A Philosophy of Food
When my parents told a Vietnamese-Canadian friend that they were going to Vietnam, but just to Hanoi, they were given a sympathetic look and told something like: I'm sorry to hear that; the food is so terrible in the North. Well it's not the starving 80s anymore. Time to get acquainted with the Hanoi Renaissance. The richness of the food culture here is not to be believed, and as you will know, I can't get enough.
The culinary riches of this city struck me especially after visiting China. I have always loved good Chinese food, but unfortunately most of the food I ate in China was mediocre. We had some great meals (Beijing duck and dumplings and hotpot in Shanghai), but these were the exceptions. The vast majority was nothing to write home (or blog) about. Of course we had no idea where to eat in the cities we visited, so maybe it's not entirely fair. But this leads me to my point. The food in Hanoi and most of Vietnam starts at good and only gets better. It would be very difficult to get a bad Vietnamese meal in Hanoi it seems to me. The wee hours of Saturday night were a perfect example. I squatted on a plastic stool on a deserted street near the Water Tower at 1:30am with a group of friends and vacuumed up some kind of noodle soup with pork ribs and winter greens. What should you reasonable expect at such an hour and in such setting? Of course it was fantastic. Or I wander up a unknown street north of my house in search of a new place to eat. I spot a grimy little neon lit room with people slurping up the advertised dish: My Van Than. Never had it before, have no idea what's in it (even when I'm eating it actually), but I step up, sit down and slurp along. You don't need a recommendation in this city to expect fantastic food. It seems just about any old joint will deliver.
But the hold of Hanoi's food on my imagination goes beyond taste. There is also something fascinating about it. I couldn't put my finger on what it gives it its grip until recently I read an article about Southeast Asian food blogs on a web site called Global Voices. In this article a fellow Hanoi blogger from Sticky Rice notes that Vietnamese food lends itself to "the yarn behind the food; the process of watching the food prepared or the interaction between the people, even the journey. In our sanitized western world, we miss out on all of that when we go out to eat." This is true on so many levels. The food and the ingredients here are not processed and packaged, nor does the cooking generally happen behind closed doors in a kitchen at the back. Cooking is a curbside affair. And at the other end, eating is public theatre. Food is integrated with the other activities of the street. The net effect is that eating is not just for the tastebuds; food here is also a narrative experience involving whole communities of players. If technology has robbed food of its social context in the West, this is a place that puts it back in its proper place.
I think there is something else distinctive here. I may be risking gross generalizations, but I think the repertoire plays an entirely different role in the cuisine of this country than it does in the West. Vietnamese cuisine seems to be organized around a canon of dishes. The dishes call out to you on the street from little white neon sign boards like proper names. Each is the name of a tradition, and the goal of these small businesses is the perfection of a single dish, the attainment of an ideal. (Often humble eateries will become famous for their definitive version of a dish.) In the West it seems to me that dishes are more often than not descriptions that don't function like proper names. Think of the wordy menus in the West. Also the goal in the West seems to be interpretation and variety, not the embodiment of a ideal form or the realization of a tradition. Think of the proliferations of fusion cuisines in North America. Maybe these difference reflect deeper cultural values and different understandings of tradition. After all, one might expect a Confucian society to focus on the attainment of ideals and the reproduction of tradition rather than idiosyncratic creations.
Now having gone out on a limb with this last one, I must offer a bit of a corrective, because in fact there are different culinary traditions in Vietnam. Mainly what I am talking about is street food. There is also the kind of down home cooking I eat at work every day at our communal lunches. These meals are rice-based and very simple. The point isn't to perfect some dish, but just to fry, steam, or boil up something tasty to eat with your bowl of rice. Then there are proper restaurants with their tables and kitchens hidden away from view. These places tend to present you with a big menu presenting dozens of pages of options and varieties. Then there are other sub-traditions like exotic meat adventure eating where the point doesn't seem to be eating an ideal, but to prove your manliness by eating bizarre odds and ends and strange species. These other traditions don't work quite the same way, so take it all with a grain of salt - or dash of fish sauce as the case may be. Still I think there is something to it.