Editor’s Note: Clicking internal links and pictures in this article opens a new browser window to references. A version of this article was published in Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife (Greenwood, 2011).
The foodways of Vietnamese Americans – how their foods shape and are shaped by both their own and the mainstream social organizations – are in many ways windows into the group’s everyday lived experiences. That is, Vietnamese American cuisines in homes and restaurants have been sites of cultural adaptations, acculturation, and diffusion. In particular, the selling, cooking, and eating of Vietnamese foods through small business operations, supermarkets, or ethnic malls have become catalysts for the group’s economic mobility, cultural recognition, and reassertion of “Vietnameseness.” More than one-third of all Vietnamese-owned businesses are food-related, and are not only capable of moving up the retail chain but also can help limit the current recession’s impact via co-ethnic networking and co-ethnic employment.
Meanwhile, in many family households, preparing traditional Vietnamese food is still a way to make sure children hold on to their ethnic heritage, as well as moderating “illnesses” due to increase consumption of unhealthy fast food, frozen meals, and instant noodles. Even now some households maintain home gardens (“vườn nhà”), producing foodstuffs that have perpetuated traditional folkways; and a number of home gardens have transitioned to market gardens, becoming a part of, as well as sustaining, Vietnamese American food establishments. Moreover, households who were fishermen in Vietnam have been able to rely on shrimping as a tool to establish themselves in the U.S. There are now 20,000 Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers along the Gulf Coast –holding 30 to 60 percent of seafood-related industry jobs in the Gulf – but have been hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill. Overall, relative to other cultural traditions brought to the United States, Vietnamese food culture within the home and the ethnic enclave may persist longer and may experience fewer changes.
Like other ethnic foodways, Vietnamese American foodways draw from both the culture of the homeland and the culture of the hostland. By implication, there is an accommodation process where particular foods and tastes of Vietnamese Americans are more in demand and in supply than others. For example, regional, class-related, and generational subcultures that make up the Vietnamese American population will demand particular tastes, whether they reflect craving for comfort dishes (such as Vietnamese noodle called “phở”); for fast but cheap food to drink and eat (such as Vietnamese sandwiches called “bánh mì” and Vietnamese iced coffee called “cà phê sữa đá”); or for regional cuisines (such as Vietnamese spicy beef noodle from central Vietnam called “bún bò Huế”).
On the supply side, finding ingredients in the U.S. to substitute for those from Vietnam that are not easily available, or having to grow Vietnamese vegetables in the US or use preserved/frozen items shipped from Vietnam, can affect food tastes. So that while Vietnamese American food is quintessentially embedded in daily lives and special occasions ( such as weddings and Vietnamese new year celebrations), Vietnam is still remembered nostalgically as a place of sensory pleasure where particular food tastes are not only more ‘authentic’ but qualitatively better.
It is also very likely that through urbanization or suburbanization Vietnamese American foodways will entail degrees of acculturation and diffusion. In multi-ethnic environment, Vietnamese Americans have selected elements from other cultures to further innovate and upgrade their enterprises. For instance, Vietnamese American restaurants in the west coast have begun to use all natural, hormone-free meats and no farm-raised seafood in order to elevate their traditional Vietnamese cuisines with higher quality ingredients.
Vietnamese American restaurants in the gulf coast are carrying on other food traditions such as adding crawfish, beignets, and French pastry to their menus in a way that satisfy both their co-ethnic and intra-ethnic palates. In places like New Orleans East, Vietnamese restaurants and groceries in post Hurricane Katrina have lost co-ethnic customers but are learning to adjust and accommodate Latino foodways as a result of the influx of Latino workers whereas in Bakersfield (California), Vietnamese Americans have migrated there in search for geographical mobility; though they may have to rethink about ”having so narrow a cultural theme” in an area outside its demographic.
Interestingly, because many Vietnamese food stores and grocery stores are still labor intensive, the once exploited co-ethnic workers and family members who were employed to hold labor costs down are beginning to be replaced by new Latino immigrants. Here, the concern is how to avoid the ‘no justice, no noodles’ worker demonstrations and move toward the blending of intra-ethnic foodways, so that restaurant workers can later move on to higher class restaurants or open their own restaurants. Not to be overlooked, of course, is that non-Vietnamese restaurants have successfully utilized Vietnamese ingredients and cuisines, including fish sauce, fine noodles with barbecue beef, strong iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, and spring rolls. Moreover, non-Vietnamese food companies — such as Campbell’s Foodservice, Pacific Foods, and Trader Joe’s – have recently introduced “pho vegetarian” broth, “chicken pho soup” base and “frozen beef pho.”
Often Vietnamese American entrepreneurs are the ones who initiate the commercialization of Vietnamese food to non-Vietnamese. On the one hand, this process allows Vietnamese food to enter American popular culture. For instance, Vietnamese Tuong Ot Sriracha Chili Sauce is sold at Wal-Mart and used at Applebee’s, Vietnamese “bánh mì” sandwiches have been featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and a Vietnamese American chef Hung Huynh had won the third season of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” As such, it is not a surprise that “pho” and “banh mi” have been added to the Oxford English Dictionaries.
On the other hand, by going mainstream, Vietnamese foodstuff can transform to something very different from the original. Vietnamese restaurants catering to non-Vietnamese clientele will often tone down the fish sauce, lessen the standards of traditional preparation of Vietnamese food, provide vegan and gluten-free options, and create hybrid dishes such as spring rolls filled with raw tuna. Still, even those who like to sustain Vietnamese American food malls and supermarkets would need to innovate and experiment not only in American restaurant management strategies but also in Vietnamese cuisines in order to meet the changing demands of both their co-ethnic and intra-ethnic clientele.
Importantly, as the elders retire from the kitchen, is there a crop of younger Vietnamese Americans ready to take their place? Certainly, the idea that “when I eat Vietnamese food, I am at home” appears to be strong among younger Vietnamese Americans. As a noted by a Vietnamese graduate student, “Vietnamese coffee always brings memories of my father in the morning, and rice reminds me of family because it is always present and shared in family meals.” In part, the above may explain why a 2010 study by Sodexo, who provides food service to 600 campuses across the country, found that Vietnamese “pho” ranked number three in the list of most popular regional and global “comfort foods.” By other accounts, Vietnamese cuisines can bring friends, family, and loves ones together and keep them together. Similarly, while home gardens or market gardens are usually perpetuated by the older generation, middle-aged Vietnamese Americans may take up gardening because of the cultural importance of traditional foods; in addition, they may have incentives to make existing Vietnamese urban farms more sustainable both culturally and environmentally.
Perhaps not to be underestimated is that Vietnamese American foodways can be strong enough today to still induce new generations of Vietnamese Americans to go back to their roots, to learn how to cook Vietnamese cuisines, to cultivate Vietnamese home gardens, and/or to live closer to their ethnic food malls and supermarkets.
Lastly, in the context of transnationalism and globalization, Vietnamese American foodways can also shape and be shaped by Vietnam’s foodways. To be sure, reconciliation between the Vietnamese American diaspora and Vietnam is still dubious. For example, unlike their Asian American peers, many Vietnamese American businesses have not directly engage in foreign trade with their homeland. By some accounts, Vietnamese tend to see business ownership as a means to control their destiny, where freedom is an important factor in redeeming their war/refugee experiences, perhaps to the fact that direct engagement with Vietnam depends on the current Vietnamese government’s willingness to reform its “state capitalism” and “illiberal democracy.”
Notwithstanding, the U.S. lifting of the trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 has allowed various foodstuffs from the homeland to appear on the Vietnamese American diasporic shelves. In turn, there seems to be a transnational innovation of Vietnamese American cuisines gradually emerging, where Vietnamese American entrepreneurs set out to create particular foodstuffs to recapture the flavors of their youth or continue their family heritage. For example, the owner of Indochine Estates Coffee, in pursuit of using the finest coffee grown in Vietnam, has returned to his hometown of Datlat to utilize his grandfather’s coffee harvest (Bourbon Arabica beans) of which before his return had been sold solely to coffee traders. The company also incorporates quality beans from Ban Me Thuot region, where it has “ vested interest in paying fairly for its coffee” and “pledge to pay at least 10% above market price.”
Moreover, a transnational route for Vietnamese American foodstuffs to enter Vietnam has emerged. One route has been to register a private company within Vietnam. This has been done by the owner of Highlands Coffee, who now has more than 80 coffee shops since opening in 1998 and who has in mind to improve “ the quality of life for Vietnam’s rising middle class.” Another route has been for well established Vietnamese American food franchises to open new stores in Vietnam, usually with a local partner or another foreign partner in Vietnam. This has been done by the owner of Lee’s Sandwiches whose focus is on its coffee, where “the beans are from Vietnam, but the coffee itself is made in America and shipped to Vietnam to ensure the distinct Lee’s Coffee taste.” Overall, the doors for transnational foodways – bold fusion of transnational Vietnamese foods from Vietnamese America and Vietnam becoming tomorrow’s classic – are opened wider than ever before.
But whether the fusion of transnational Vietnamese foods is a good marker for potential reconciliation between the two sides remains to be seen. Instead, as noted by one study, in post-socialist Vietnam everyday activities such as eating and drinking are creating new mode of political behavior, “not an active politics of dissent but rather an irreversible wave of non-state imaginaries which are changing the ideological landscape.” So that, for today’s Vietnamese American diaspora, if they perceive that such imaginaries include a reduce role of the one-party state, then the transnational route for its foodstuffs to enter Vietnam will likely become wide and deep.