Toward a Cuisine of Cultural Representation

Contributing writer Pho Vu ’23 recounts her experience tasting Val’s take on the Vietnamese pho dish, asserting that accurate representation of ethnic cuisines is a crucial step toward cultural inclusivity in the dining hall.

Toward a Cuisine of Cultural Representation
The author's bowl of "pho" from Val. Photo courtesy of Pho Vu '23.

Three Mondays ago, struck by an immense craving, I was tearing my hair out writing an opinion piece that petitioned for the appearance of pho — an internationally-acclaimed dish that speaks for Vietnam’s history and cuisine — on the Val menu. My right hand was tapping away at my Macbook’s keys (mainly “delete” because I felt like my sentences weren’t making sense, I was so hungry!) while my left hand was scrolling through Val’s menu for the day. Then, I saw it: Pho. On the Val menu. For dinner.

I sat through my classes impatient and restless, waiting for 5 p.m. to finally come and Val’s doors to finally open. After rushing through Val’s back doors and swiping in, I was dumbfounded at the long lines (not one, but two) for the “Traditional” section. Everyone was excitedly chatting about the new noodle dish being served for dinner. I was curious and eager to get my long-awaited pho. But my curiosity soon became knitted brows. Taking a peek behind the shoulder of the person in front of me, I was filled with confusion about what had been advertised as my homeland’s signature dish.

Let me go through the stages of making my bowl of “pho” at Val:

  • Noodles: I had two options to choose from, and under the pressure of a long queue behind me, I had to make a quick decision. Ramen or soba? I ultimately picked ramen, but did it really matter at all when neither was even close to the rice noodles signature to pho?
  • Toppings: shredded carrots, sliced white mushrooms, pickled ginger, pickled jalapenos, roasted soy ginger tofu, dried chicken breast, and shrimp. Out of these toppings, only dried chicken breast, jalapenos, and ginger are familiar ingredients of pho, except ginger is only used in the broth-boiling stage. I took these, then some shrimp and ginger slices to add more warmth to the bowl.
  • Broth. This is the essence of pho. Without it, pho would just be unseasoned Vietnamese spaghetti or chow mein. I was once again presented with two options: chicken pho broth and vegetable pho broth.
  • Before I turned to the utensils, I squirted a large dollop of the Sriracha chili sauce from the edge of the line onto my pho.

Back at my table, I stared at the bowl for a good 10 seconds. The last time I had pho was when I was in South Korea last year. It was normal pho with yellow radish and kimchi as banchan on a separate plate. That time I could still tell that I was eating pho, just with a Korean touch — the variations on the dish seemed to be culinary artistry to me, speaking to the creativity of the chef.

I still remember being so pumped at the sight of pho on Val’s menu, immediately messaging my friend who had never tried Vietnamese food before. I was so hopeful for Val’s pho to leave him a good impression of this dish I took immense pride in. But the moment I was presented with something that was titled “Pho” in the dining hall that night, I immediately wanted to take back my words. It was not PHO!

I was not initially upset with Val’s different take on pho. Instead, I was happy that my culture was acknowledged and celebrated in this semester’s new menu. However, my joy began to fade as soon as I tasted the dish. The flavors of Val’s pho failed to bring to mind the culture that I grew up in, betraying my confidence in the message behind the dish. Instead of satisfaction at the end of my dinner, all I was left with was disappointment.

Pho was born during the 20th century wartime in Vietnam. It can be said that Pho has stood the test of time — it has survived through national loss, suffering, and political turmoil, and it encompasses the culture of Vietnam. It is not a “new ramen” — it is central to our identity. A good pho is founded first upon a solid beef broth, with beef meatballs and beef slices to serve as toppings. Nevertheless, without vegetables, the dish loses its heart and soul. The best vegetables to pair with pho are generally things like bean sprouts, mints, cilantro, Thai basil, sliced jalapeno peppers, and lime wedges.

An interesting aspect of pho is that although it is globally treated as a Vietnamese signature dish and it really is, its way of making was developed from a classic French stewed beef dish called pot-au-feu — its phonetics even bears a resemblance with Pho. Furthermore, the dish is widely believed to have been largely inspired by Chinese and Taiwanese beef noodle soup. In this case, the original name 牛肉粉 (niu rou fen) has the character 粉 (fen), which also possesses a high similarity with pho.

The uncanny connections with other cultures is what makes pho accessible. It paves the way for Vietnam in integrating into a global community. At the same time, because of its multicultural characteristic, there seems to be no real pho, at the end.

In Vietnam, we have an unsettled debate between the North and the South on which pho is the best. In this sense, pho has become a national political object that represents the divide between two regions. Despite differences in the transparency of the broth and the side dishes used in the two areas, however, their original ingredients remain unchanged: marrow-rich beef bone broth, fresh-cut bite-size rice noodles, cilantros, and onions. I hope that, while making changes to this tasty dish, people still retain a part that belongs to our history. It is our ancestors’ wish when they name it phở.

Even though I was disappointed that night, I believe that the future can still be bright for pho at Val. Brainstorming daily dishes and feeding some two thousand students is a task only made possible by the tireless and loving efforts of Val staff.

At the same time, the administration at Val shouldn’t call this “pho.” There clearly are not a lot of Vietnamese students at the college, but that doesn’t mean they are not there, and they can tell this is not what they eat at home. Labeling it as phở opens the dish up to certain expectations. If you know you cannot get a close version of something, you should not not outright label it as if it is the authentic one. Doing that does not only affect the image of phở, but simultaneously places the ingredients used, in this case ramen and soba, in a dark shade. They belong to another culture, and using them to recreate a dish of a foreign culture misrepresents their identity.

On a positive note, I think that because Val already gave pho its day one, it can only improve on days two, three, four, and so on. I firmly believe that things can always get better through a collective effort.

The college, when it wants to introduce dishes from a new cuisine to better represent its diverse population, must therefore create a dialogue with students whose culture is represented by that cuisine. Action based on these conversations is the only way to get to a point where the dishes served at Val represent the students they claim to represent, and the only way to create a more truly inclusive environment in the dining hall.