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rice and baguette

24 january 2017

Vu Hong Lien's Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam actually begins "Humankind has existed for millions of years, in different forms …" (10) – for all the world like the stereotypical bewildered-freshman essay. But there is method behind the very long view that Lien adopts.

Rice and Baguette uses a history of Vietnam, from its earliest human habitation to the present, as a framework for presenting the elements of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. Rice, as the title indicates, has pride of place and historical priority. Vietnam lies in the middle of the prehistoric range of wild Asian rice, and was one of the first places where rice was cultivated. Pork followed, and remains important. Other primary features of the Vietnamese diet were also first cultivated in Southeast Asia: chickens, bananas, and mangoes. Lien makes much of molluscs as a primeval ingredient, but here of course we have to be alert to the artifacts of archeology. Fish-eating, for instance leaves no trace, but shell middens are present wherever people lived near a source of molluscs; thus naturally it will look as if ancient cultures survived on oysters and snails. Even so, there are typical Vietnamese dishes that depend on invertebrates, including bún with paddy crabs, various cockle dishes, and many a snail and insect delicacy. Clearly these tiny creatures have been in culinary service for millennia.

Honestly, the historical background in Rice and Baguette sometimes feels like padding. We zoom off along the Silk Road or into the dynastic politics of China, and the eventual payoff in terms of understanding Vietnamese foodways can be minimal. Connections between an era of history and its impact on cuisine are highly inferential. On the other hand, a discussion of possible trade connections between the classical Roman fermented fish sauce garum and the Vietnamese nước mắm (87-91) is intriguing if undecidable. And Lien's book is better as it comes closer to the well-documented present.

Chinese influence was felt largely in the north of what is today Vietnam, and Lien argues that significant regional differences persist: north vs. south, urban vs. rural, ethnic Viet vs. minorities. The diversity of a large and ancient country comes out vividly in Rice and Baguette.

If the impact of centuries of Chinese hegemony must largely be inferred from its traces in Vietnamese foodways, the more recent French colonial presence leaves an continual, visible presence. French influences give Rice and Baguette the second element of its title. Light, crispy baguettes are the basis for bánh mì, the national sandwich of Vietnam. Tinned Bretel butter and Laughing Cow cheese are quintessentially Vietnamese, according to Lien. And even phở, the soup so ubiquitous that the word features in the names of most Vietnamese-American restaurants, seems to have a French etymology. The best guess for the origin of the word phở is from French feu, referring to the open fire beneath the stockpots carried around by street vendors.

Americans and Russians too had their neo-colonial days in Vietnam, but have left fewer culinary traces. Conversely, however, Vietnamese food has had considerable impact in the United States. Phở and bún, at least in Arlington, Texas, are strip-mall offerings as standard as burgers and fajitas. Both are so far within my comfort-food zone that I confess to not exploring the menu at my local, Pho Palace, very energetically. It's either #10 phở or #79 bún for me and has been for 15 years now. Lien's Rice and Baguette gives me some encouragement to branch out.

Lien, Vu Hong. Rice and Baguette: A history of food in Vietnam. London: Reaktion, 2016.