Paris is undoubtedly among the top gastronomic destinations for travelers seeking to indulge their appetite for culinary experiences. Yet, the city still has a ways to go when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the Vietnamese restaurants are concentrated in the 13th arrondissement, while a number of take-out eateries are scattered throughout the city. I have dined at most of the restaurants in the 13th, but I’ve found only one where I go back to time and again for their house speciality, bún bò Huế. As for the take-out places, you couldn’t pay me to eat the foods served there. Everytime I look through the windows of these joints, the unpalatable food looks like highly processed frozen junk sitting in gelatinous sauces.
Earlier on my walk today, I came across an Asian grandpa walking with his grandson, who was probably no older than 4 years old. After I had walked past them, I heard the pitter patter of the little boy’s shoes behind me and him calling out “madame, madame!” I turned around to see what was up, and the little boy was running after me with a handful of flowers that he had picked on his walk. He simply handed them to me and ran back to his grandpa before I could even say anthing. That sweet little gesture from a complete stranger completely touched me and made my day.
My time spent cooking in the kitchen has been a continuous journey of learning. I have graduated from being the head herb and lettuce washer in my mom’s kitchen to the one calling the shots at the helm of my own little kitchen in France. When I was cooking only for one, I stuck to a handful of dishes that I had mastered and added variety to my diet by frequently indulging in the decadent Texas cuisine in Austin.
The last leg of this winter has been exceptionally brutal in Paris and the surrounding areas. Several severe storms and torrential showers pounded the city throughout January, which caused the water levels of the Seine and the Marne rivers to overflow. We also saw very little relief from the thick shrouds of gray gloom that blanketed the skies all month. The sun only made a handful of rare appearances that were so fleeting that if you blinked, you likely missed it.
Before I started dabbling in Vietnamese cuisine, cooking the dishes that I ate growing up always seemed so daunting. My grandma, mom and aunties would make these dishes with such ease and never once did they ever refer to written recipes. It wasn’t the techniques or the step-by-step preparation of the dishes that seemed difficult though. The challenge for me was being able to accurately replicate the flavors of the dishes by seasoning them with the correct proportions of spices, salt, fish sauce, etc. Without recipes specifying the quantity of each ingredient, it was always difficult to know if what I was making was on its way to becoming a disaster or if it could still be salvaged.
My mom became a widow when she was only 28, an age when many of us are still trying to figure out how to navigate life. My parents had only just begun to plant the seeds to the life and future that they were hoping to cultivate for our young family. But before those seeds could even begin to take root and sprout, those hopes and dreams were violently crushed to a pulp within an instant. Our lives were derailed without forewarning, and my mom was abruptly propelled into single motherhood when my younger brother and I were only 6 and 4 years old. We suddently became three and New Orleans no longer had anything left for us.
Only in recent years have vegetarianism and its derivative regimens started to gain greater recognition here in France, a country whose culinary identity is inextricably bound to dishes that prominently feature meats and offal of all varieties. When I initially arrived here, most of the French people I met could not fathom the idea of omitting meat or dairy from their diet, and they considered meals served without animal protein as unsatiatingly incomplete. Friends visiting from the US who had dietary restrictions would have difficulty finding restaurants catering to their needs. But over the last few years, I‘ve noticed that meat-free as well as gluten-free dining options have become increasingly more common in Paris. I even met a French vegan in the master’s program that I just recently completed. I was astonished to learn that he had been vegan for the last few years, because I didn’t think that that eating lifestyle would ever be a thing in a country where cheese reigns supreme.
Alsace is nestled between the Vosges mountain range and the Rhine river along France’s eastern border with Germany. I first traveled to this region a couple of years ago to visit the villages along the Alsatian Wine Route, which is the oldest one of its kind in France. The idyllic villages, sprawling landscape dotted with vineyards, warm-hearted friendliness and the tantalizingly unique cuisine will easily charm any neophyte to the region. Alsace’s firmly established cultural identity and traditions are relics of its long history tied to both France and Germany. During no other time of the year are these traditions more prominently on display than during the Christmas holiday season.