Ten years ago it wasn’t a possibility. Five years ago the sheer passage of time, the children of Vietnamese immigrants having grown up, made it likely and now, here we are, Vietnamese food is finding a comfortable niche in American culinary choices, right alongside Thai and Korean. Many Americans now know what phở is – and even how approximately to pronounce it – bánh mì is on the menu of my local sub shop, and to American taste, nuoc cham is addictive.
These children of refugees are keeping their traditional names, too, so Americans are learning how to pronounce “Nguyen” and not to think there is anything strange about someone of that name speaking English with no accent. Vietnamese chefs Thai Dang and Viet Pham have competed on Iron Chef America making their traditional food with a contemporary edge. The late actress and restauranteur Hiep Thi Le competed on Chopped.
The parents of this generation came to the United States in desperation, often with extraordinary stories to tell, and found a voice in that profoundly diplomatic language – food. They tell their stories in the flavors of their home country or the ways in which they combine the flavors they find in their adopted country. They mix tastes – sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter – and textures and a refinement they are now free to explore. And meanwhile, now that prosperity has returned to Vietnam, food is no longer scarce, and chefs now have a certain celebrity, there is Iron Chef Vietnam.
Maybe these are the sure signs, and for my generation they are signs of hope, that the word “Vietnam” is no longer necessarily followed by “War.”