Written by Austin Le
With Tết, or Lunar New Year, coming up, many members take part in visiting family, attending parties, and of course, eating yummy food. Have you ever wondered where does that food come from?
I remember growing up, my parents drove me to various houses, hidden away in suburbs, where they’d pay “family friends” to cook Vietnamese dishes that they either did not know how to make, or have the hours required to make these intricate dishes.
We contacted two caterers, based in San Jose and Toronto, respectively, to learn about their experiences and narratives as people carrying amazingly important and rare knowledge to a diasporic community: how to cook traditional Vietnamese food. These caterers cook dishes not just exclusively for family friends, but for their entire communities. Their significance accumulates when we begin to learn about the difficulties associated with cooking these dishes.
On behalf of UNAVSA, I would like to thank the interviewees for taking the time to meet and share their experiences with all of us. Though these narratives are enlightening, these personal experiences are just a glimpse into the lives of people in our community and are not generalizable to all the experiences in our diverse diasporic communities. We encourage you, to branch out into your own local communities, experience the various foods, and investigate the stories behind them.
The interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their identities, and the following interviews have been translated from Vietnamese to English.
Usually, how many customers do you have?
1: It usually depends. I go to their houses and help them cook or just help with a few dishes. I help families of 5-7 or even at parties with around 10 or 20 people.
2: Every weekend I have from 1 to a maximum of 5 different customers. They are majority all Vietnamese and are introduced through friend’s friend.
How do they find out about you? What dishes do you cook?
1: People who eat my food and see that my desserts are clean and what they’re looking for (Viet food) refer them to other people. I cook chè chuối (banana pudding), bánh da lợn (tapioca layered cake), and many different kinds of xôi (sticky rice). I just specialize in deserts.
2: I make ‘món nhậu’ which refers to dishes that are accompanied often by beer in Viet culture. This includes lẩu dê (goat hot pot), gỏi sứa tôm thịt (Vietnamese style jellyfish, pork, shrimp salad, and cháo lòng (pork organs congee) these are perfectly paired with a glass of Heineken!
Have you ever considered starting your own business?
1: I very much want to but I haven’t had the opportunity; I have to take care of my 3 kids.
2: I prefer working from home. At one time I’ve cooked for parties of over 400 people just on my own! It allows me to work freely without the commitment.
Do you think it’s important to keep our Vietnamese food traditions alive?
1: Yes, of course they are important. I specialize in deserts, and a lot of parties require desserts so I consider what I do very important, especially if these are dishes that people enjoy.
2: Before I came over to Canada over 24 years ago, with 2 children to take care of, I often opened up food stalls on the streets, in the morning I would sell hủ tiếu, then at lunch I would sell phở, and then at night, I would make these ‘món nhậu’ at night so that we could make extra income. I feel that what makes us Vietnamese is our hard-working nature and back in the day, utilizing food stalls to create incomes to take care of our kids during the hard times of post-war is what stays with me, and why Vietnamese food is the best food.
What are your working conditions like? Do you lift heavy objects?
1: I don’t carry heavy objects. Usually, I only work with an average amount of ingredients and food so I don’t carry anything heavy at all.
2: Yes, pots of congee or soup could become very heavy
depending on the number of people I am cooking for.
Do you think the cost of your ingredients matches the cost of your product?
1: Yes, very much so.
2: To me, I cook because I want my cooking to be of quality. Even if the profit margin is low, when I see the cooking that makes my family happy, I am also happy.
Do you have any memories from this work that you want to share with me?
1: When I get to go to these parties and I see people happy from eating my food then I’m happy too. People compliment my cooking which also makes me happy. That’s the best part about this job.
Do you think you will continue this business in the future?
1: I don’t know what the future holds, since it all depends on my health. If my health allows it, then I’ll continue working. I only cook on weekends.
What do you do during weekdays?
1: I volunteer at schools or at elderly homes or at temples. I help in the kitchen cooking or washing dishes.
UNAVSA is launching a new mini series called: Food For Thought! Preparing and cooking food is a way to preserve tradition and culture. Many cultures, like the Vietnamese, showcase the diverse cuisine because food is a symbol of pride. This series takes a deep dive into not just food but the social connotations surrounding the topic.
This is the first essay in a three-part series. Part two explores the hierarchy of food, while part three addresses the tension between cultural appropriate and appreciation of food.