Anthony Bourdain and the Cultural Message of Vietnamese Cuisine

President Obama pays tribute the Anthony Bourdain’s memory

When the war-weary Vietnamese, like my parents and grandparents, finally arrived on the shores of this country, they brought with them few, if any, physical belongings. What they did have was memory — and the Vietnamese have a peculiar relationship with memory. Having shed their physical ties with the home country, they sought to lock away the emotional as well. Growing up in a refugee family, one heard only hints of what had happened all those years ago. It certainly wasn’t dinner table conversation, and often times, one knew that well, a war had happened and that we left because of it — but not much else.

The collective trauma, like an old and ugly scar, had to be hidden away. But despite their efforts to absolve, to cleanse, to lock away what they had seen, smelled, felt, heard, and done during those terrible years — memory is a tenacious thing. It persists, it bubbles up in ways one doesn’t expect.

In my family, and I suspect, in many first generation Vietnamese childrens’ families, food was one of the first and truest links one had to that collective memory. Food was the memory, and we embraced it, opening Pho and Banh Mi and Com Tam restaurants while simultaneously discarding the memory of war, of what could have been, and should have been in the old country — as if the two could be so easily extricated through the passage of time and geography. They couldn’t.

Food was, for a scrawny Vietnamese kid growing up in San Jose, an anchor to a collective identity — a medium that moved one through time, through space. It was a window: a tiny one, but a window nonetheless. And however much we tried to sever those threads between the food we ate, and the memories of where it came from, we couldn’t.

And if food is a medium, then the stories we tell around it, the people with whom we choose to share it, become the message one tells the world.

Anthony Bourdain was many things to many people — that much is clear. But when he and President Obama sat down to have a little known (outside of Vietnam anyway) dish called Bun Cha in a small restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, flanked by low tables and stools and Vietnamese locals, he became for me, a crucial piece of a new message.

The incredible depth and complexity of Vietnamese cuisine is a thing lost on many Westerners. Certain dishes appeal to the American palate, and we are all animals of comfort. A bowl of Pho seems to belong on the same spectrum as the many noodle soups that Westerners have grown accustomed to. A banh mi, perhaps one of the most well known Vietnamese fusion dishes, is “just” a sandwich. Both are easy to understand, easy to relate to, and largely inoffensive. But there are other dishes that go largely unknown for Westerners, despite the love that locals have for them. Those dishes tend to prominently feature the signature ingredient of Vietnamese cuisine, the almighty fish sauce — a pungent, sour, sweet, and salty condiment.

Anthony Bourdain was special because he chose to introduce Western audiences to dishes that were far outside their realm of analogy and comfort. He could have chosen any dish, but he chose a dish that, were I were a poor Vietnamese kid living in Hanoi, I would have eaten with my friends after school. He chose one in which the star of the dish, the grilled pork chops and meatballs, are drenched in a fish sauce dip.

And in a season of Parts Unknown featuring multiple Asian countries, Bourdain choose to open with Hanoi and chose to invite Barack Obama to dine with him there during his presidential trip to Asia.

In doing so, he was saying something that every first generation Vietnamese kid already knew but was certain that the world didn’t: something that was our little secret — This cuisine, this memory that was so much a part of me and my family and the diasporic collective, this language of sustenance — was fit for street urchins and kings, beggars and billionaires, writers and astronauts, painters and teachers, or the most powerful man in the world. This we knew: that our herbs, and spices and flavors could transcend time and space, as they had when they anchored me, all those years ago, to the stories and identities of my roots. Here they were again, transcending in another way the boundaries of class and geopolitics. It was a tacit acknowledgement of the power of a cuisine and a culture.

We always knew of this possibility in our hearts, but a secret without a listener stays a secret, despite one’s best efforts. Anthony Bourdain helped tell that secret to the world in the best way he knew how.