Before I went to Vietnam last December, my knowledge of their cuisine mainly consisted of fresh spring rolls or some sort of stir-fry. But by the time I finished my first steaming bowl of phò gà on a bustling Saigon morning, I was hooked. And although I clumsily battled with the chopsticks in my attempts to lift the slippery noodles into my mouth—while ignoring giggles from other diners—I savored every slurp and bite.
As we passed through the town of Da Lat and rural villages tucked away in the rainforest, my friends and I began almost every day of our trip with a hearty bowl phò and glass of café su a da, which is basically strong coffee poured over ice and condensed milk. But we also enjoyed such Vietnamese delights as báhn mì baguette sandwiches served by street-side vendors, grilled pork (thÎt nuóng), and of course, several varieties of fresh spring rolls (gòi cuón).
We also stopped in the charming coastal city of Me Nui, where we sampled an assortment of seafood, including shark, clams, boiled crabs, and squid. After sharing dishes with each other and sipping our Tiger beers, chilled by a giant cube of ice, we suddenly found ourselves incredibly full and almost surprised by how much seafood we had eaten.
Given our burgeoning affinity for Vietnamese cuisine, it made perfect sense to take a cooking class while in Saigon. Our skilled instructor taught us how to make papaya salad with pork and shrimp (g iÇu Çû tôm thÎt), caramelized fish in a clay pot (cá kho tô), grilled pork slices (thÎt nuóng), and Vietnamese spring rolls (chä giò) with fish sauce (nuóc mæm). Although each dish required special cooking ware—and some skill—we were soon facing a mouth-watering Vietnamese feast. The eclectic menu that we created was a wonderful way to enjoy a variety of the country's bold cuisine.
After the long flight home, I stepped into the MSY airport already craving more Vietnamese food and culture. Fortunately, from Ba Mien and Kim Son, to Pho Tau Bay, New Orleans happens to host a slew of Vietnamese restaurants.
The strong presence of this popular cuisine is partially due to the thriving Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, which began to take shape in 1975. The Vietnamese seeking sanctuary from the war found solace in New Orleans, but since the ingredients necessary to create their dishes from home did not exist in the city, the self-sustaining community began to grow produce in their own backyards.
Fr. Vien Nguyen, an esteemed Catholic priest and community activist, explains how these farms originated. "Eating American food was difficult," he says. So the people utilized the available land in New Orleans East to grow produce. They set up sites along the banks of the Maxent Lagoon, which provides the water source that is necessary for growing crops. In addition to the backyard farms, Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation, Inc. purchased property large enough to accommodate all of the gardeners.
The produce grown on these farms is sold at a farmer's market, located on Alcee Fortier Blvd, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., on Saturday mornings. Vendors offer a variety of herbs, vegetables, fruit—including the exotic Dragon Fruit—poultry, and seafood. "The food is either caught or grown by people within the community," notes Fr. Vien.
According to Fr. Vien, "500 to 1000 people would visit the markets." But since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, the numbers have decreased.
Chef John Besh, a strong supporter of the urban farms and local markets, uses the ingredients to create the dishes, sometimes Vietnamese-inspired, served in his popular restaurants. When he visits the markets on Saturday mornings, he selects fresh herbs, such as cilantro, dill, and coriander, along with anything else that catches his eye.
"The Vietnamese have had a quiet impact on the way that we eat," says Besh. He notes their strong presence in the shrimping industry and long line fishing, which are both family run businesses.
But Besh's affinity for Vietnamese cuisine extends beyond the flavorful ingredients. He recalls working with Vietnamese cooks at an early age. "It was the first time I was ever exposed to that style of cooking," recalls Besh. "They used whatever they had around the restaurant to create purely traditional Vietnamese inspired food."
When discussing the uniqueness of Vietnamese cuisine, Besh notes the way the flavors complement each other. Whether the dish is salty, sweet, or bitter, it is offset by the use of fresh herbs. All of this equates into a perfectly balanced dish. And many of the dishes are healthy. By building flavor through the use of vinegar, sugar, salt, fresh herbs, and fish sauce, "You can depend less on fat and have a flavorful dish," he explains.
Phò, for example, consists of chicken or beef broth, thinly sliced meat, noodles, and a generous serving of savory greens. Fresh spring rolls are wrapped in a clear rice paper, allowing diners to see the ingredients tucked inside. And since many of their stir fry dishes are created in a small wok, they use a minimal amount of oil.
But aside from the cuisine, Besh is also drawn to the Vietnamese community because of their pride in family tradition, faith, and work ethic. Their strong connections with each other, and loyalty to their values, are true New Orleans' characteristics. "The strength and the faith of the family, along with the work ethic, all ties into one," he says.
By attending family gatherings of Vietnamese friends and becoming exposed to their rich culture, Besh witnessed the evolution of New Orleans and its cuisine.
"It has never been at a standstill," Besh says. He cites the popularity of Vietnamese po' boys and bubble tea, which have become favorites in the New Orleans' food scene, as an examples.
When I met with Fr. Vien and Chef John Besh at Ba Mien Restaurant, we sampled such delectable dishes as steamed rolls with grilled pork (bánh cuÓn thÎt nuông), rice with stir-fried beef and vegetables (cóm rau xàu thÎt gà), and lemongrass chicken (gà xào sä §t), while discussing the Vietnamese culture's impact on New Orleans.
Fr. Vien and Besh have developed a strong friendship over the years and share the same goal of enhancing the urban farms. Besh believes that the reason for supporting these farms and the Alcee Fortier market is quite clear. "Why not put money into the local economy? We should support our fishermen and our community."
In terms of developing the urban farms, Besh believes that "there is still so much potential." Though Fr. Vien noted that they have run into obstacles, they are now "moving into a new direction." They are ready to make an impactful change in the way that people view urban farming, and agriculture in general.
The Vietnamese community was pushed into the spotlight after Katrina, and in a way, they have had to embrace everyone else. But Fr. Vien viewed the storm as a chance to bring the community together. Because of the recovery efforts from Mary Queen of Viet Nam, and Fr. Vien's steadfast leadership, community members came together.
And Besh agrees. "We all needed a champion. We all needed a leader. And it was Fr. Vien."
Fresh Spring Rolls
Fresh spring rolls are an easy appetizer for beginners to prepare. Ba Mien generously provided the recipe below.
- Pork (your favorite cut)
- Shrimp (unpeeled)
- Herbs—Mint, Cilantro,Basil
- Sliced Cucumber (optional)
- Vermicelli Rice Noodles
- Rice Paper
- 1 tbs finely diced shallots
- 1 tbs finely diced garlic
- Hoison Sauce
- Peanut Butter
- Water (optional)
- Hot Sauce (optional)
- Crushed Roasted Peanuts (optional)
* Components of the rolls are prepared ahead of time and rolled when ready to eat.
- Boil the pork and shrimp separately in salted water. Let pork rest when cooked. Peel and slice shrimp in half then set aside. Slice pork thinly then set aside. Cook vermicelli per packaging instructions. Wash and dry lettuce and herbs.
- To make dipping sauce, start by sautéing shallots and garlic with two tablespoons of oil in a sauce pan until translucent. Add two parts hoison sauce to one part peanut butter and mix well over medium-low heat. Add water slowly and mix well to achieve desired consistency. Spoon sauce into individual bowls. Add a hot sauce like Sriracha for a more intense flavor. Garnish with peanuts if desired.
- Dip rice paper in a bowl of lukewarm water, removing excess water, and place on a plate. Paper and plastic plates should be avoided to prevent excess sticking. Place shrimp and pork horizontally on the rice paper near the bottom edge of the rice paper. Follow with vermicelli then greens. Fold rice paper over vertically on both sides. Starting with the bottom edge, roll upward, making sure to keep constant pressure for a firm roll. Dip your roll in peanut sauce and enjoy!