The French and your food

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Everyone knows that, to some degree, bánh mì (baguette) and cà phê sữa Ä‘á (coffee, milk, ice) are relics of French colonial Vietnam.

But few understand the extent to which Vietnam has contended with imperial cuisines for its entire history.

Last November food historian Erica J. Peters published a book titled Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long 19th Century that paints a vivid portrait of how empires have attempted to shape and manipulate the cuisine we all know and love.

The book titled Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long 19th Century is constructed through careful decade-long review of colonial records, poetry, letters, cookbooks and newspapers by historian Erica J. Peters (photo below)

Starting with Emperor Minh Mang's efforts to convince the disparate peoples of the southern territories to eat white rice with chopsticks at every meal and ending with a French colonial ad campaign designed to unload a surplus of sweetened condensed milk on "the Annamites," the book describes how normal people resisted and absorbed efforts to control what they ate.

The book is constructed through Peters careful decade-long review of colonial records, poetry, letters, cookbooks and newspapers.

She spoke to Vietweek:

How important are white rice and chopsticks to the Vietnamese identity, 200 years after Minh Mang's campaign?

I think people in Vietnam have found a particularly Vietnamese balance between chopstick-food and hand-food; between elaborate preparations (such as phở or bánh chưng) and quick foods that depend on very fresh ingredients (such as chả cá or bánh xèo); between purity and elegance (which are associated with northern cuisine) and fun and individuality (which are associated with the south).

Can you describe a few things that are thought of as forever and always Vietnamese that may have actually originated elsewhere?

In my book, I talk about phở as a dish that people think of as representing an eternal Vietnam, even though it is really only 100 years old. It emerged from a moment when someone in Hanoi or Nam Dinh collected beef remnants left over from serving the French, made them into a rich stock, and produced a great alternative to the various soups sold on the street by Chinese soup vendors.

Bánh mì sandwiches and cà phê sữa Ä‘á are similar, in that they are definitely, organically Vietnamese but could not have been invented without the new ingredients (baguettes, coffee, sweetened condensed milk), which were only available in the early 20th century because of the French presence.

How did the French colonial administration change (and fail to change) fish sauce and rice wine?

Before the French period, fish sauce and rice wine were available at different price levels, depending on the producer's reputation.

For fish sauce, that didn't change although the quality went down across the board when salt got too expensive (due to the badly run French salt monopoly). All the different kinds of fish sauce were still made by Vietnamese.

But for rice alcohol, the French actually wouldn't let Vietnamese people make it any more. They had to buy a tasteless version produced in French factories, made from cheap materials. The French government created this monopoly to please a powerful French industrialist, and also to make it easier to collect taxes on sales of rice alcohol.

The Vietnamese worried that the same would happen to fish sauce and French policymakers did discuss [monopolizing its production], for "food safety" reasons. But having seen what happened to their rice alcohol, the Vietnamese moved heaven and earth to prevent [a monopoly]. The French had learned (from strong Vietnamese resistance to factory alcohol) that it was politically dangerous to change the taste of a beloved food product, so they abandoned their attempt to control and centralize fish sauce production.

To what extent did bootlegging traditional rice wine become a nationalist enterprise?

No one liked the taste of the factory-made rice wine. And producers resented that their livelihood had been taken away. So the Vietnamese population was in agreement that this French policy was outrageous, and they found the issue important enough to protest about it for a decade, never letting up. They used all the tools at their disposal, from bootlegging the product they loved, to fighting off inspectors with bamboo sticks, to writing letters to newspapers (mocking the French for forcing people to drink this awful product), to staging theater productions about the terrible French alcohol. It was the first widespread lobbying effort by the Vietnamese, and it worked. So, that was very educational for a whole generation of Vietnamese.

An odd nostalgia for French colonialism survives in Vietnam's expat community, particularly in hotels and restaurants. A new place just opened up named after Paul Blanchy's mustache. What was his story?

His father was a wine merchant, exporting wine from Bordeaux. Paul went to Indochina to start a (heavily subsidized) coffee plantation, but it failed miserably. He failed again when he tried to start a (heavily subsidized) pepper plantation. But he had great success with his second pepper plantation (again, heavily subsidized), and he became a wealthy man, and then mayor of Saigon from 1895 until his death in 1901. Today Vietnam is the largest producer and exporter of black pepper in the world.

When did Western visitors to Vietnam first begin to genuinely appreciate Vietnamese food?

I think some Europeans "got it" from the very beginning, like Paul d'Enjoy reveling in the crunch of a good fried palm-tree worm. And some Europeans ate that way from necessity not all French people in Vietnam could afford to eat French food! But I don't think there was much widespread Western respect for Vietnamese food until tourists started coming in the 1990s.

At what point did Vietnamese food come to France?

The very first time Vietnamese dishes came to France was during the Colonial Exposition in Marseilles in 1922, and then again in 1931 at the larger Paris Colonial Exposition. People could and did try delicacies such as birds'-nest soup and shark-fin soup, and xenophobic jokes spread about the idea of eating fish sauce and dog meat.

More and more immigrants came from Vietnam to France, starting in the 1950s during the French war in Vietnam, and the numbers kept growing. Many of those new immigrants opened restaurants, as a way to employ and feed their families. And so gradually more and more French people got a taste for Sino/Vietnamese cuisine. But it wasn't really until the 1990s that people in France started to appreciate phở. And then it took off so that in 2002, the French celebrity chef Didier Corlou declared phở the best soup in the world.

Who was your favorite character in researching this book?

The student Nguyen Van Nho, who was delighted when his mother switched him from traditional Chinese education to French school now he could eat fried chicken's feet!

Apparently people thought that fried chicken's feet ruined your handwriting for Chinese calligraphy, but in French school handwriting wasn't as important.

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 23rd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
Erica J. Peters, Ph.D., is the director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and an independent food historian. She is the author of Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century.

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