Education About Asia

Making Sense of Vietnamese Cuisine

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“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are.”

(Brillat-Savarine, a French gastronome)

We live in an exciting culinary era. Food is not only extremely abundant in the West, but also more varied than ever before. Any Western metropolis features a huge array of ethnic restaurants from all corners of the earth, while the presence of Italian, Greek, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, or Thai restaurants in most American towns is almost taken for granted. Chinese food is so common in America that members of other ethnic groups, New York Jews for example, conceive of it as part of their own culinary heritage. (note 1)

Yet how familiar are we with foods from other ethnic groups? Are we genuinely flexible, open minded, and experienced when it comes to the food we eat? Sociologists Alan Warde and Lydia Martens, who studied “eating out” in the UK, found that “only 20 percent of the people had experience of three or more different cuisines, while 48 percent had never eaten in an ethnic restaurant in the last twelve months.” (note 2) And when Britons do opt for ethnic restaurants, almost half of them (47 percent) order only dishes with which they are already familiar. (note 3) While Americans are more accustomed to ethnic fare, it seems that beyond a narrow echelon of highly educated cosmopolitans, many are only vaguely acquainted with ethnic foods.

The most demeaning way to refer to the food of others is to argue that “they eat everything,” implying a lack of moral, cultural, and esthetic standards and, that they, therefore, are not fully human.