I remember sitting in my dorm at the University of California-Irvine many years ago and seeing the shock on everyone’s faces: my friends talked about how much they loved “pho” and I admitted I had no idea what they were talking about. Soon, we were in someone’s car en route to a local pho establishment, Pho Ba Co, one of the closest pho restaurants near my university. It was back in 2004 — long before Vietnamese restaurants were ubiquitous in major American cities — and I imagined something made with tofu, or maybe dry noodles of some kind. To be honest, I didn’t even know pho was Vietnamese.
I would soon learn. The university was roughly 60 to 70 percent Asian when I was a student. The Vietnamese community on campus was quite visible, with a Vietnamese Students Association (VSA) established far back in 1979. The organization even hosted an annual dragon dance event to share this important and festive part of Vietnamese culture. Irvine sits just 20 minutes from Westminster, a city with a 40 percent Vietnamese-American population that is known as the “capital” of overseas Vietnamese. Naturally, driving down to Little Saigon to eat was a popular activity amongst the students.
As we drove, I was excited to try this soup. I was also worried. What if I still didn’t like it? What if it wasn’t worth the hype and I’d have to silently scarf this dish down? I was wrong: it was love at first bite.
I eventually grew to enjoy pho so much that eventually I began to notice interesting similarities between the dish and traditional Salvadoran dishes I grew up with. The more I tried other Vietnamese dishes like bun, spring rolls, and banh mi, the more this synergy became apparent. For example, Vietnamese food often incorporates the use of fresh herbs, like cilantro, lime, basil, and jalapeño, which reminds me of the way we sometimes use herbs and spices in soups from El Salvador.
An example of this is sopa de pata — loosely translated as “foot soup” or “leg foot” and typically served with cilantro, onion, and lime on the side. Like pho broth, sopa de pata is simmered with bones, specifically a cow or pig’s foot boiled with salt and spices such as turmeric and pepper. Instead of rice noodles, potato, yucca, or green plantain are used as the carb. The rules of green herbs used in sopa de pata aren’t hard and fast. Some people prefer parsley, while others may use basil, a native herb called chipilin, and cilantro in the broth.
Because of my university environment, I was fortunate to not only try a variety of Vietnamese restaurants — I also learned to make some of these dishes at home. One day a good friend of mine, Joseph (he preferred to be called Vu) taught me and my roommates how to make our own spring rolls. As a Vietnamese-American, he taught us how to make spring rolls the way his family traditionally made them. I felt very at home rolling each piece of rice paper, then dipping them into an array of different sauces and condiments.
Learning these recipes also allowed me to inspect the ingredients in Vietnamese food even further and identify even more commonalities, such as a love for seafood, and the practice of using as many parts of an animal as possible to prevent food waste. Historically, Indigenous peoples in the Americas often used as much of the animal as possible because they believed in killing animals for sustenance only. While American food production is often wasteful, I admired the Vietnamese use of typically “unwanted” cuts of meat like tripe and tendon.
As Asian food became more popular, I also noticed more and more restaurants fusing Vietnamese and Latinx ingredients. While some fusion dishes feel forced, others are natural fits. One of my favorites has been the Vietnamese taco, which typically incorporates banh mi-style fillings in a hardshell taco or Mexican flauta. When done right, fusion dishes directly reflect the flavors of multicultural cities like Los Angeles and New York City.
Perhaps a small part of the reason why Vietnamese and Latinx people share such similar culinary traits is their shared history. For example, many Southeast Asian and Latin American countries have been shaped and tested by the forces of imperialism, war, and forced migration. Our cuisines might be considered the original “fusion foods,” integrating European colonial ingredients while preserving the integrity of the cuisine. While fusion foods today emerge organically or out of entrepreneurial creativity, traditional Latin and Asian foods represent the way local people preserved their way of life even under the yoke of foreign powers.
Even today in America, the close proximity between Latin and Asian immigrants has allowed these different groups to find similarities. For example, both cultures tend to emphasize values of family and collectivism — and Vietnamese-American immigrants specifically share the influence of colonial-era Catholicism. Historic examples of Asian and Latin solidarity in America range from the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association of the early 1900s to the Filipino farm workers who joined Cesar Chavez’s strikes in the 1960s. In more recent history, Latinx workers in Los Angeles have even started to learn Vietnamese in order to work more closely with their neighbors.
I finally took my parents out to eat pho for the first time as late as 2019. I had to convince them by showing them pictures, and explaining that Vietnamese food shares a lot in common with Thai food, which they were more familiar with. I remember explaining the soup itself, the ingredients, and talking them into getting some Vietnamese coffee. Their faces were skeptical until finally, we all began to eat. It was worth it: my parents discovered a cuisine they still enjoy to this day — and, I got to be right about something. With each generation, there can be more familiarity and communication between cultures.
As a Latina, one of my favorite things about visiting Vietnamese restaurants, or any restaurant outside of my own culture, is watching the proud and pleased faces of the staff as I visibly enjoy the food. While tension has always existed between the many immigrant groups in the US, it’s good to remember that a simple meal tells us we have more in common than we may have previously believed.