“I grew up listening to the stories of my mother’s childhood in Vietnam: the adventures, the dangers and the elegance of a lost world.”
So begins “An: To Eat,” and as you sit back in Proustian languor to thumb through this big, heavy, handsomely illustrated book, you begin to feel somewhat gastronomically shamed by the imaginative variety of herbs, spices and seasonings that accompany the preparation of staples like fish, beef and pork dishes created by Helene An and her late mother-in-law, Diana, and its steady themes of freshness, balance and simplicity. Before long, however, you realize with deepening shock that this book is about a lot more than cooking.
“An: To Eat” mainly consists of the menus you’ll find in An’s two upscale Crustacean restaurants in Beverly Hills and San Francisco, Thanh-Long (also in San Francisco), Tiato in Santa Monica and most recently, AnQi in South Coast Plaza.
To call it Vietnamese cuisine is a bit of a misnomer; there are Chinese elements from years of invasion and occupation; French influences from the long colonial period when the region was referred to as French Indochina; classical dishes from the centuries when Vietnam was a monarchy with a large, leisurely and refined aristocratic class; and some of Helene’s own touches as an exile living in America and desperate for a taste of the life she once knew.
Narrated by Helene and written by her next-to-youngest daughter, Jacqueline, “An: To Eat” makes no assumptions about the culinary sophistication of the reader. Whatever you have in the kitchen by way of pots and pans and cutting utensils makes a good enough start toward the oven-roasted lemongrass chicken, caramelized black cod and spicy chicken and shrimp ramen in cognac XO sauce, among others, depicted in Evan Sung’s vivid and artful photographs, which could qualify for an exhibit. And you get to eat this stuff!
There are Old World dishes like slow-roasted pork with ginger balsamic glaze, and crispy turmeric fish with fresh dill. There are comfort foods like beef stew with Vietnamese spices and, when you’re really sunk in the blues, a lotus soup with pork concocted to lift your most miserable mood. There’s an everyday gourmet section, a bistronomy section; and chapters devoted to sides and desserts; broths, sauces, dressing and special ingredients; and drinks – you’ll need to clear floor space for a lie-down after a few blasts of lavender mojitos or deconstructed White Russian with Vietnamese coffee martinis.
Above all, the book reminds us, food is not grub and dining is not eating on the runoff a plastic or TV tray. Dress a little. Put flowers and cloth napkins on the table. A meal with others is a form of communion. These notes are an evocation of the rites and tradition experienced by powerful old families to whom cultivation in society, politics and the arts a requirement of the good life. And all, in Helene An’s experience, periodically shattered by war.
Writes Jacqueline An: “My mother was born into this fairy tale world of wealth, privilege and power. Her family, the Trans, were well-known scholars and counselors with a family history that traces back over 500 years through 22 generations of high achievers …”
The first, she reports, is Tran Xi’s successful effort to expand Vietnam’s territorial boundaries. The most illustrious, Tran Lulu Hue, earned imperial appointment as Viceroy of Tonkin and ambassador; the office of governor stayed in the family for two more generations. But the tranquil life Helene knew was shadowed from the start.
She was born in a bomb shelter, as was her daughter Elizabeth. The World War II Japanese forces had invaded Vietnam. The French did the same later, to reclaim their colonial holdings. Ho Chi Minh’s rebel Viet Minh forces periodically attacked the ruling class, first in the name of national, then Soviet-aided communist, liberation. In 1955, at age 11, she had to flee the north on short notice. Her father was tied to a post and about to be killed when villagers intervened.
In 1975, with the fall of Saigon imminent, a friend showed up to warn Helene that she had an hour to get to the airport and out of the country. Her husband, Dan, an air force pilot, was assumed missing in action in the Philippines, leaving her with three young children. Her parents begged her to get them out. Helene’s words: “‘I can’t take one more invasion,’ my father said. I never was able to do it. They died in the ’80s.”
This is perhaps her most bitter memory. You can feel it behind her megawatt smile, a weight on her petite frame. She’d been a political activist at home, someone who used her privilege to help bring literacy to Vietnam’s indigenous people. To leave it all behind now was like facing, in Caitlin Thomas’ memorable phrase, “a leftover life to kill.”
But Diana An was a resourceful, determined woman. On an earlier trip to the U.S., before the family assets were frozen (everyone assumed the American-led coalition would win the war), she bought an Italian restaurant near Sunset Beach, a scruffy area in San Francisco. It was strictly on a whim, but once the family was airlifted to California and left to fend for itself, a one-bedroom apartment became home to seven people.
They made do through an 18-hour day. Helene and Dan worked several jobs. As time went by Helene, still homesick and weary of heavy Italian sauces, began making a spare garlic noodle dish to feed nostalgia as well as appetite, and put it on the menu. Diners took notice. It has become a signature dish.
As it turns out, her lifelong reputation as a picky eater masked a sensory precocity in taste, as sensitive hearing might prefigure a great musician, or visual acuity a painter or photographer. She and her late mother-in-law, Diana, improvised new entrees out of traditional cuisine, not exactly Vietnamese, not exactly anything, really, but a variety of dishes featuring balance and freshness; you could taste each ingredient, but no one part overwhelmed the whole. The Italian restaurant was reconceived as Thanh-Long, one of California’s first Vietnamese restaurants. A brilliant new life was born.
All the An girls – Monique, Hannah, Jacqueline, Catherine and Elizabeth – studied to go into other fields but came back to the restaurant business (Tiato is exclusively Catherine’s). Elizabeth, who doesn’t like cooking and accounting, has used her career in fashion and marketing to come up with the extraordinary interior designs of the An restaurants. The Beverly Hills Crustacean is noted for its 90-foot glass-covered stream with koi fish undulating through the middle of the restaurant. AnQi is more sleekly modern, with room dividers made of hanging silk, nylon matted curtains and a glass fashion runway. “The first thing I look for,” Elizabeth says, “is the ‘wow’ factor.”
Chances are that somewhere late along the course of your meal, the kitchen will send out its own “wow” factor, a bowl of Helene’s garlic noodles.
“I won’t go back and I can’t talk about it,” she says of the new Vietnam. Even if you don’t know the legend, the gentle immediacy of the dish still soothes what we’ve all felt at one time or another: the pain of memory.