Why Vietnamese Americans are so Offended by the 'Phở Quinoa'

There has been much limelight on the recent mass media remixes of Vietnamese Asian foods, such as the bánh mì (vietnamese sandwiches), phở (beef broth with rice noodle), and cà phê sữa đá (vietnamese iced coffee). Big name companies such as The New York Times, Starbucks, and BroadSheet have begun “creative” approaches to the trendy “authentic Asian foods”. But the main question is, why is it such a problem? In response to this, I will explain why it’s not just food.

As a Chinese-Vietnamese American, I have felt, along with other fellow Vietnamese Americans, that the recent gentrification of Vietnamese cultural foods has stirred much confusion and discomfort in our cultural identities. Discomfort may be an understatement for passion fueled posts emerging from heated discussions of why Pho is not just “soup” and why bánh mì is not just a sandwich.

As a second generation Asian American who has had the privilege of living under the comfort of my parent’s hard work, I don’t have the credibility to say this gentrification is a violation of my own cultural identity. However, I have heard the stories of my immigrant parents who have yet to hear about this trend.

Time and time again, my dad would humorously joke about his first meal upon arriving here from the devastations of the Vietnam war. With nothing but a few dollars and a family of eight to feed, my father and his seven siblings ended up at the front door of a local Burger King in hopes of finding some delectable sandwiches to enjoy.

He would laugh as he explained how as soon as the family of eight sunk their teeth into the hamburger bun, they all spit it out in distaste, claiming that the bun was too soft. The eight burgers ended up in the trash that day. With hearty laughter, they left the fast food joint hungry. To them, the soft hamburger bun could never compare to the crunchiness of Vietnamese bánh mì they left back at home.

This is funny now, because the bánh mì they craved upon their arrival in the 80’s exists here today. In our bustling ethno burbs and diverse range of authentic Asian cuisines, bánh mì bakeries are located conveniently around every block in places like Montery Park, San Gabriel Valley, etc.

Every child of a Vietnamese immigrant understands that bánh mì is the established lunch that our moms pack us for outdoor trips. Whether it be long road trips, amusement park trips, or elementary school field trips, we have always found this curious sandwich sneaking into our lunch boxes. Even today, as I head back to Santa Barbara from San Gabriel Valley, my mom and dad would always ask if I would like to take a few bánh mì sandwiches back to share with my friends. We too, as children of immigrants, have established emotional ties to our parents’ comfort foods.

Therefore, it’s not just a sandwich. It was and currently is an instrument that connects them to home after the traumatic transitions of the Vietnam war coerced them into abandoning everything.

Similarly, this adds onto the “phở is just soup” criticism addressed by many Asian Americans who have the same sentiments that I have just shared. As fellow Vietnamese American Benjamin To stated movingly in his Facebook post, “for some, food is sexy, food is trendy, and food is a way to make money. For many, food is home.” Like Benjamin, many people stood their ground through social media outlets about their dislike towards this “Americanized’ portrayal of their home food. Bánh mì is not just a sandwich, likewise, pho is not just soup.

Contrary to many of the articles placed out there about the quinoa pho and bagel banh mi, I am not mad. But when someone suddenly decides to create a new “remixed” version of banh mi, or an improved style of “phở” claiming the food is JUST soup or a sandwich, it’s only natural for the ethnic group to get defensive. Not only because it is a remix of “authenticity” but also, it encroaches upon sacred memory of those who have emotional ties to the comfort food itself. It’s only reasonable to stand up for what we hold close to our hearts, and this article was a mild justification to that.