Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Culinary Boon

The Chinese have been in Hawaii for 220 years, since they came to work on the sugar plantations in 1789.   The Japanese followed suit in 1885, enjoying 124 years of prosperity here.   Given these terms, the Vietnamese are relative newcomers to the islands.  They mostly came to escape the terrible civil war that ravaged their country.    Given our country's involvement in the war, it's taken just about my entire lifetime, for bitter and hostile feelings on both sides to ebb, and for people to look at the Vietnamese people and their culture without prejudice.    As usual, one of the keys to breaking down barriers, and giving people a fresh start, is to taste what they're having for dinner.

Though only being here for a relatively short time, one look at Chinatown these days, will tell you that they have been extremely prolific once coming to our shores.   Lucky for us, since we get to experience a cuisine that is aromatic, intensely flavorful, and fresh.   For me, Vietnamese food is paradoxically at once incredibly familiar, and yet strangely exotic at the same time.  

Rare Steak & Beef Ball Pho at Pho One

Talk about Vietnamese food, and people will automatically assume that you're going to be talking about pho.   By the way, it's pronounced "fuh", so it actually sounds like you're starting to say a certain 4-letter word and getting stuck, and NOT like you're beating down your "foe", despite how it's spelled.   However, I really don't think I will be addressing pho here at any time.   The reason for me, is that unfortunately, no restaurant can compare with the pho my Aunty makes at home.   For one thing, Aunty buys fresh noodles from the noodle factories in Chinatown, never using dried or frozen noodles, makes a world of difference in terms of texture (just like Jimbo's udon).   For the other, her pho is like the ultimate beef broth, simmering beef and bone for hours until the bone breaks down and all that yummy marrow infuses the soup, making it a little more akin (but way more intense) to ox tail soup.   No restaurant pho can possibly match it in terms of richness or beefiness.   My Po Po's kau yuk, my mom's spaghetti, my aunty's pho, and my own gumbo all have that same quality, something home made that takes hours to make that no restaurant can conceivably replicate or they would go out of business.

So if we're not talking about pho, what the heck are we talking about?    Well, if you go to a Vietnamese restaurant and actually decide to turn the page on the menu, you'll see they all offer a huge variety of other dishes.   Whenever I go to a restaurant, rather than having pho, I would prefer to have bun.   Pronounced "boon" like an economic boon, bun is the equivalent of Vietnamese vermicelli or somen.   It's served dry, or in broth.    You know what spring rolls are.   But what about summer rolls?   Summer rolls, are stuffed with bun and the rice paper wrapper is served cold and soft, rather than deep fried and cruncy, accompanied by yummy peanut butter like dipping sauce.   Probably the best summer rolls around, are at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Pho One (on the corner of Kaheka and Kapiolani).   What makes their summer rolls the best?   For one, they're wrapped really tightly.   Poorly wrapped summer rolls just fall apart when you eat them.   For another, when you order them, you get both pork and shrimp inside, whereas you usually must choose one or the other.

Summer Rolls at Pho One

It's nice to start in with a good summer roll, but my absolute favorite dish there, is another bowl of bun, called Bun Rieu.   I'm not sure what it is with the way Vietnamese is romanized, but it should be pronounced "Boon Zieu".   In any case, this dish is incredibly exotic and complex.   It starts out like a broth of fresh stewed tomatoes, but you hardly taste the tomatoes.   It's got pigs feet (which done at Pho One is so tender it's almost as soft as ox tail).   It's got little squares of coagulated pig's blood, (I kid you not!), which taste like a sort of smooth, iron tasting, jello.   It's got shrimps and Vietnamese pork sausage, called gio (pronounced "zaw"), which has a similar texture to fish cake but made with pork.   It's even topped with shredded, raw on choy (when have you ever been served on choy raw and not stir fried?).   But the piece de resistance is this omelette thing, made with crab meat.   The intense crab flavor from this thing just permeates the whole bowl  gives it a supremely rich crab roe taste.  The combinations of these flavors, plus the lemongrass and mint, is just intense and complex.  Colors upon colors, flavors upon flavors just layering upon one another.  It's like a symphony, with multiple vocal melodies and complex harmonies.

Bun Rieu at Pho One

My big problem, is that I love eating Bun Rieu so much, I hardly ever try anything else on the menu.   You know how it is when you have your favorite dish.    So I had to wait for my sister to come home, and order something else, before I could break away from it.   What did she order?   A spicier, herbier, broth from the central region of Vietnam, called Bun Bo Hue (pronounced "boon baw hwei").   The herbiness in this broth was so perfumey, I could feel the tingliness in the back of my head.  It's not the kind of spicy that burns your mouth, not at all in fact, but the kind that as you eat the whole bowl, you just start to sweat.   I liked it a lot, but it still doesn't compare with my Bun Rieu in terms of complexity.  

Bun Bo Hue at Pho One

The other nice thing about Pho One, is its decor.   Unlike most Vietnamese restaurants, it's incredibly well lit, clean, and modern looking.  The bright glass and shiny stone tables give it an element of class that you don't find elsewhere.   Coupled with a central location right outside Ala Moana, I love taking clients to eat at Pho One.   My clients get to experience a slightly more exotic cuisine, and we can talk shop comfortably.

So the Vietnamese did not grow up with us here.   They did not toil together on the sugar cane or pineapple fields like we did.   But they did have to endure turmoil and emotional upheaval to find a home here as well.  Lucky for us, they became part of our ohana and we can share and learn and grow together.

1 comment:

  1. Also, I ordered Bun Bo Hue, because it's become one of my favorite dishes after eating it in the biggest Vietnam town outside of Vietnam: San Jose, CA. In terms of variety and authenticity, Pho One gets pretty close to what you get up here. I think you should suggest that they should look into making Bun Rieu Oc. Which is the traditional way of making Bun Rieu, but with ginormous snails.