneva Accords, the US began a secret CIA propaganda war in North Viet Nam. 

US escalated its military involvement in the 1960s.  US public opinion grew increasingly critical to the war and its rationale. The number of US fatalities combined with press coverage of the US military atrocities influenced the public to support withdrawal. In 1973, the US began the process of withdrawing its troops which finally concluded on April 30, 1975.

The war exacted a huge human cost in terms of fatalities. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese service members and civilians killed vary from 800,000 to 3.1 million. Some 200,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–200,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict. 

When it became clear that the US was withdrawing the final troops and embassy in 1975 and the country would reunify for the first time since 1887, many of the Viet people who were government officials, had worked for the South Vietnamese government or were involved in US base economy fled Viet Nam as the first wave of refugee exiles. Approximately 125,000 people fled at this time. They were processed at US military bases in Guam and the Philippines, then housed in temporary refugee camps in CA, AK, FL, and PN. They were resettled all over the US especially small towns to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming through sponsorship of local families solicited by newspaper ads. After a few years most Viet refugees resettled in California and Texas.

The Second Wave of refugees fled in the time period 1978 to the early 1980s. This included people who had family in the south Vietnamese government or military, had been put into re-education camps (forced labor camps), and ethnic Chinese who were persecuted for their ethnicity (there was a border war going on with China around the same time). This wave is often referred to as the Boat People because they fled by fishing boat. An estimated 2 million people fled at this time though many lives were lost through non-seaworthy boats, storms, food shortages, and piracy. Many languished as stateless refugees in refugee camps (essentially prisons) in countries throughout the South China Sea (Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, etc). This wave was eventually resettled throughout the Western world. The last refugee camps in the Philippines were closed in 2009. And the last of the refugees in Thailand are being resettled in Canada as of 2014.

The Third Wave of refugees (1980s until 2000) were permitted to leave Viet Nam under the auspices of the Orderly Departure program. They were often family members of previous refugees, Amer-Asians (abandoned children of US servicemen), and former political prisoners. 

The US accepted 531,310 political refugees and asylum seekers between 1981-2000.

Suggested readings for those who are interested in learning more:
  • Vietnam: An illustrated history by Shelton Woods
  • Voices of Vietnamese Boat people by Mary Terrell Cargill and Jade Quang Huynh