Growing up in California, we didn’t have to think twice about where our food came from. We lived in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley where the land is among the most fertile in the world. The state grows a staggering amount of fruits and vegetables, representing a considerable proportion of the produce consumed and exported by the US. California’s abundant sunshine coupled with its fertile land make growing almost anything possible. My grandparents and my aunties grew a variety of edibles, such as pomelo, persimmon, plums, pomegranate, asian pears, tomatoes, strawberries, chili peppers, lemongrass, and Vietnamese herbs. Being able to grow ingredients integral to our cuisine in our own backyard made preparing Vietnamese dishes infinitely easier, because we had very few Asian grocery stores within close proximity at the time.
It wasn’t until I moved to Berkeley for graduate school did the notion of eating locally grown, seasonal, organic foods enter my culinary consciousness. Living in the heart of such a progressive community and the hometown of renowned food revolutionary Alice Waters, I naturally became curious about the provenance of food and its mode of production. And once I read Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, these issues came into sharp focus for me. His stories of how industrial farmers treat animals and the use of olfactory techniques by certain fast food mega chains to attract and stimulate eaters revolted me. His book as well as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was instrumental in changing how I saw food and inspired me to become increasingly aware of what I consumed. I started to recognize the importance of making more informed food consumption choices and eating in a more socially and environmentally conscious manner.
The street that I lived on was bookended by Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods, making quality meats and produce easily accessible. Shopping for groceries became a whole new experience. The incredible bounty of produce at Berkeley Bowl introduced me to greens that I didn’t even know existed. A tomato was no longer just a tomato. Heirloom varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables recalibrated my palate and introduced me to flavors before unknown to me. Rather than shop for specific recipes, I started to seek quality ingredients that were in season, which then dictated what I would cook.
Even in Austin, Texas, where the unforgiving climate and soil are not as well adapted to yielding the copiously varied produce as in California, I became even more committed to the sustainable eating philosophy. I participated in the weekly Farm to Work program, which is a CSA providing locally grown produce directly to my workplace. To complement my basket of veggies, I often did the rest of my grocery shopping at the local farmers markets and grocery stores. These habits were relatively easy to sustain because I only had to feed me and my dog Elroy. Austin was also a city that ardently supported local, small businesses, which drove the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” So, all things local were readily accessible.
My eating habits, however, changed considerably when I moved to France and became part of a matrimonial duo. Initially, I did all of my grocery shopping where D bought his food—the Asian grocery stores in the 13th district of Paris. He eats a predominantly Vietnamese diet, but never gave too much thought to the source of his food. France’s climate is not well adapted for growing most of the vegetables, herbs, and rice that figure prominently in our cuisine. Consequently, access to such products is only made possible by importing them. Ample sunshine combined with humidity and fertility imparted by the Mekong river allow many fruits and vegetables to grow in abundance year-round in Vietnam. Dried goods (e.g. rice, noodles, flours, etc ), produce (e.g., herbs, bitter melons, water spinach, etc) and frozen foods arrive in Paris via plane twice weekly from Vietnam. So, the seasonality of fruits and vegetables never dictated what D ate neither while living in Vietnam nor in France.
After listening to me talk endlessly about the costs of eating foods transported from thousands of miles away and not supporting our local producers, D has started to integrate my eating philosophies into his own and has gradually changed his habits. I must admit though, that we don’t adhere as faithfully as I would like to the ethos of respecting the seasonality of food and their source. As much as we would like to subsist on an exclusively locavore diet, we agreed that it is not realistically possible if we want to continue to eat authentic Vietnamese dishes.
Depuis 1953, la ferme du luteau produit elle-même ses propres céréales, élève et abat ses volailles pour vous garantir une qualité optimale.
We have, however, made efforts to choose local products whenever possible. One of the grocery stores where we do some of our shopping has partnerships with artisans and farmers in the surrounding region. One of our favorites is chicken from a family-run poultry farm located just 60+ miles south of where we live. The Luteau Farm’s pastured poultry roam freely and their diet is supplemented with antibiotic-free corn and cereals grown and processed by the farm. They also have their own abattoir where they slaughter and process the chickens themselves. They sell their chickens at the weekly open markets in the Paris region and will even deliver directly to your home or work.
Since discovering these chickens, we’ve been buying chickens exclusively from this farm. The farm’s adherence to more traditional poultry farming methods gives their chickens a superior quality of life, which in turn yields scrumptious chickens that actually taste like chicken. No matter how these lady birds are prepared, the dish will likely turn out great. Among my favorite dishes to make with these chickens is Vietnamese caramelized ginger chicken. Once the liquid has reduced, it bathes the chicken in a gingery, caramel sauce that is a perfect mix of savory and sweet. Though ginger is not a local ingredient in France, I tend to go heavy on it, which makes for a satisfyingly warm meal–perfect for these chilly last days of winter.
If you, like me, live in a country where the cuisine of your cultural origins differs considerably from that of your country of residence, how do you grapple with the dilemmas of eating a more sustainable diet? What concessions have you had to make?
Caramelized Ginger Chicken
1.5 kg whole chicken, chopped into 8 parts*
10 cm piece of ginger, peeled and julienned
1 shallot, finely diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tsp salt
1.5 tsp sugar + 1 tsp
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp nước mầu
0.5-1 liter of water, boiled
1.5 tbsp cooking oil
*Save the carcass for making soups
Mix salt, sugar and pepper (3 tsp salt + 1.5 tsp sugar + ½ tsp pepper) and season the chicken with the mix. Allow to marinate overnight in the fridge*. Broil chicken for 10-15 minutes, making sure that all sides of each part has nicely browned. I don’t have a broiler, so put the chicken into the oven near the heat source on high temperature for about 20 minutes, turning the chicken parts after about 10 minutes.
Heat cooking oil in a deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add shallots, garlic and ginger, stirring until fragrant. Add the chicken and about 1 tsp of sugar. Drizzle the nước màu over the chicken and stir to ensure that each chicken part is well coated. Pour enough hot water into the pan so that three-quarters of the chicken is covered. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer. Turn the chicken occasionally to ensure that all sides cook evenly. Continue to simmer until the liquid reduces to a thick caramel sauce. Served with a side of steamed jasmine rice and sautéed greens.
*Note: The dish can also be prepared without marinating overnight if you’re pressed for time and would like to make this dish now. Though I heard on a podcast that marinating does nothing for the meat, I still believe that doing so gives the meat a richer flavor.