Seeking the ultimate comfort food

 |  May 30, 2011

I enjoy Vietnamese food wherever I can find it, even when the food that’s put in front of me is far from authentic. Close enough is often good enough; I’ve learnt to compromise when I need a fix. I was born in Australia so in many ways I’m more Australian than I am Vietnamese, but one of the strongest links I have to my cultural heritage is the abiding love of the cuisine that my parents raised me on. I learnt how to use chopsticks to eat from a small bowl of rice before I learnt how to use a knife and fork to eat steak and baked potatoes. So the taste of Vietnamese food is deeply familiar to me, inextricably linked to my home, family and culture.

It goes without saying that the best Vietnamese food is found in the country of its origin. On recent trips to Vietnam I’ve had some incredible culinary experiences, especially as my relatives in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) know where to find the best of everything; the best banh mi (bread), the best pho bo (beef noodle soup), the best banh bao (steamed pork bun). The food I eat in Vietnam is the kind of food I never tire of and have eaten thousands of times already, such as banh cuon (rice noodle rolls) and bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with grilled pork). On a work trip to Hanoi recently I had steaming pho on the street for breakfast followed by a substantial lunch of bun cha (rice vermicelli with grilled pork and fresh greens) and nem cua be (deep fried crab rolls) in the Old City. And as if that wasn’t enough food for a day, I decided to have a late night bowl of bun rieu cua (rice vermicelli soup with crab paste) before calling it a night.

Since I started travelling, I’ve had Vietnamese food in places that are very far from the source: cities such as Berlin, London, Montreal, Oslo, Paris and Tokyo. In each of these places, the Vietnamese food has varied in quality so some were good, while others were great. Part of the variation is due to the cold climates which do not easily yield the essential ingredients that make Vietnamese food what it is, like lemongrass, mint and basil, which grow so easily around the Mekong Delta. The refugees that left after the Vietnam War, my parents included, ended up all over the globe. They settled wherever they were accepted and many ended up in places that didn’t even exist in their imaginations; like small towns in Jutland, Denmark or a refugee camp in Arkansas in America’s South.

The Vietnamese food that I know best is the kind that’s found in Australia, and given the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who live there, it is easy to find authentically recreated food because many of the necessary ingredients can grow well in Australia. In fact, some of the dishes are arguably even better because of the ingredient quality. So classic Vietnamese dishes like bo luc lac (wok-seared ‘shaking’ beef) are particularly good in Australia and Australian beef is famous for a reason.

But what about Thailand, and a city like Chiang Mai, which enjoys a much more similar climate to Vietnam and has a lot of the same ingredients, though used in a different way. How does Vietnamese food here turn out? Well, the Vietnamese food I’ve had here isn’t completely authentic but it is unmistakably Vietnamese in its spirit. Although the ingredients tend to be quite Thai-like, there is still an emphasis on freshness and raw vegetables which is very Vietnamese. One dish worth singling out here is what Thais here call nem nuong, the rice paper rolls that you roll yourself. It goes by a different name in Vietnamese (goi cuon), but it’s pretty close to the real thing; the main thing which makes it taste less than authentic is actually the sauce. Here, what affects the way Vietnamese food turns out here is that Thais have particular taste sensations they’re drawn to – in this case, sweetness – that are not found in Vietnamese food in the same way. The dipping sauces you find in Vietnamese restaurants here are often quite sweet, whereas Vietnamese people favour more savoury sauces. But it’s not surprising that the food has been changed to suit local tastes. It’s much like the way Thai food is usually toned down to suit western palettes.

Here in Chiang Mai, I’ve eaten most often at the ‘My Vietnamese Food’ restaurants, and apparently it’s owned by a woman who is half Thai and half Vietnamese. Perhaps that says it all in terms of fusion. But at this point I should probably confess that I don’t go out of my way to have Vietnamese food here in Chiang Mai, opting to have something every month or two instead. So it could well be the case that amongst the restaurants here, perhaps there is a hidden gem with food so much like my mother’s cooking it would make my heart burst; but it’s unlikely. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about this! The only place I’ve found in Thailand which feels like real Vietnamese food to me is not here in Chiang Mai, but in Bangkok: a restaurant called Xuan Mai on Thonglor, which is Soi 55 off Sukhumvit Road. If you feel like good Vietnamese food next time you’re down that way, I recommend popping in. The women who runs it is Vietnamese and an ex-FBI agent who has since retired from the force and turned chef.

But I’m speaking as though Vietnamese and Thai food are worlds apart. In fact, they aren’t, and so many times while eating Thai food in Chiang Mai, I find remarkable similarities, particularly with any food that has a Chinese connection. There are obviously shared origins because of the Southern Chinese populations that migrated to South East Asia. Kanom jeen is a lot like bun rieu. The ubiquitous pad tai recently struck me as being a lot like hu tieu xao (stir-fried rice noodles). And a very popular southern Vietnamese dish is canh chua (sour soup), which is arguably is a tempered version of tom yum, subtler in flavour than its fiery Thai counterpart.

Other similarities I’ve found is the everyday food that forms a normal part of Thai diets. Rice with stir fried gourds with eggs, vegetable soups, fried chicken and pork ribs; these dishes are much like the everyday diets of Vietnamese people. This ‘peasant’ food comes out of living close to the land and making do with what’s available and in season. It’s interesting that even though humans have done a lot of exciting things with food since, peasant food stays in fashion because it’s the ultimate comfort food.

On the whole, relatively few Vietnamese people have found a home in South East Asia outside of Vietnam. Some ended up in nearby countries after the war because of the refugee camps here, but the end goal wasn’t to swap living in one poor and unsafe situation for another. So the lack of a sizeable Vietnamese population in Thailand does mean that there aren’t a whole lot of people here who know the cuisine well enough to be able to recreate it in an authentic fashion. Yet Vietnamese food is still extremely popular here because just like many other cuisines, Thai included, the food has travelled even further than the population itself.