Using Food to Celebrate Our Differences

Just the other day I had an article published in Vietnamese in Tuoi Tre Newspaper about the differences in west and east in terms of food and shopping.  That version was based on the following article that has posted online in English.   Here is the link and the text follows.

Food is the perfect medium for us to both celebrate and bridge our cultural differences.  Whether we hail from Vietnam, The United States, Germany or beyond, food is the one constant near and dear to all our hearts.  A meal showcasing the best of a local culture is a great way to open dialogue between people of different backgrounds.

The journey ingredients make from market to plate is one of the more noticeable differences between Vietnam and my native America.   While some of the meats, fruits and vegetables are found in either country, any similarities end here, for each country cooks up its own distinct flavor.

Back home my fellow Americans are likely to shop once a week in a large air conditioned supermarket.  Groceries arriving home in plastic bags are transferred to large pantries, refrigerators and freezers for use in the upcoming week.   These groceries consuming a good portion of the household budget are generally frozen, processed or canned.

Much to my surprise and delight, Vietnam’s street market culture has opened my Western eyes to the value of freshness and daily shopping.   The wide selection of fruits and vegetables laid out in narrow shophouses exudes freshness and is such a refreshing change from prepackaged items in the average Western grocery store.
Shopping fresh every day would prove time consuming and laborious to a Western person leading a hectic life, yet I notice many Vietnamese value this time honored tradition.

Whether we shop Vietnamese or Western style, the preparation of the actual meal showcases the uniqueness of our cultures as well.   American food stereotypically plates up on the heavier side with large pieces of grilled or oven baked meats paired with a starch, such as bread and potatoes.   Smaller bite size pieces typify the average Vietnamese stir fry, with rice the ubiquitous base.  Perhaps one of the reasons for this difference is the Western use of knife and fork versus chopsticks and a spoon.

I will go out on a limb here and posit that the average American is more likely to use a convenience food rather than cook from scratch.   Anything other than cooked from scratch seems a foreign concept here in Vietnam.  How many of us expats have been so proud to prepare a “home cooked” meal of jarred spaghetti sauce and packaged noodles pulled out of a kitchen cabinet?

Were we to apply the Vietnamese approach to our Western cooking, that ten minute spaghetti meal would morph into many hours of careful preparation, starting with a visit to the market to buy flour for the noodles and fresh vine ripe tomatoes for the sauce.

Indeed, we Westerners seek out ease and efficiency and would prefer everything done at lightning speed.   Vietnamese on the other hand value tradition, and if food takes hours to prepare, so be it.  For example, the flavorful broth we enjoy with our steaming bowls of pho is a recipe shared by generations of cooks before us.  Many people still spend hours boiling bones to impart deep color and rich flavors for the perfect taste.   Buying a can of chicken stock at the grocery store surely would save a day’s worth of preparation, but something factory-made can never compare to the freshest and most natural of ingredients turned into delicious food by our very own hands.

Neither approach is wrong, for we are products of our environment and upbringings.  Celebrating our differences with local food is such a delicious avenue to better understand each other.  Indeed, time spent at our neighbor’s table conquers cultural gaps that could normally leave us confused and scratching our heads in amazement.

For me, my taste of Vietnam has left an impression of deep textures, rich colors, and bold flavors so different from the predictability back home.  I am thankful to have one foot in both worlds.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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