A Memoir Introduces Vietnamese Food

Vietnamese Food book cover
Destination: Vietnam

Book: Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam (2010) by Kim Fay, Photos by Julie Fay Ashborn

 

“It is not a cookbook,” the author cautioned me.  When I was talking to Kim Fay, the author of Map of Lost Memories, I had slipped and called Communion, her memoir of an exploration of food in Vietnam, a cookbook.  In my defense, it does include a few recipes. But she is right, Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam is much broader in its concept than a cookbook.

Somehow, although we have some reportedly good Vietnamese restaurants in Tucson, and I love related Thai and Cambodian food, I have never become familiar with Vietnamese cuisine.  Communion proves to be a good introduction for someone like me, but also provides a more in-depth exploration for people who have already dined on Vietnamese food and want to learn more–perhaps even try cooking a few dishes.

Vietnamese food author in Hue

Author and friend biking into Imperial City Citadel in Hue. Photo courtesy of Julie Fay Ashborn

This book is a delight to read. Kim Fay’s enthusiasm for all things Vietnamese shines on every page.  But unlike some enthusiasts, she is skillful at seeking out the details that help us understand her enthusiasm.  She sets out with her sister, photographer Julie Fay Ashborn, on a return to Vietnam, where she had lived earlier as an English teacher.  They meet up with one of her friends from her previous stay, Huong, who becomes their translator and adds a bit of local knowledge as they travel from Hanoi, to Hue (the former Imperial city), to Saigon, where Fay previously lived. They also make stops at Hoi An in the middle of the country; Nha Trang, on the sea; Dalat, in the highlands; and Phan Thiet, where they explore the art of fish sauce.

Vietnam food includes seafood.

Fishing boats, Phan Thiet, Photo courtesy of Julie Fay Ashborn.

At each of those stops they meet with famous chefs who help them understand the differences in regional Vietnamese food.  The menus get a little overwhelming for someone like me who is still trying to sort out various country’s in South East Asia–let alone regions of one country.  But it was delightful, and each chapter left me hungry to try something new.

Vietnamese Food, Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue, rice noodles, beef, pork and crab patties. This dish is called the soul of Hue. Photo courtesy of Julie Fay Ashborn

Fay’s writing kept me fascinated throughout the book as she so beautifully captured the country, the people,and of course the food.

She describes a midnight ride through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a motor bike.

We buzzed through the vacant streets, passing a lone food stall, where a woman stood over an aluminum pot that steamed in the warm night air.  The three plastic stools at her cart were empty.  I caught a whiff of the hot, nourishing broth that would be gone before dawn.  I had two favorite times in Vietnam. Very late at night and very early in the morning. Everyone is asleep. It is almost possible to remember what coolness eels like. The silence is so thick I can feel it on my skin.

Vientnamese food at a street cafe

A street Cafe in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Julie Fay Ashborn.

In Hue, the women visit a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. They are doubtful that a tourist place will live up to other restaurants but are pleasantly surprised.

Beneath us on the sidewalk, plastic tables from a child’s birthday party were being cleared away.  Silence rested patiently in the boughs of the tree next to us, like solemn little birds, waiting to take flight and fill the night air.  In just a few hours, I had fallen in love with Hue.  I sat back in my chair, content, looking at the walls of the restaurant, which were covered with graffiti.

I was particularly interested to hear about the effect of war and political upheavals on the people and their cuisine, and the vast difference between earlier restrictive Communist policies that left people starving with today’s more free-wheeling society that is awash with food and high-quality restaurants—and tourists.

From 1950 through the 80′s, restaurants –even street stalls–were considered bourgeois and therefore non-existent. Even eating well at home was suspect.  When the rules changed in the late 80′s, people flooded restaurants, and they still are appreciating their own food. She quotes an explanation of the effect of political change from an essay by Mandy Thomas, PhD.

“By eating in imaginative new ways, Vietnamese in Vietnam are resisting state control through the senses..[They] are eating out and choosing restaurants and foods as a way of marking out class and status.”

Fay comments

It is intriguing that a country can make a statement about what it is and what it wants simply by the way it eats.

 

The writing is terrific, the introduction to Vietnamese food and the reasons behind the development of the cuisine are all well done. Unfortunately, the production values of the book don’t live up to the writing and the photography.  The type is annoyingly small. Although the photos are well composed and subjects intriguing, the reproduction of pictures is frequently muddy. If you want to know what dish or exotic food the photo is showing you, you need to turn to the back of the book for a list of illustrations–no captions on the pages.  There is no index, which I consider a must in a book about food. There is a glossary in the back, which is helpful with all those unfamiliar names of dishes being introduced.

Nevertheless, any traveler to Vietnam, or stay-at-home who wants to try out Vietnamese food locally, would be well served by adding this culinary memoir to their traveler’s library. And who knows, you may decided to take a guided culinary tour of Vietnam and a cooking class while you are in Vietnam.

 

Vietnamese Food teacher Mrs. Cam Van

Mrs. Cam Van, Cooking teacher, Saigon, known as the Julia Child of Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Julie Fay Ashborn

 This book was provided by the author for review, with no expectations or requirements. My opinions,as always, are my own. Photos are credited above, and you can link to the attractive website of food photographer, Julie Fay Ashborn by clicking on the photos. Links to Amazon on this site are affiliate sites, here for your convenience, but also as a way to help support A Traveler’s Library. Thank you for shopping through those links.

 

Vera Marie Badertscher

Travel and lifestyle writer, wife, mother and grandmother. Publisher of A Traveler’s Library and Ancestors in Aprons>. Also co-authored a biography of Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


4 thoughts on “A Memoir Introduces Vietnamese Food

  1. I’ve been in Vietnam for a few years now. I guess I’m a bit young to have experienced the days when dining at a restaurant was considered “bourgeois”. I can kind of see it though – some of the remaining restaurant buildings from pre-mid-90s look slightly upscale in somewhat distasteful ways. This has all changed though. Trying new restaurants is a regular past-time for young Vietnamese people.

  2. Love the vietnamese cuisine … thanks for the book tip. A nice introduction to Vietnamese cooking and beyond. I recently went to Vietnam (Hoi An) just for a few days and experienced some very nice food there (I wrote on my blog about a few of the restaurants I visited – more fusion style nowadays).

  3. This review led me to recall visits to local markets and restaurants in Vietnam in the late sixties and early seventies — not too many civilian tourists around then, but the famous Continental Hotel tried to maintain colonial standards and you could get good food even in small restaurants and at foodstands –if you had the courage to try them. Food was not scare; there was an abundance in South Vietnam then. That may surprise some Americans. I remember the great variety of vegetables and seafood, including barrels of eels–you picked a juicy looking one and took it home writhing in a plastic bag. I ate cicken legs (and feet!) and delicious barbequed fish as a guest in our translator’s little house, but the one thing I couldn’t choke down was ducklings uncooked and swallowed directly out of the eggs. Bet they’re not serving those to the American tourists these days.

    1. Bro–you WOULD mention some of the most repelling parts of Vietnamese cuisine! You’ve reminded me of walking down Food Alley in HOng Kong and seeing the ponds of writing eels outside the restaurant door. I just kept walking.
      I think it is very interesting that food in South Vietnam was plentiful during the war and became so scarce under Communism.

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