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Some Thoughts on Cuisine and Culture

Edited by Dev Agarwal || Narrated by Sophia Uy || Produced by Katalina Watt

So, I’m still perusing Irene Kuo’s Key to Chinese Cooking, and along the way, I happened on a chapter that talked about Asian noodles and how you could basically substitute spaghetti for Chinese egg noodles. Which struck me as odd because they don’t taste anything alike, but… See, the book was written in the seventies, and back then, finding genuine egg noodles in the middle of the US must have been really hard (to some extent, it’s still freaking hard to find proper egg noodles in my part of the Parisian suburbs). And this put me in mind of a conversation I was having with a friend of mine, about how nước mắm used to be so hard to find in France, so the very first recipes that the Vietnamese immigrants came up with had to make do with soy sauce (which, again, tastes nothing like nước mắm)…

It all comes back to a subject I find fascinating: the authenticity of cuisine—something I see crop up a lot on the Internet, especially with regards to cookbooks. What makes an authentic recipe? What is and is not an acceptable variant?[1] How should a cuisine as a whole be judged? Because the truth is, like cultures, cuisines merge and adapt and evolve. Sometimes, they adapt because they don’t have basic ingredients: there’s a very cute Vietnamese cookbook in French, Le Chant du Riz Pilé (Song of Crushed/Ground Rice), which makes do without half the Vietnamese staples because it’s an old book and those staples weren’t available in France at the time.

Sometimes, they merge with other cultures: The most well-known Vietnamese dishes, phở and bánh mì, didn’t actually exist before the turn of the twentieth century: they’re creations made in the melting pot of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French cultures. Likewise, there’s a pretty common Vietnamese dish, thịt bò khô (beef stew), which has more than a few common points with an equally famous French dish, boeuf bourguignon (the Vietnamese version has more spices and herbs, but it’s strikingly similar). French cuisine now, as compared to the one at the turn of the century, has grown to include Levantine and Maghrebi dishes such as taboulé and couscous, and Italian pasta has basically become part of every cook’s repertoire.

In the specific case of immigrants, new dishes are created, whether for the diaspora or for a foreign audience: General Tso’s chicken is a pretty good example of a typical Chinese-American dish that you won’t find in Chinese restaurants in France (and, if Wikipedia is correct, which isn’t always the case, a dish that the Chinese in China didn’t much appreciate).

Dishes fall out of favour or are only cooked within the home of immigrants because the majority doesn’t appreciate them: there is a fascinating phenomenon whereby most foreign restaurants in a given country will serve the same staples because they’re the ones that the majority of people appreciate. It can be because the majority of people are not immigrants, and are freaked out by stuff like pigs’ ears; but it can also be because ingredients just aren’t the same. In Vietnamese cooking, chicken used to be a luxury served mostly for feasts, but when the Vietnamese arrived in France and in the US, they found that chicken was available really cheap, and so chicken began to feature on the menu a lot more than in Vietnam. Most Chinese restaurants in France serve the same things; the few Chinese restaurants I tried in the US also served the same things—but not at all the same as the French Chinese restaurants. It’s a fascinating process of accretion, whereby some parts of the cuisine just vanish and others acquire a disproportionate weight depending on where and when the immigration happens.[2] And, sometimes, things just change because time passes and mentalities change. French cuisine used to rely a lot on butter for cooking and on ingredients like homemade stocks. Today, we’re more health-conscious (I don’t use butter, though I do know people who still do), and we’re more pressed for time—so the time-consuming parts of cooking, such as making stock, tend to get skipped (again, I do know people who make stock. It’s just not the norm anymore). What my French great-grandparents considered a good meal probably would have not have appealed to me, and what I eat today would probably seem strange to them (even sticking to broadly French/European dishes. Let’s leave the nước mắm out of this for the moment…).

Not to mention, of course, that each of us have our own background and our own cuisine, often passed on from parent to child. Every Vietnamese family has a slightly different way of mixing nước chấm, the mix of fish sauce, sugar, and some acid (lemon or lime or vinegar) that frequently accompanies meals. I make my own stuff, mostly pastry, and the odd Vietnamese-French fusion dish (especially when my pantry is bare and all I have lying around are shallots, garlic, and nước mắm. You wouldn’t believe what you can improvise with those around). Every French person has a different idea of what good French cooking is, and they’ll likely pass on some of it on to their friends and family—and get stuff passed on to them, as well, from their friends and family.

Yes, I know. I’m having a philosophical moment because of a cookbook. But still… it’s really fascinating stuff. Cuisine as a metaphor for culture. 

• • •

[1] Mileage varies a lot, but here’s a hint as far as I’m concerned: don’t try to sell me chả giò (fried rolls) made with egg roll wrappers (chả giò should be made with rice paper). 

[2] There’s also the “restaurant effect”: restaurants tend to serve festive food that you can’t make at home. Therefore, most people’s perceptions of foreign cuisines are really skewed because the signature dishes tend to be extravagant dishes that are only served for feasts. One good example in France is chả giò, fried rolls, which everyone associates with Vietnamese cuisine in spite of the fact that it’s hardly part of an everyday Vietnamese meal.

• • •

This essay first appeared on the author’s personal blog in 2011.

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris. She has won three Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, a British Fantasy Award and four British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was a double Hugo finalist for 2019 (Best Series and Best Novella). Her most recent book is Fireheart Tiger (Tor.com), a sapphic romantic fantasy inspired by pre colonial Vietnam, where a diplomat princess must decide the fate of her country, and her own. She also wrote Seven of Infinities (Subterranean Press), a space opera where a sentient spaceship and an upright scholar join forces to investigate a murder, and find themselves falling for each other. Other books include Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, (JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.), a fantasy of manners and murders set in an alternate 19th Century Vietnamese court. She lives in Paris.
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