Last year while cycling around Europe, I shared meals with people in 15 countries. Sometimes plates of food appeared without effort from me. Sometimes I was at the stove combining whatever ingredients I had in my panniers along with whatever my hosts had in their pantries. The results were unremarkable: pasta, fried rice, that kind of thing. During longer stays, I was often asked to make “something Vietnamese.” Vietnamese people and cuisine are scarce outside of France and cities in the former Eastern Bloc, such as Berlin, Krakow, and Prague. Many of my hosts wanted me to give them their first taste of Vietnam.
What could I make to represent a country that I have never been to?
The thing I cooked most often was “ca ri ga” or Vietnamese chicken curry. The Vietnamese version of this popular Asian dish features sweet potatoes and bone-in chicken. It is mild, soup-like, fragrant with lemongrass and ginger, topped with cilantro, and eaten with a fresh-baked French baguette. It is not my favorite Vietnamese dish or the most iconic. Ask an average American to describe Vietnamese cuisine and they would say, “pho” — rice noodle soup with beef broth — or “banh mi” — the ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwich. Those who frequent Vietnamese homes or restaurants might mention “goi cuon” — fresh salad rolls, “banh xeo” — sizzling crepes — or one of my favorites, “bun cha gio” – cold rice vermicelli topped with deep-fried spring rolls, served with fresh herbs, and a generous splash of garlic-lime fish sauce.
Ca ri does not come to mind. Maybe because it lacks a couple key elements that mark Vietnamese cuisine: the first being rice. So beloved is this ingredient that the phrase for dinner is “an com,” literally: eat rice. Jasmine rice can be difficult to find. The myriad of other rice products –– rice paper, rice flour, rice noodles — even harder. “Hung que” (Asian basil), “rau ram” (Vietnamese coriander), and the other fresh herbs that are used generously in Vietnamese dishes (especially from the South) are virtually impossible.
The reason I chose ca ri ga is because it can be made anywhere. Ginger, cilantro, and baguettes are widely available. Even a market with a tiny Asian section (picture: instant noodles, soy sauce, and frozen “wok” vegetables) has cans of coconut milk and curry powder.
Ca ri ga is also flexible. For the vegetarian, tofu is swapped with chicken. When tofu isn’t available, an extra portion of veggies is heaped into the pot. Soy sauce can take the place of fish sauce. White potatoes used instead of sweet. Rice will do if a suitable baguette can’t be found. Fresh lemongrass, so central to the flavor, presents the greatest challenge, but I have found it frozen in Chinese markets, dried as a spice or tea, or growing wild by the road (Portugal only).
Most of the time, the final product is only a shadow of the ca ri ga of my childhood. When I cook a Vietnamese dish, the goodness, the authenticity, is measured by one thing: does it or does it not taste as good as my mother’s cooking? More often than not, that answer is “no.”
However, only I am unsatisfied. My ca ri was well received in England, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland, Austria, and Portugal. For my hosts, asking for “something Vietnamese,” meant asking for is a taste of the unfamiliar, something that represents a cultural heritage that differs from their own, something from my experience. When they prepare food, they are sharing a part of themselves with me. It is in this exchange where the true measure of goodness and authenticity can be found.
My mother was just a young teenager when she arrived in Seattle. She and her sister, Di Van, are talented cooks. When Di Van’s kids visited Vietnam, they were disappointed by the food, declaring that our mothers cooked better.
Every day, every spin of my wheels brings me just a bit closer to finding out for myself. I wonder how much of my Vietnam I will share along the way.
Amie Thao is cycling 15,000 miles across Europe and Asia to document people, food, and stories. Follow along at www.internationalsupperclub.org.