Venn Food Diagrams: L.A.'s Idea of Vietnamese Food vs. What Vietnamese Really Eat
Our Venn Food Diagrams so far have compared and contrasted, elementary-school-style, what Angelenos believe Southerners, Indians, and Armenians eat to what these populations actually eat, respectively. For this lesson involving overlapping circles, we look at how accurately Angelenos view Vietnamese food.
Moral of the story: Angelenos' conception of Vietnamese food is broadly limited to phở, bánh mì sandwiches, spring rolls, and Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá). Angelenos may do well in looking past the bowls of phở and exploring the rest of the menu the next time they're at a Vietnamese restaurant.
Methodology: An entirely unscientific poll was taken amongst relatives, friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, Facebook friends, and random strangers who happened to overhear our conversations. Similar to past Venn Food Diagrams, this infographic by no means captures all of Los Angeles' conception of Vietnamese food, nor does it encompass the entirety of the culture's cuisine.
Conclusion: The Vietnam War brought an influx of Vietnamese to the United States, particularly to Southern California, but save for a few star dishes that managed to cross cultural boundaries, Vietnamese cuisine as a whole still is something of a mystery to most Angelenos. This is not entirely surprising: though a number of Vietnamese restaurants opened in L.A. proper over the past year or so (Xoia, Red Medicine), these restaurants tend to feature Vietnamese-influenced dishes rather than the more traditional foods you would find at your typical Vietnamese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley or Little Saigon. Based on our survey results, Angelenos are just beginning to explore the great and varied world of Vietnamese cuisine.
- The neat divisions in the diagram belie a slightly more complicated response pattern. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a clear difference between the answers from non-Asian Angelenos and non-Vietnamese Asian Angelenos. Non-Asian Angelenos' idea of Vietnamese food largely was limited to phở, bánh mì, spring rolls, and cà phê sữa đá. Non-Vietnamese Asian Angelenos were far more likely to be familiar with a greater breadth of Vietnamese foods, including bún bò Huế, bánh xèo, bánh hỏi, and bánh bèo.
- That said, many Angeleno answers like bun (vermicelli noodles), seven courses of beef, cà phê sữa đá, and egg rolls were not wrong. These are just not consumed as often as Angelenos believe.
- Another popular misconception concerns phở and/or bun; namely, that Vietnamese people eat one or both of these at every meal. But, as Cathy Chaplin pointed out, "In actuality, rice is our carb of choice." A variety of rice dishes -- com suon nuong (rice with grilled pork chops), for example -- is far more likely to be found on a Vietnamese dinner table than steaming bowls of phở.
- Phở nonetheless was the most common answer for all those surveyed. However, certain nuances were evident. Only non-Asian Angelenos specified vegetarian or tofu phở. On the other side of the chart, Kat Nguyen put it best when she said, simply, "We [Vietnamese] know how to order it." For example, she sometimes requests "phở nước béo" - phở with an extra fatty broth for added flavor.
- Many Angelenos named "nước chấm", that ubiquitous dipping sauce made with fish sauce, water, lime juice, vinegar, and sugar. In contrast, most of the Vietnamese surveyed listed fish sauce generally (nước mắm), a pungent and very salty condiment that, when tasted alone, invokes a response almost as strong as a first timer's reaction to the smell of durian.
- Everyone listed bánh mì, though Angelenos were referring to the popular Vietnamese sandwich. Vietnamese respondents distinguished between the sandwich and the bread itself (also called bánh mì), often toasted and served alongside condensed milk for dipping and a fried egg or two.
- Homey dishes were the third-most popular foods amongst Vietnamese (after phở and bánh mì). These dishes include canh (soups with assorted meats and seafood), thit kho (braised pork), and fish (fully a quarter of the dishes Nguyen Tran (Starry Kitchen) rattled off in his response involved fish in some shape or form).
- Nguyen Tran also noted that it is very common for Vietnamese to go to a restaurant for just one specific item, so it helps to know the restaurant's best known dish. Another Vietnamese surveyed echoed that statement, helpfully pointing out that several Vietnamese restaurants (i.e., Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa) name themselves after their specialty.
To dive into Vietnamese cuisine, then, we suggest that you do as the Vietnamese do: go to, say, Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa, with a family of friends and relatives. Order the restaurant's namesake dish. Fine, order a bowl of phở if you must, but supplement that bowl with a few other dishes to share. To quote a stranger who jumped in our conversation, "Phở? That's just the beginning."