What French and American aggressors missed out on when they turned their nose up at Vietnamese cuisine
All fish sauce is produced when a diastatic enzyme in the guts of salted anchovies leaches out and begins to break the fish flesh down into a delicious protein-rich liquid. That liquid has both sustained and defined Vietnamese people for at least four centuries - so don't turn your high nose up at it! Photo by Calvin Godfrey
Perhaps it’s the fate of foreigners everywhere to explain where they come from. But explaining one’s origins in Vietnam feels more like a job for the brainstem than the cortex. You see, I don’t speak Vietnamese so much as I know how to have half a conversation:
Yes, I can drive a motorbike and yes I have a Vietnamese girlfriend. No I’m not rich but I’m not poor. I live in a hotel and I have two brothers and I think my parents miss me, but I don’t know how much…
Some of these answers aren’t solicited. The most important thing to tell people is “yes, I can eat Vietnamese food.”
For a long time, I felt like this was an answer to a pretty silly question. Half the developed world is either looking for a good bowl of pho or watching an idiot eat one on television.
But this is a very recent development.
While a few oddball European missionaries and late colonial comers developed a taste for the cuisine during the last three hundred years, most turned up their “high” noses at it.
According to food historian Erica J. Peters, the French colons survived largely on baguettes and canned butter. Only the poorest among them deigned to eat the local cuisine, which adapted to accommodate their taste for beef and long-stewed soups.
The Americans were even worse.
In 1824 an American naval officer named John White conducted a study on Vietnam’s coastal commerce. In his 500-page doctoral dissertation on fish sauce, Kevin McIntyre included the Captain’s description of “fish pickle” as a “filthy, fetid, oily liquid…universally used by the natives as a condiment to all kinds of food.”
Peters described a 51-course feast in 1837 that Emperor Minh Mang ordered his servants to set up in the cabin of US Ambassador Edmund Roberts’ docked sloop. Roberts nibbled squeamishly on just a single dessert item, which he pronounced “very insipid and totally without seasoning.”
During the American occupation, I gather, food diplomacy wasn’t nearly as emphatic. Folks who can remember the American soldiers love to speculate as to just how much I love hamburgers.
Sure I do.
But a lot of these people make
it sound as though you keep a white man alive to a ripe old age in a terrarium merely with water and hamburgers.
I should note that even before arriving, the sitting US Ambassador professed his love of Vietnamese food in a hilariously stage-managed State Department video. Indeed, the whole world is now falling over itself to dig into authentic Vietnamese food as quickly as humanly possible—nowhere more so than the United States.
Few realize what a big deal this might be.
The fish sauce that Capt. White found so unpalatable almost 200 years ago, according to McIntyre, was the glue that gave Vietnamese people “a sense of social sticking, an intricate bond of sameness, an adhesive identity.”
In this way, eating and enjoying rice and fish sauce is something like taking a kind of communion—accepting the body and the blood of Vietnam.
While conducting research in Vietnam, the doctoral candidate quickly learned that his willingness to eat fish sauce earned him a kind of instant access.
During his quixotic journey of self-discovery in Catfish Mandala the Vietnamese American Andrew X. Pham validated his identity, again and again, as “tram phan tram nuoc mam”—one hundred percent fish sauce.
Sadly, however, this national treasure seems to have gotten away from the Vietnamese people. Most of the brands sold in the US as Vietnamese contain an undisclosed quantity of Thai product—a result of the two-decade embargo and diaspora. Perhaps worse than that, the integrity of locally produced fish sauce remains as questionable as most consumer goods.
In 2006, a retired software engineer named Cuong Pham returned to Vietnam and built a small waterfront factory in Phu Quoc.
Pham left Saigon on a boat as a teenager and wound up working at Apple when Steve Jobs was still broken. He’s spending his autumn years starting a small export-only brand called Red Boat. Like most processors on the island, he sells his final press off to large brands who blend it into low-quality material.
But he also bottles and sells year-old, first-press sauce that taste exactly like the essence of a fresh jar of Sicilian anchovies. Getting the operation off the ground was no easy feat.
The Chinese have been driving up the cost of dried black anchovies on the island. Logistics are tough. And it’s hard to know if Red Boat will make it.
But Pham is in it for the long haul. He’s built a small house on the grounds of his property and spends half the year welcoming celebrity chefs out to witness what’s brewing.
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the August 16th issue of our print edition Vietweek)