It’s become somewhat of a tradition that when I return to Vietnam, I cook my Vietnamese host family a big American meal. The event started when I was living with a family of 5 in Ho Chi Minh City and decided to cook for them a few staples of American cuisine: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, Potato Salad, Southern BBQ, and s’mores (here I might add that describing what a graham cracker is in Vietnamese, let alone English, is quite the feat). Upon my most recent return to Asia, my host brother had a special request: Tacos and Mac and Cheese.
Now, one of the reasons I love cooking American food for my Vietnamese family is it really provides fascinating insight into how our cultures differ in eating habits. When I cooked grilled cheese for instance, the idea that I would slightly burn bread was difficult to comprehend. As a result, my host father spent most of the meal picking off the browner pieces off his bread. Guacamole also proved difficult for my host family to wrap their heads around. Avocados are firmly a fruit in Vietnam, usually served mashed up with condensed milk in smoothie format, and just as weird as this is for an American palate, the idea of mixing avocados, salt, chili peppers, lime, and onions then smearing it on a corn chip was hard for my family to get behind. That’s not to say it all doesn’t work, to this day, when I return, I still catch my host mother smearing peanut butter on celery to make ants on a log.
This time around, I packed a suitcase full of Ortega home taco kits and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Now, when it comes to foreign cuisine, it’s easy to focus on what we eat, the exotic fruits, the strange cuts of meat, weird new flavors. However, what cooking for my host family has taught me is that it’s often the way we eat which influences our relationship with food. Take the tacos for instance, for an American like myself we expect lettuce to fit inside the crunchy shell. However, in Vietnamese food, it is usually the lettuce which is wrapped around a crunchy shell in foods like Banh Xeo (Vietnamese Crepe) or Cha Gio (Spring Rolls). As such, my host family began wrapping their tacos in lettuce and dipping them in hot sauce.
Moreover, in a Vietnamese household, meals are typically eaten family style. Each person at the table has a Chen or small bowl normally filled with a base of rice. On top this goes the protein, vegetables, and whatever other fare is being served. This method of eating is quite engrained in Vietnamese culture, so when I brought out my American cuisine, I was not surprised to see these small white bowls. Without rice, my host family began filling the bowls with the only other starch: mac and cheese. On top of this they would place their peas and corn, left over lettuce, and whatever remained from the broken tacos.
All in all, the meal was a major success, my host family greatly enjoyed both the tacos and mac and cheese. However, as usual, when I cook there was quite a bit of food left over. Seeing this my host mother leaned over and asked, “Tomorrow, we can make this into a soup, right?.” I immediately started laughing and waving my hands at the thought of macaroni and cheese soup. I finally sat back and explained that she could, but I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s just the way we eat in the US and Vietnam just aren’t quite the same.