One step, two steps, a stumble.
The toddler waddles her way across the street, towards metal carts with pots of steaming broth, fresh noodles, warm baguettes, and fragrant herbs. Greeting the vendor with a familiar grin, she plops down and happily devours the noodle soup.
That’s one of my first memories as a toddler: a never-ending stream of rain and mopeds on unpaved streets, a never-ending stream of faces in the crowd, and a gathering of the faces I loved around a rickety table. And in the middle — piping hot bowls of phở, wrappers from bánh mì (baguettes), or plates of bánh xèo (savoury pancakes). My family’s restaurants were never out of reach; there on the street, I would savor food made by neighbors, by family, by loved ones. Congested streets and stuffy air faded away, defeated by the sublime dishes cooked right outside the vendors’ houses and diffused with the same dedication and love they put into meals for their own families. That’s one of the charming phenomenons of my motherland that I miss most: “street food” was almost synonymous with home-cooked food. With each bite, there was laughter, teasing, gossip, snot, and tears (reminder: toddler). There, at the intersection of crossroads, lies the intersection of my life with those I loved, and those I would meet and come to love. The wobbly plastic stools, the smoke from vehicles — sure, it wasn’t fine dining, not in the slightest, but the memories that those dishes gifted me is something I would never trade, not even for the finest gastronomy in the world.
Phở. I don’t believe this requires much of an explanation; it is the one dish that flashes in our minds at the mention of Vietnamese cuisine. There’s no doubt that it is one of — if not, the — quintessential Viet comfort food. Nothing quite compares to the contentment brought by hot broth warming up your throat, satisfying slurps of chewy noodles, and bright notes of sweet herbs.
Bánh mì. The ultimate Vietnamese “fast food.” Baguettes filled with barbecued or cold meats (or for me, tofu), generously lathered with sauces and liver paste, and stuffed with pickled carrots, daikon, and cilantro. The salty-sweet combination of thick cuts of protein and tangy veggies on buttery toasted bread? Sorry, Subway.
Bánh xèo. Literally, “sizzling cake.” Shrimp or pork, bean sprouts, mung beans, and herbs, wrapped in crispy rice batter. Vietnamese pancakes, Vietnamese crepes — whatever you call them, they are bound to satisfy the savoury breakfast cravings.
These foods that bring back memories of my childhood are native to Vietnamese culture, but all three are widely imprinted with French influences. As Vietnam was once colonized by France, aspects of the French culture have left their mark on Vietnam’s, such as the language (the romanization from Chinese-based characters was completed by a Frenchman) and, of course, the cuisine. French roots are even embedded in phở’s name; the dish is pronounced “fuh,” almost exactly like the French word feu in pot-au-feu (“pot-on-fire”), which references the French dish that requires an extended amount of time to stew and boil bone broth to arrive at the same deeply aromatic flavor iconic in phở. Bánh mì, meanwhile, became a classic in using some of the classics of France’s cuisine: the baguette and liver pâté. And bánh xèo is quite literally the Vietnamese version of the thin French crêpe, but with savoury fillings. These foods, these emblems of Vietnamese cuisine, in fact nest emblems of another culture. The realization strikes me every time, serving as a reminder of the extent of colonization and its everlasting effects. And as I grew up, I realized that influence has made its mark on me; my passion for French culture pushes me to pursue French studies in college. Although I have left Vietnam, I am ironically almost a product of that cultural colonization and influence — a reflection of the very dishes I adore.
The rest of my adolescence passed in Arizona, where heat and intensity permeated the air, but vanished from non-native cultural cuisines. At the restaurants, I grimaced at broth from packaged containers, leftover mushy noodles, and week-old bread. Gone was the vibrant street life, gone was the time loved ones spent together. Everything became entangled in the whirlwind of work and school. Thankfully, the latter brought me here to the south, where I have found a refreshing change of atmosphere. I’d chosen Georgia, attracted by Emory’s diversity in thought; instead, I fell for Atlanta’s diversity in spirit. What originally struck me as a rusty, monochromatic city soon became a bustling center of life. I was fortunate enough to visit cultural events and centers along Duluth and especially Buford Highway (I actually inhabit Buford more often than my own dorm room). The means through which I was able to better understand and explore these places were the restaurants and the food. As I sit around tables with friends and professors, laughing and conversing as we savor heavenly hot pots, Korean rice cakes, or even boba tea, I am reminded of the power of food to bring people together, to establish or strengthen our relationships with one another, to create experiences and memories. In the end, “we are what we eat” — and who would we be without our memories, experiences, and connections?
I hope the Noodle class will help us to further create such connections with the food topics, the cultures, and especially with each other. As for me, I will continue midnight restaurant-hopping my way down Buford (phở tastes especially exquisite at 2 a.m.), and with people I cherish. After all, there’s still so much left of Atlanta to discover — and I cannot wait to take yet another one step, two steps, and stumble across something wonderful.