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.
Finding work in France has never been difficult. The challenge has always been finding a position that was well aligned with my interests and skill set. Needless to say, the job market in France does not mirror that of the US. The labor market here lacks the diversity seen in the US and is woefully resistant to change. France’s inadequate investment in scientific research has consequently stunted the evolution and growth of many fields, including my own. So, I’ve always settled for positions within the realm of my field of work, but the work was never quite what I wanted to be doing.
As soon as summer comes to an end, there is no shortage of events and art exhibits to keep us entertained during the fall. Most of the interesting events take place in Paris though, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the town I live in host a Food Truck Festival a few weeks ago. The event was the first and largest of its kind in France, and perhaps even in all of Europe (so says this article). Nearly 50 food trucks from all over Europe, including a craft beer truck that made the trek all the way from Italy. The food trucks served everything from traditional French fare, American classics, Brazilian desserts, North African specialties, Balinese dishes, and even Vietnamese favorites.
I recently read in the latest edition of the newly revived French Master Chef magazine that Vietnamese cuisine includes at least 500 dishes. 500 dishes – that’s astronomical! After reading that, I feel like a neophyte of my own cuisine, even though I grew up in a Vietnamese household subsisting mostly on foods from my parents’ native country. I haven’t even come close to eating through the cuisine, and I’m constantly discovering dishes through my MIL’s kitchen, exploring restaurants and the internet, which gives me the chance to uncover the cuisines from around the world without having to set foot on an airplane.