On The Menu

Vietnamese People in Oklahoma? (or JP's Fondness For His Parent's Homeland Food)


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People are always amazed that I was born and raised in Oklahoma, that it's highly unlikely that a person of Vietnamese descent could be raised where the Midwest meets the Southwest. But, there are actually tons of people of Vietnamese descent in Oklahoma City, enough to have a Little Saigon area, full of Vietnamese shops, restaurants and grocery stores.

Last year, there was a great article in the NYTIMES about this very such fact, and the great food that is found there:


I always took Vietnamese food for granted growing up. My mom was always cooking it for us, and I was always sick of eating rice every freaking day. How I longed for the exotic food that the other kids in the neighborhood were eating (except the neighbors to our left...they were Vietnamese too and were eating the same rice dishes): the tacos, the spaghetti, the meat loaf. I remember being in 6th grade, and waiting around in the school cafeteria for school to start, I was asked by a classmate what I had for breakfast. My mom, who was already gone for work, had left a big pot of Chao Ga (Vietnamese rice porridge, the Chinese call it Congee) for us. When I started to describe to this young, white, all-American girl what I had for breakfast, she just looked at me like I was some sort of psycho. (This was also the elementary school where I got called into the principal's office because I was reading a Dungeons and Dragons book and they were afraid I was teaching witchcraft to all the nice Christian kids...true story.) So this experience and countless others like it made me feel out of place, and for a kid that had issues trying to fit in for most if his teenage years up until college, this just added to my anti-Vietnamese feelings. (It wasn't just the food, I hated going to Vietnamese mass during Christmas, and I hated being yelled at by my parents in a language I didn't understand...actually, that wasn't a bad thing.)

When I moved to Seattle for college, I was amazed that along the stretch called the "Ave" (University Ave) in the University District, among all the homeless and street kids (Ave Rats we called them) there were 4 or 5 different pho shops. These came as a great comfort on rainy afternoon days, and this being Seattle these days were often. Suddenly I was no longer not wanting Vietnamese food for dinner, but was actively searching it out. Going for Pho became my staple 1st date. (Seeing as none of these 1st dates amounted to much, I probably should have had a better dating strategy.) The best part: my college buddies weren't afraid or seemed to think of me differently because of the food I ate...in fact, they wished they could have had this food growing up. Rob, tall white guy from the Portland area, told me once how he loved going to get pho with someone who never had it before, to see how they would eat it. And he was right, I never noticed how others ate pho, how it was a different eating experience for everybody. (Jason would put a little noodle, a piece of meat, a bean sprout or two into his spoon then he would add a touch of sriracha and hoisin sauce and so each bite had the same amount of seasoning and flavor. Vince would add so much sriracha that his beef broth would turn into a sea of blood.) This was when I realized how badass and amazing the cuisine from my parent's homeland actually is, how food that is so simple can be so good. Every summer vacation, even though my mom would offer to cook tacos or spaghetti (self-taught because of my constant complaining as a child) I would ask her to make my favorite rice dishes or her pho or her banh xeo (Vietnamese fried crepe dish). I quit complaining about what we were eating for dinner, and actually asked my mom for directions on how to make these dishes so that I can cook it while I'm at school.

Then in 2001, I got to visit Vietnam. As a graduation gift from my parents, my sister Suzy and I went to Vietnam to see my parent’s homeland. While not every part of the trip was enlightening or even fun (too much dealing with money-grubbing relatives that I would never talk to ever again in my life) I got a whole new appreciation for my parents and everything about them. Mainly, I got to eat a whole lot of good food for pennies! The best bowl of beef pho I’ve ever had was at the garage of a man outside of Saigon who, while serving pho, was also giving haircuts as well as washing motorbikes. An all in one shop so to speak. The best bowl of pho ga (chicken) I had was after mass in Hanoi, upstairs in a restaurant that my dad said he went to growing up. Then there was the banh xeo place in Saigon that had customers driving right through the dining area to park their motorbikes in the back, while little lizards would jump onto the table to try to get a bite. Needless to say, I’ve never had banh xeo as good again. (I could go on and on about how great the food is, but I won’t. Just watch any Bourdain episode, either A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations, and watch at how much he respects and loves the Vietnamese food.)

So now I no longer am ashamed of the food my parent’s forced onto me as a child. Thanks to the ever changing food culture in America, where different ethnicities are showcasing their homeland’s food, it’s not as strange now for people to eat sushi or other Asian food that is not Chinese. (I could write a whole blog about what is considered Chinese food in the states…and I probably will…as my brother Tino described it in one of his posts, the Chinese food you eat here in the great USA is nothing like the food they eat in China.) And while people may not agree with me for eating hot noodles in the morning for breakfast (there’s always some comment at work whenever I’m eating Nong Shim instant noodles at 7:30AM in front of my computer), they aren’t judging me for it, nor should I judge them for eating hot oatmeal with raisins (EW!!!...you white people and your strange food...).