When one looks through a glass of greenish soda, one sees Hanoi. Sapa market – Prague’s Hanoi – and the drink represent Vietnam. Nuoc mia, sugar-cane juice with ice and limes, has become one of those interesting exotic delicacies gourmets crave. Most, however, don’t know this delicacy, because you can only find it in Sapa’s buffets and other Vietnamese markets. Vietnamese cuisine here remains hidden behind ghetto walls. However, in cities all over, where the Vietnamese community may not have as many members, “Vietnamese restaurant” signs spreading as it becomes fashionable now to eat at places called Hanoi or Saigon.
Not a single Czech sits in Sapa’s garden today, only two Vietnamese. Do Thi Hong Hanh – Czechs have a hard time with her Vietnamese name, so they call her Hanka – speaks Czech almost as well as Vietnamese. She grew up in Příbram, her parents have a houseware store, and she is currently a student of Czech studies at the Faculty of Arts. The Vietnamese women have brought their Mongolian friend here: “We wanted to show her what Vietnamese eat.” They have therefore gone to several buffets, each of which usually specializes in one dish. They’ve had bahn bao, leavened wheat flour dumplings filled with noodles, meat, mushrooms and eggs. Another important part of Vietnamese cuisine is bun cha, made in the side alley here, charcoal grilled pork meat cut thin and served on one plate. Another plate has rice noodles, and a third comes heaped with unfamiliar leaves. The feast is served with a sweet-salty-sour concoction of vinegar, water and fish sauce, a typical Vietnamese ingredient.
The lunch concludes with dessert: Other stalls sell a puddinglike treat made from sweet beans. One can’t find such food in most of Prague, and Sapa locals almost exclusively comprise the crowd. If immigrants open buffets elsewhere in the city, they call them Chinese or Asian and cook dishes that represent neither cuisine. Fried spaghetti with onion and carrots, the most common product of such facilities, has nothing in common with the refined Vietnamese cooking: “Vietnamese can really enjoy life, and it’s apparent from their cuisine,” said Eva Pechová, an expert on Vietnamese culture. “All important events are celebrated with delicacies. That’s why the Vietnamese use the expression ‘to eat the New Year’ or ‘to eat wedding’,” she said.
Vietnamese cuisine differs from other Asian food because of it uses fresh aromatic herbs. Another characteristic, fish sauce, is used much as one would add salt in other traditional cuisines. In south Vietnam, near Thailand, they cook with coconut milk.
Czechs have only a vague idea of all that unless they’ve acquainted with the cuisine directly in Vietnam or in restaurants in more international cities. They can’t discover it here. “My parents had a Vietnamese snack bar in Sedlčany, but it didn’t work,” Hanh said. Her Czech classmates like to eat at her family’s home. They like the scented Vietnamese rice most, which makes ordinary rice a white boredom. “A Vietnamese buffet – people weren’t interested,” Hanh said. “Maybe they were afraid.”
Food blogs say (for example, www.cuketka.cz) say the few restaurants that serve Vietnamese cuisine don’t measure up to the markets’ buffets. For example, the Thanh Long restaurant on Ostrovní street masks itself with the “Chinese” title, but serves a few Vietnamese dishes. Malý Buddha, close to Prague Castle, offers a more stylish setting.
A few weeks ago, another attempt appeared. An employee of a Sapa restaurant opened Hanoi in Vinohrady. “There are many foreigners here who like Vietnamese food,” owner Thuy Xuan Tran said in broken Czech. “There’s a lot of Vietnamese food in America.” He offers only two specialties at the moment: pho soup, a strong meat broth with noodles, coriander and other herbs, and rolls made of a mixture of noodles, meat and mushrooms wrapped in rice paper. They come fried or not; the latter case means a half-transparent light delicacy that has nothing in common with oily rolls from Chinese buffets, known frequently as M12.
t doesn’t make sense that Vietnamese cuisine remains relatively unknown while M1s to M20s have become widespread. The gap between the Czech and Vietnamese communities continues. “In the 70s and 80s, Vietnamese came under the supervision of their government,” Eva Pechová said. They prohibited from meeting locals: They led private lives and didn’t plan to stay here, although some eventually did. Workers who arrived after 1990 came mainly to earn money, and the best strategy became to stick together.
Vietnamese also operate very similar dull buffets (and like-modeled greengroceries and nail shops). They imitate well-tested ideas. (Eva Pechová says that as soon as something works, others try it, too.)
” Vietnamese feel that their country is too small and that nobody is interested in their culture,” Sian Truong said, 350 kilometres away, in Berlin. Prague has 8,000 Vietnamese, Berlin 12,000. However the German capital also has a hundred times more Vietnamese restaurants and buffets – and they’e popular. Entrepreneurs like Sian Truong have successfully bridged Asia and Europe.
The right mix
Prenzlauer Berg is a good address for a family in Berlin. The Sian restaurant, with its moderately eastern style and Zen garden in front of the windows, fits. Chrysanthemums swim in bowls, the furniture is equal parts colonial Chochinchina and European, and flowers even decorate the restrooms. Every evening, a queue forms for this modernized and kempt version of Vietnam. People come for specialties: pho soup, green banana salad and desserts made of black rice. “It has to be authentic but also comprehensible for Europeans. It’s important to find the right balance,” Sian Truong, the owner, said.
He has sought this his whole life. His family moved to Germany in 1981, when he was 14. He applied for his first summer job to wash dishes at an Italian restaurant. Soon he became a cook. Then he did vocational training in a rustic Bavarian pub. He graduated from hotel management school and oversaw five-star hotels. “But, as one gets older, he tends to return to his roots,” he said. So he founded his enterprise four years ago: Vietnamese, but attractive for Germans. No monosodium glutamate, popular in Asian restaurants, and as many organic products as possible. After the success of his “homey restaurant,” Sian, where a meal costs EUR 7, Sian Truong founded a much more refined restaurant, Chi Sing, which has a minimalist interior and the utmost culinary ambitions.
Not all Vietnamese involved in the restaurant business in Germany have ambitions of providing high gastronomy. At many buffets, soup and rice cost EUR 3, and queues form at the best of those. For example, the bistro Green Rice, which has opened its second branch, is popular. Although it is only an ordinary cafeteria, it always has fresh soup. The place is half Vietnam and half Europe, and it also has an owner who grew up and studied in Germany.
“Vietnamese were already involved in the restaurant business in the 70s, but they were always running Chinese restaurants,” Sian Truong said. “Then they started doing Thai cuisine, then sushi. Only in recent years have the Vietnamese dishes begun gaining in popularity.”
There are more reasons for this, and not all of them are connected with food. One is that the Vietnamese minority in Germany integrated with the majority society much more and sooner than it did here. Many refugees fled southern Vietnamese communism and came to western Germany. Very often, they were fleeing under dramatic circumstances, sailing weeks on the ocean in their unstable boats. They settled down in Germany and they wished to adapt to the new environment as soon as possible: It’s therefore no coincidence that both Sian Truong and Green Rice bistro owner Ngo Hoai Nam are from the south of Vietnam and left for western Germany. In the Czech Republic, immigrants’ children have chosen a similar path, such as the aforementioned Hanh, for example. They feel at home here and most probably they will run Vietnamese restaurants, because integration also goes through one’s stomach.