A Vietnamese Kitchen’s Legacy: A Fusion of Food and History

by Jocelyn Contreras

“It all started with my grandmother. She loved to travel.”

In a small and crowded room, a mother and daughter sat facing a small gathering. Helene An, the Vietnamese Executive Chef of Crustacean in Beverly Hills sat erect. Her daughter, Jacqueline An, sat next to her. UCI was celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Southeast Asian Archive in Langson Library, and Jacqueline was telling the story of her family restaurant’s origin.

“She happened to have gone to San Francisco in 1971,” said Jacqueline.  “At that time the war was happening against – ”

“1969,” interjected Helene.

“Oh, she came in 1969 and opened the restaurant in 1971,” said Jacqueline. The crowd chuckled at the gentle yet proud correction the mother gave to her daughter. The story had to be told right, from start to finish. After all, it was told to Helene, then to Jacqueline and her sisters, and probably would eventually be told to her own children. The story told the very day that changed the An family’s lives.

 

In the room, the subtle aroma of garlic wafted through the air. On each table, there was a display of green and purple Vietnamese perilla leaves, a member of the mint family. Alongside these leaves were empty plates with an oily residue of what was left of the garlic noodles Helene and Jacqueline had served earlier.

Helene, who prefers to go by Mama, is hailed as the Mother of Fusion; she is known to combine different cuisines such as French and American into traditional Vietnamese dishes.

The An family has won the tastebuds of American tongues since July 1971 with the opening of their first restaurant, Thanh Long, or Green Dragon. Four more restaurants then opened following the success: in 1991, San Francisco witnessed Crustacean, the second restaurant to open. In 1997, Beverly Hills became home to the second location of Crustacean. In 2009, AnQi opened in Costa Mesa, and in 2010, Tiato, a garden cafe, had its grand opening in Santa Monica. The 40 years of building a restaurant from scratch and expanding to more than four restaurants are more than meets the tongue.

When Jacqueline walks into the kitchen, a clean, crisp, citrusy aroma of lemongrass reaches her nose and an old Vietnam that can’t be restored to its traditional antiquity is brought to life. The memories of Vietnam and its noble battle to become an independent, working country weaves into the beginning of Mama’s own odyssey to become a chef has been recorded in their anticipated cookbook, An: to Eat Recipes and Stories From a Vietnamese Family Kitchen.

The cookbook immerses its readers in the history of Vietnam. It starts right at the beginning, at 12,000 B.C., where prehistoric nomads settled in the Hong River valley to hundreds of years later with the many battles against dynasties in order get their land back. The readers are introduced to narratives that depict a chronological timeline. Prominent stories of Vietnamese history involve inspiring women who shaped history. The cookbook itself, goes even further into the An family’s journey and struggles with the communist rule, to the displacement of their family, all the way to the horrific effects of the Vietnam War to the present: a restaurateur in the U.S.

Vietnam’s history has influenced and shaped what Mama’s restaurant represents today: a taste of Vietnamese antiquity and influence. Not only is the traditional Vietnamese-fused cuisine representative of its historic timeline, but it is also a legacy that has been passed down to the An family. A rich history of adversity, poverty, riches, success and the  thriving, empowering women who took the initiative to run a business in order to survive and give the best to their family.

Mama came from an aristocratic family and as the youngest child, she was spoiled on  her family’s plantation. Three family chefs- Chinese, French, and Vietnamese – were the cultural influence of Mama’s childhood and her idea to fuse traditional cuisine.

As an 11-year-old in 1955, Mama had to move from North Vietnam to South Saigon after the communists took over and they lost everything they had owned. At a young age, Mama was taught by her mother to take care of not only herself, but also her ill father. Education was the only thing her parents believed could help her succeed. Mama got a proper education and was inspired to help her country in politics. She was just as ambitious and patriotic as her father who was a governor before the communist rule, though she was a part of a patriarchal society. Her parents arranged a marriage for her at the age of 20. She married Danny An and met her enterprising mother-in-law, Diana An. Mama was even more empowered to work hard and achieve greater feats regardless of her sex and circumstances thanks to her mother and Diana.

With a passion to work and a head full of modern sensibilities, Diana bought an Italian cafe in the U.S. She loved to travel, and as conditions in Vietnam was getting worse due to the war, she decided to get her Visa and move to the States. There, she opened the first ever An restaurant, Thanh Long.

Through their struggles and difficult circumstances, Mama decided to move to the U.S. and give her daughters a better life there. She had learned how to cook, thanks to her mother-in-law and to the chefs she observed in her kitchen once a upon a time. She took after Diana, running and expanding the family restaurants. Nothing can bring back the flourishing and peaceful times of Vietnam before the war, but Mama’s cooking creates a bridge between modern fused Vietnam and the antiquity of Indochina. Diana and Mama’s cooking led Mama’s five daughters to contribute, and eventually lead the restaurants.

Jacqueline wants everyone to know about Vietnam, not only about the tragedies that fell upon the green and peaceful country, but also the resilience brought forth by its people and the emphasis on the strength of women fighting for their country and their families.

She wants a permanent, tangible book to “capture the amazing legacy that [her] grandmother and mother had built.”

 

The cookbook lets its readers  peek into the restaurant’s specialties and their home kitchen, with the An family’s  signature recipes in addition to  dishes created for the James Beard House, a foundation that honors, recognizes, and celebrates chefs and other leaders that are impacting America’s food culture .

These simple, yet delicate dishes have been passed down from generation to generation with stories from their ancestors, their origin, their culture, their history, and their identity.

“Cooking and food became a bridge that allowed me to appreciate and take pride in being Vietnamese American. I want the same for my children,” said Jacqueline.

There is only one recipe that is not included in the cookbook, and that is the famous garlic noodles that Mama invented, the only inheritance and legacy that she is passing down to her daughters. This dish is the one that put the An Family’s restaurants on the map; it’s the most famous and popular dish on their menus.

“I don’t have money. I want to make sure that if you want to work, you can use that recipe to make money from that,” said Mama.

But most importantly, this recipe with stories of old Vietnam, struggles, adversity, humility, and success will keep their history alive for the next generation.