“I can’t speak Vietnamese. I can’t fit into any off-the-rack ao dai. But at the very least I can taste for good flavor balance in any pho broth, or assemble a bite of banh xeo, lettuce and herbs without explanation,” SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho writes in an essay for Taste, doing the kind of identity triangulating familiar to any hyphenated American.
Her larger point, both in that essay and in her broader work, is that the cooking of American immigrant communities is more fraught with meaning than most people realize. They’re not just expressions of “grandma’s kitchen,” to put it in well-worn terms, but also expressions of in-group politics and allegiances, perhaps most dramatically represented by Vietnamese American cuisine’s fealty to the styles of the 1970s Saigon they fled.
“We’re only just beginning to complicate what it means to be an immigrant and what it means to engage in diaspora,” Ho says over the phone, choosing her words carefully.
On November 18, Ho will host a talk and cooking demonstration centered on just that issue, along with Diep Tran, the owner of LA’s Good Girl Dinette and co-author of the upcoming Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook. The talk is part of the Asian Art Museum’s “At The Table“ event series.
The stakes of the discussion are personal to Ho. As a queer Vietnamese American, she feels like her relationship to diasporic cooking is complicated.