What Is Diaspora Cooking? Soleil Ho and Diep Tran Might Know the Answer.

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Diep Tran holds a pot in a farm's field.
Diep Tran. (Courtesy of Diep Tran)

“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.

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“If you are different in some way, like in gender identity or your sexuality, and you’re also from a community of color that doesn’t really know how to handle that, it’s easy to distance yourself from that and find community elsewhere,“ she says. “So I wanted to make space to explore the idea that maybe you can be both [queer and Vietnamese]. Maybe there are people out there who understand. Let's talk about what that community could look like and what we would eat together.”

The subject of the event was chosen by Ho, but Tran—who also identifies as queer—surprised Ho with her choice of chả trứng chiên, or pork and egg meatloaf, as the dish for the talk’s accompanying cooking demonstration.

“We in the food world are still kind of working through our idea of what queer food is and what constitutes queer food and queer cooking,” says Ho. “Often it is associated with splendor, spectacle, hedonism. So it's a really interesting choice to do an egg meatloaf, which is a very home cooking dish … I think from a political standpoint it emphasizes the banality that is so often a part of queer life.”

Soleil Ho and Diep Tran’s “At the Table” cooking demonstration and talk happens at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St., San Francisco) on November 18. Details and ticket reservation information here.