Feeling apprehensive, we left our bikes and bought train tickets to Italy’s famous sinking city—Venice. Within ten minutes, we felt that all the canals and gondolas and charming alleyways in the world wouldn’t negate the crowds, inflated prices, and trinkets.
Putting aside our cycle touring hats, we vowed to be good tourists. To that end, we skipped the supermarket and headed to a restaurant for lunch. We looked forward to settling into our corner table and writing a batch of postcards.
Before long, we were interrupted by a voice; a demanding, nasal, unmistakable, American voice.
“WHO. MAKE. PASTA?”
She was one in a group of five. To her travel companions, she said, “I want homemade pasta.” To the waiter—an older man with white hair—she repeated, slower and louder, “WHO. MAKE. PASTA.”
He seemed confused. She tried again, “WHERE. PASTA. MADE?”
There were more American tourists in Venice than I’ve seen in 12,500 kilometers. This woman fit the stereotype of Loud, Rude, Entitled, and Ignorant. As her compatriot, I wanted to stand up, clear my throat, and apologize for my country.
Instead, I concentrated on the handwritten menu. Many dishes were priced at €7 ($8.50); it was not exactly a fancy establishment. I didn’t see any signs of homemade pasta. Olli and I cringed as she continued to berate the waiter in caveman English.
I admit it, I disliked this woman, but I also felt a shred of empathy. I imagined how this she and her friends got to Venice. If they were average Americans, this two-week, maybe three-week holiday was all they got for a year of work—of course they were searching for something exciting.
Maybe they will spend two days on an airplane, then hours and hours staring out train windows, going from one hotel and must-see place to the next, “doing” Rome, Florence, Sicily, and looking for an authentic experience.
Perhaps all they wanted was an authentic meal. To them, this meant homemade pasta.
We’ve been in Italy for a month, but have yet to have homemade pasta. One of the things we did have was this: a message composed of 140-characters from a man who invited us to stay at his house saying, “my grandmother will cook for you.”
Alessandro, while preparing for a bike trip to India, found us on Twitter. For the past two days, Nonna (grandmother in Italian) fussed over us, implored us to eat more, and offered to wash and iron our t-shirts and socks. Nonna—as promised—cooked for us. So did Alessandro’s mother, Franca. We’ve been treated to risotto, huge bowls of salad, and yes, pasta.
But it wasn’t homemade.
A week earlier, we stayed with Lisa and Andrea for four nights in the hills above Verona. In addition to their jobs, they helped on their family’s farm, harvesting fruits and vegetables and making jam and preserves for the year. All of our meals contained something homegrown. For dessert, we visited a farm shop in a nearby village and bought gelato made from the milk of the cows who lived there.
Still, no homemade pasta.
Last month, we stayed with a man I met on my last trip, Marco. During our week-long visit, we swapped recipes. Curry and fried rice for him; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino—the way his family has always made it—for us. He described the other Minali food traditions, “During holidays, there are ravioli all over the kitchen—12 pieces for each person in the family.”
There it was, homemade pasta, but we didn’t have any.
These recent experiences came to mind as we sat transfixed by the exchange at the next table. The jostling went on for a while before the waiter turned the situation around with more grace than I could have.
“The gnocchi and ravioli,” he explained, “are handmade at the restaurant.”
“But,” he said, “the spaghetti isn’t old.” He repeated the “not old” theme until the woman chuckled and said, “I deserved that.”
Our meal—spaghetti and pizza—was unremarkable. But our neighbors, displaying another American stereotype, Hyperbole, repeatedly exclaimed, “WONDERFUL. Isn’t this just wonderful?”
I wanted to give them a glimpse of Italy as we have experienced it. The Italy of Nonna, Franca, Alessandro, Lisa, Andrea, Marco, and many others.
Traveling by bike has allowed us to slow down and be surprised. We have time to let experiences unfold without forcing them. We leave our notions about people and places at the border and let them reveal themselves to us as they are.
I still cringe when I remember the WHO. MAKE. PASTA? woman, but then I tell myself, Hey, that could have been me in a different life—a life without a bicycle.
Squares of faded colors and silhouettes catch my eye as we cycle down the streets of Bergamo, a small town in the north of Italy. A split second impression was enough. My intuition was correct; hidden behind the awning, above the wall calendars lining the windows, was a sign: Vietnam - Africa Market.
A man with salt-and-pepper hair looks up when I step inside. I greet him in Vietnamese. His eyes widen, his grin grows, Oh! You’re Vietnamese?
There are approximately 3,000 Vietnamese people in Italy, a fraction compared to the population of 1.6 million in the United States. In the ten years that they’ve owned the market, the man, who I call Chú Minh (Uncle Minh), and his wife, Cô Hà (Aunt Ha), have rarely seen a Vietnamese tourist, and never one on a bicycle.
We immediately jump into a friendly conversation.
Speaking Vietnamese has given me unexpected experiences all over Europe, such as when I stopped by a restaurant in Germany and was invited to stay with the workers in an attic apartment above the kitchen for three days.
I have met people from the Vietnamese community that I am familiar with—people like Cô Hà and Chú Minh that arrived in their host countries as refugees after escaping the new communist government in 1975.
But, I have also met Vietnamese that came to the former Eastern Bloc through worker exchange programs and stayed, others seeking economic opportunities in Scandinavia, students in Austria, and most recently, Vietnamese nuns practicing Catholicism in Italy.
Each of these groups recognized me as one of their own, regardless of my height (so tall!), my marital status (so single!), my bicycle (so strange!), and my limited vocabulary (so what?)
They recognize me as one of their own and in turn, I feel like I am among kin. English, the language of my thoughts, of a thousand beloved books, of just about every meaningful conversation that I have ever had, does not have the same visceral resonance that comes from hearing and speaking Vietnamese. After all, it is the language that I heard through my mother’s belly and out of my father’s mouth when he told me bedtime stories.
At times, this familiarity—as it does at home—begins to rankle. The questions, Why aren’t you married? What do your parents think of this? How much do you earn in America? are deflected again and again.
They are genuinely curious, but when I attempt to answer, I can see that they are unable to fathom how a person that looks like me can make such unconventional choices.
Our culture and values differ, but regardless of this, cans of coconut and lychee drinks and packages of instant noodles are piled in my arms and I am sent off with sincere wishes of goodwill.
It is no different in Bergamo: Cô Hà scoffs when I offer her money, “I know you can pay! But we are Vietnamese, understand? Consider me your mother or your aunt.”
Thousands of miles away from mother or aunt, I accept, and return to the shop to hear more of her story.
Cô Hà’s four older sisters fled Vietnam on a boat and was picked up by an Italian ship from a Malaysian refugee camp. Cô Hà, her mother and youngest sister were sponsored and flew to Italy, skipping the dangerous journey by sea.
“When people found out we were on a plane bound for Italy and not America, they felt sorry for us; to them America was paradise, but my family wanted to be in Italy.”
Her family heard that there was freedom in America, maybe too much of it, especially for the young—they felt that Italy would be a better country to raise their families. It is a decision that has worked out well. Italy has a tradition of close extended families, many people live near their relatives, frequently in the same building. The sisters, their husbands and children have remained close. Cô Hà feels that Vietnamese people have no major cultural differences from the warm and friendly Italians. Still, she misses Vietnam, a country that she has only visited once in nearly 30 years.
When I comment on the similarities between the Vietnamese people I know at home and those I’ve met abroad, tears fill her eyes, and she says,
“Being Vietnamese is a feeling, it is a choice, no one can force it away from you. When I go outside my home, I act Italian, but inside my home, I follow my heart.”
I give her shoulders—the exact size and shape as my mother’s—a squeeze and I know exactly what she means.
Zipped into a sleeping bag, Kindle in hand: I am ready for my nightly walk through the digital stacks. Wading through the impressive collection of e-cookbooks available from the Seattle Public Library, I choose Andrea Nguyen’s Asian Tofu. Unlike other recent finds—Glorious One-Pot Meals, Beautiful Breads & Fabulous Fillings—this one, while camping in and in-between European villages, is of no practical use.
Westerners often cite bread and cheese as the foods they miss the most while in Asia—the inverse for me during a year and a half in Europe is rice and tofu. Finding, making, and most importantly, eating tofu, especially “the good stuff”, is not usually possible: Andrea Nguyen’s latest cookbook is downloaded purely to assuage homesickness.
The plentiful photographs, rendered in grayscale digital ink on a 6” screen, are easily skimmed over. The lack of gloss and color forces me to rely on the taste palette etched in my memory from countless meals. Flavors such as lemongrass, fish sauce, bean paste, and chiles combine and recombine in my mind as I read the recipes like a book of short stories.
Asian Tofu, besides making me hungry, goes a long way in helping people understand tofu as something more than just a meat substitute. Andrea visits artisans, markets, and restaurants all over Asia in search of the story of tofu–her cookbook is rich with history, anecdotes, and over 75 new and classic recipes (including how to make your own.) She is a friendly advocate for one of Asia’s most versatile staple foods—something that I also aspire to be.
One of our first hosts in Portugal is a new vegetarian. Her kitchen cupboards were full of lentils, beans, and nuts of all kinds—but no tofu. When I asked her about it, she said she wasn’t sure if she liked tofu; she just didn’t know what to do with it.
First a wave of pity washed over me—a lifetime without tofu? Then I was flooded with compassion; I wanted to defend, to elucidate, to guide. I wanted to introduce her to one of my favorite foods. I wanted to share the images of tofu popping to the surface of my mind like tiny bubbles: here is tofu, fresh and simply adorned; deep fried and crispy; stuffed and grilled; served spicy-hot in a stone pot or silken-sweet in ginger syrup. It was difficult to convey the beauty of well-prepared tofu through words alone. I longed to prepare a small feast of soy and present it to her.
But, in cities without an Asian community, quality tofu is hard to come by. When it is available at the local market, it is packaged as health food—the taste and texture further damaging tofu’s image in the west. It’s a steep price to pay for a mediocre product at $3.50 to $6.50 for 8 ounces.
In lieu of physical evidence, I offered my host a thought experiment. Imagine, I said, a childhood without cheese. I explained to her that when I was young, even a few drops of milk spilled on a fingertip caused me to break out into hives. Tofu, I continued, is like cheese but instead of coagulating milk from a cow or goat or sheep, it is soy beans. Tofu—like cheese—can be eaten fresh, fried, fermented, aged, savory or sweet or stinky. My host looked unconvinced. After all, we were frolicking in the world of the hypothetical—she, raised in a small village in France, possessed an entirely different taste palette than me; imagining a cheese of beans was probably odd at best.
If only I had a full color copy of Asian Tofu to gift.
I came out of that conversation feeling like the luckier one. I have long grown out of my dairy allergy and am cycling through the heartland of cheese. When I asked my host to describe her favorite kinds—all chèvre and certain regional varieties—I didn’t need imagination, only a short walk to the fridge or market. In fact, since leaving Portugal, I have dived into my cheese education with such enthusiasm, that our host in Montpellier asked, So, you’re addicted now?
I might sample cheese by day—we have recently passed through the towns of Rocquefort and Gorgonzola—but by night you can find me on my back, reading books without pages, cooking meals without ingredients, and eating tofu without chewing.
( Somewhere in a small tent at the edge of a farmer’s field—a marooned stomach cries out. )
I stopped eating meat in my early twenties. The journey from vegetarian to ex-vegetarian started with a winter trip to Guatemala where I nibbled on a few strips of crispy American-style bacon and ended six months later when my brother–part-time line cook and full-blown foodie–moved into my basement, bringing with him the penchant for grilled lamb chops. As the primary cook in my mixed, formerly two-person household, all the meals were vegetarian. Now, it was two carnivores, the tantalizing smell of cooking meat versus me. On Thanksgiving, I roasted (and ate) my first turkey in seven years.
Since then, my eating habits have been flexible; I prefer to cook vegetarian food, but eat meat on occasion, mostly in the company of others. On my last trip, I ate what my hosts gave me, agreeing with chef and television host Anthony Bourdain when he said in an interview with Dianne Jacob, “It’s really important to be a good guest, because the table is the best reflection of a nation and fastest way into that culture… Now is not the time to say ‘I’m a vegetarian’ or ‘I’m lactose intolerant.’”
Or in my case, now is not the time to say, ‘I’m a lapsed vegetarian, but I vacillate about my decision daily’. I skip this awkward explanation and simply eat the food that people serve me, from spinach pancakes to duck blood soup.
On this trip, I am traveling with Olli, a decade-long vegetarian. It is easy when we are alone to avoid eating animals, but our conversation often turns to what it means to be a good traveler, a good guest, and a good eater. We retell an anecdote from a vegetarian cyclist who refused to eat meat from a goat slaughtered just for him by a nomadic family in Central Asia and his ensuing and lasting regret.
What would Anthony Bourdain do? What will Olli do?=
Our thought experiment was put to the test in our first country: Spain. Beef, pork, sheep, lamb, fish–the Spanish love them all. Whole legs of ham dangle from the walls of every supermarket and restaurant, even at some gas stations. A doctor we stayed with lived in a modern high-rise building; long links of chorizo (pork sausage), gifted to him by his patients, hung casually from kitchen shelves; on his table was a ham mounted on a jamonero, a support especially used for holding and cutting the cured leg of a black Iberian pig.
What does a country of meat lovers feed to their vegetarian guests?
Enter tortilla de patatas, the Spanish tortilla. Loved and served around the nation, on display at tapas bars, vacuum-packed in markets, used as sandwich filling, tortilla de patatas is nothing like the wheat or corn flatbreads we know from the Americas. It is thick. It is juicy. It is a plump cushion of egg.
In the kitchen of our hosts in Andalusia, we helped to peel and slice potatoes before dumping them in a deep fryer. We were ushered out of the kitchen before seeing how this was transformed into a perfect yellow discus. Our first tortilla de patatas released the fragrant smell of olive oil and sautéed onions when cut into wedges. The eggs were just runny enough to be mopped up with slices of chewy bread.
I liked it so much that I tried to recreate it for our next host. He was incredulous about my choice to make it for breakfast, my addition of red peppers and cumin, and my desire to serve it with ketchup. No self-respecting Spaniard would masquerade American diner-style home fries and scramble as tortilla española. My clumsy handling of the necessary pan-plate-plate-pan flip prompted him to say, “your tortilla looks like a transporter accident à la Star Trek”.
My first tortilla de patatas may have been unconventional, but during our time in Spain, we never had the same tortilla twice. The shape of the potatoes ranged from diced to sliced to roughly chopped. The eggs varied in viscosity and color. Some were topped with vegetables, others with cheese. The mother of one host was too shy to meet us, but not too shy to make us tortilla de patatas with zucchini.
During our thirty days in Spain, we ate the same dish with many different people; Spanish, German, Basque, El Salvadoran, American, French-Canadian. An au pair, a factory worker, a primary school teacher, a doctoral candidate, an almost-famous rock star.
Each tortilla de patatas was as unique and enjoyable as each of our hosts.
Last year while cycling around Europe, I shared meals with people in 15 countries. Sometimes plates of food appeared without effort from me. Sometimes I was at the stove combining whatever ingredients I had in my panniers along with whatever my hosts had in their pantries. The results were unremarkable: pasta, fried rice, that kind of thing. During longer stays, I was often asked to make “something Vietnamese”. Vietnamese people and cuisine are scarce outside of France and cities in the former Eastern Bloc, such as Berlin, Kraków, and Prague; many of my hosts wanted me to give them their first taste of Vietnam.
What could I make to represent a country that I have never been to?
The thing I cooked most often was cà ri gà. Chicken curry. The Vietnamese version of this popular Asian dish features sweet potatoes and bone-in chicken. It is mild, soup-like, fragrant with lemongrass and ginger, topped with cilantro, and eaten with a fresh-baked French baguette. It is not my favorite Vietnamese dish or the most iconic. Ask an average American to describe Vietnamese cuisine and they would say phở, rice noodle soup with beef broth or bánh mì, the ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwich. Those who frequent Vietnamese homes or restaurants might mention gỏi cuốn, fresh salad rolls, bánh xèo, sizzling crepes, or one of my favorites, bún chả giò, cold rice vermicelli topped with deep-fried spring rolls, served with fresh herbs, and a generous splash of garlic-lime fish sauce.
Cà ri does not come to mind. Maybe because it lacks a couple key elements that mark Vietnamese cuisine: the first being rice. So beloved is this ingredient that the phrase for dinner is ăn cơm, literally: eat rice. Jasmine rice can be difficult to find, the myriad of other rice products–rice paper, rice flour, rice noodles–even harder. Húng quế (Asian Basil), rau răm (Vietnamese coriander), and the other fresh herbs that are used generously in Vietnamese dishes (especially from the south) are virtually impossible.
The reason I chose cà ri gà is because it can be made anywhere. Ginger, cilantro, and baguettes are widely available. Even a market with a tiny Asian section (picture: instant noodles; soy sauce; frozen “wok” vegetables) has cans of coconut milk and curry powder.
Cà ri gà is also flexible. For the vegetarian, tofu is swapped with chicken. When tofu isn’t available, an extra portion of veggies is heaped into the pot. Soy sauce can take the place of fish sauce. White potatoes used instead of sweet. Rice will do if a suitable baguette can’t be found. Fresh lemongrass, so central to the flavor, presents the greatest challenge, but I have found it frozen in Chinese markets, dried as a spice or tea, or growing wild by the road (Portugal only).
Most of the time, the final product is only a shadow of the cà ri gà of my childhood. When I cook a Vietnamese dish, the goodness, the authenticity, is measured by one thing: does it or does it not taste as good as my mother’s cooking? More often than not, that answer is no.
However, only I am unsatisfied. My cà ri was well received in England, the Netherlands, Finland, Poland, Austria, and Portugal. For my hosts, asking for “something Vietnamese”, meant asking for is a taste of the unfamiliar, something that represents a cultural heritage that differs from their own, something from my experience. When they prepare food, they are sharing a part of themselves with me. It is in this exchange where the true measure of goodness and authenticity can be found.
My mother was just a young teenager when she arrived in Seattle. Her and her sister, Dì Van, are talented cooks. When Dì Van’s kids visited Vietnam, they were disappointed by the food, declaring that our mothers cooked better.
Every day, every spin of my wheels brings me just a bit closer to finding out for myself. I wonder how much of my Vietnam I will share along the way.