Phở, Gỏi Cuốn, and Bún: How Vietnamese Food Entered the Australian Consciousness
The humble Vietnamese restaurant is synonymous with the Australian food scene, but how did Vietnamese food first gain popularity in the '70s and '80s?
by Emma Do
01 November 2017, 12:22am
This article is supported by Roll'd. We explore the journey of Vietnamese food in Australia.
My Vietnamese parents are genuinely surprised if a white person tells them how much they love phở. "Wow! You know Vietnamese food?" When I first brought my white partner home, mum made sure to ask if he was OK with eating fish sauce. My parents' impression of the white Australian palate is rooted in their experiences of the early '80s, back when large numbers of Vietnamese refugees began arriving—and when Australia's understanding of Asian food extended only to Cantonese fried rice and lemon chicken.
In 2017 young Australians are familiar, if not obsessed, with Vietnamese dishes. Last year's food trend report released by Google showed that consumer interest in phở has grown by 11 per cent year-on-year since 2013. Instagram's data from 2015 revealed Melbourne as the top spot globally for posts featuring bánh mì.
Next in line for the throne are gỏi cuốn (rice paper rolls), bún (cold rice vermicelli noodles), bánh xèo (crispy pancakes) and bún bò Huế (a spicy beef noodle soup from the central Vietnamese province of Huế). And it's about time.
It's been over 40 years since Australia first accepted Vietnamese refugees fleeing the fall of Saigon, and about 30 odd years since the Vietnamese community began opening restaurants—notably in Victoria's Richmond, Footscray, and Springvale, and New South Wales' Cabramatta, Canley Vale, and Canley Heights. Back before we could get bánh mì at the airport or phở at a food court, Vietnamese food was exclusively the domain of family-run kitchens in yet-to-be gentrified suburbs.
In the late '70s and early '80s, food was a means of survival to newly arrived refugees. Cooking—whether from a home business or at a restaurant—was a way to make money while still learning English.
"Most cooks were amateurs who turned to cooking to earn a modest income," says Tess Do, a lecturer at Melbourne University's School of Languages and Linguistics, whose research has focused on food and the Vietnamese diaspora. "The whole family, including young children, would join in to help." She recalls a friend who grew up wiping banana leaves used to make chả lụa (pork loaf) and delivering them to Vietnamese neighbours in Melbourne.
For the refugees of the time, it was almost impossible to untangle memories of war from food. Returning home was not an option. Food offered a way to hold onto the ideals of a former country and culture. Cabramatta's first Vietnamese restaurant Pho Tau Bay opened on Park Street in 1980, but years before, it had operated out of a garage where the Vietnamese community would flock to for a taste of home.
The earliest Vietnamese eateries on Victoria Street in Richmond served Vietnamese workers from nearby clothing and textile factories. Menus catered to their tastes, serving up cơm tấm (broken rice often served with a grilled pork chop), hủ tiếu (chewy tapioca or thin rice noodles served dry or in soup), cơm bình dân (the "common people's" serving of rice and assorted side dishes), and, of course, restorative bowls of phở.
Meca Ho, president of the Victoria Street Business Association, grew up in the high-rise flats surrounding Richmond during the '80s. His family also established a restaurant on Victoria Street that he continues to run. He remembers how difficult it was to source certain ingredients. "In Vietnam you would have all these different herbs in the bún, but here we just did it with Australian lettuce and prawns."
Opening up a restaurant outside of an established Vietnamese hub was more of a challenge. Vietnamese-adoptee and playwright Dominic Golding remembers Mt. Gambier's first Vietnamese restaurant in the mid-'80s quickly switching to Chinese food upon realising the locals weren't ready. You can still walk into long-running restaurants now and find both Vietnamese and Chinese items on the menu, a relic of a time when it was safer to cover all bases .
The Vietnamese restaurant boom hit Victoria Street in the early '90s and with it came Vietnamese-run grocery stores, video rental shops, hairdressers, and travel agents. By that time, Vietnam itself had begun opening up to the world, encouraging foreign investment and private business, so ingredients were much easier to import to Australia.
Over in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, Luke and Pauline Nguyen's parents opened up their family restaurant Pho Cay Du, which would give the soon-to-be-famous Nguyen children their grounding in hospitality.
You can't trace Vietnamese food's rise in Australia without mentioning Luke and Pauline Nguyen's restaurant Red Lantern, which opened in Sydney's Surry Hills in 2002. It was instrumental in putting modern Vietnamese food on the map for both press and regular diners, before Luke's later cookbooks and TV appearances spurred on a nation-wide interest in Vietnamese food.
The second generation of Vietnamese-Australians cooks and chefs who grew up in Australia are largely free from the baggage of their migrant parents. There is space in the kitchen to be daring, to challenge Australia's perceptions of their culture's food.
Fairfield councillor Dai Le grew up in Cabramatta and has watched generations of Vietnamese food businesses evolve. "In the past year, we've seen young people open up restaurants and cafes in Cabramatta doing smashed avo on toast with an Asian twist to it, others doing authentic Vietnamese coffee and desserts with durian. I think young people of this generation are very much entrepreneurial."
There are now more than 60 Vietnamese restaurants in the Cabramatta Town Centre, and more than 30 on Victoria Street. The dozens of restaurants existing side-by-side is evidence of our endless appetite—and how far an accessible price point can contribute.
"Between 1995 to about 2010, the majority of the customers dining on Victoria Street were Australian [non-Vietnamese]," Meca tells VICE. "We [Vietnamese restaurateurs] were known for being good value for money."
At it's best, Vietnamese food is the perfect balance of flavours and textures—a healthy abundance of freshness thanks to its unsparing use of herbs; cold, raw ingredients matched with sticky char-grilled proteins; deep, fragrant broths that heal the soul.
Australians are increasingly knowledgeable about foods of the world and we're hungry to taste it all. We're just as happy slurping a bowl of phở squished into a restaurant blasting daytime TV as we are jostling in line for a lunchtime bánh mì in the CBD. But as you pay for your third Vietnamese iced coffee for the week, it's worth remembering the sacrifice and grunt work it's taken a generation of Vietnamese refugee families to finally open up our minds and bellies.
This article is supported by Roll'd. You can find out more about their modern take on authentic Vietnamese flavours here.