I have lived most of my life in Orange County, the place made into a one-dimensional caricature by shows such as The OC and The Real Housewives. The real Orange County is a giant fondue of different peoples, languages, and cultures. It is also home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. You can’t drive through the city of Westminster without seeing retail signs in Vietnamese on every corner and the ubiquitous Pho restaurant gracing every strip mall, all evidence of a thriving immigrant population in an area known as Little Saigon.
But the Vietnamese presence wasn’t always so visible. When I first became acquainted with Vietnamese food twenty years ago, Bolsa Avenue (a main thoroughfare in Westminster) only had a smattering of Vietnamese stores and the main grocery stores were the 99 Ranch Market and the now closed Mah Wah Supermarket, both of which catered to a mainly Chinese clientele, including my family. We used to shop there for our groceries because Bolsa Avenue was closer than Los Angeles, and Irvine was still dotted with orange trees. Back then, foods such as pho and banh mi were not yet part of the common vernacular.
My mom’s best friend and coworker at the time was Vietnamese and they often carpooled together to and from work. An immigrant from Vietnam whose family barely survived treacherous boat rides and crowded refugee camps, Kim gravitated often to her native dishes and found an eager dining partner in my Taiwanese mother. They would go out to lunch in Westminster or grab take out food, feasting on dishes such as bun bao hue, com tam, and pho, all of which my mom delighted in. Being an adventurous cook, she soon undertook to make some of the new foods she was eating.
Visit another Chinese family for a meal, you would inevitably be served one of two cuisines– stereotypical staples like mapo tofu and stir fries, or all American classics like Domino’s pizza or spaghetti, a sure sign of immigrants serving comfort foods from home or assimilating into mainstream culture (or whatever mainstream was at the time). These dishes were easily identifiable to most kids growing up in Orange County. Visit my home and you would be served a purple tinged tofu and pork belly stew flavored with perilla leaves (it’s shiso but the Vietnamese use a different variety that’s purple and has a stronger taste), a plant with a distinctly nettled leave and minty flavor. Only my mom and other Vietnamese knew what that was. Even during Thanksgiving, when the rest of our extended family served up the traditional fare of turkey, cranberry sauce, red bean paste cakes, and sticky rice, my mother would bring seafood salad with chopped mint, cilantro, lime, crushed peanuts, and fish sauce. Growing up, there were many mother daughter arguments during which I would predictably yell, “Why can’t you be like other moms?!” as I downed another spoonful of home made chicken pho.
Looking back, my mom was light years ahead of the dining curve. She inoculated me to the smell of fish sauce on the stove, being tempered by lime, garlic, and chili. I was slurping down bowls of pho before the rest of the country even knew how to pronounce the word. I am just as comfortable identifying and eating food in the stalls of Hanoi than I am in the night markets of Taiwan. Whenever I am back in Orange County after an extended absence, the first thing I do is drive over to Bahn Mi Che Cali on Brookhurst and Westminster for a banh mi and some banh cuon. Only after I’ve satisfied that craving, do I then I think of getting some milk tea boba or an In-N-Out Burger for my next meal.
I don’t miss not having more fried rice as a child. If not, I would never have enjoyed my mom’s trials and errors with banh xeo or cringed at her attempts to entice me with nem chua, a pickled, raw minced pork. Coconut milk, fish sauce, and shrimp paste are staples in our family’s pantry. And you would be hard pressed to find oyster sauce or sweet and sour sauce anywhere in the house. Those stereotypical Chinese condiments are just not part of my family’s cooking vocabulary. Instead, we adopted an “exotic” cuisine and to my delight, the dishes I ate growing up is now part of mainstream food culture.