In September 2013, Pho Holdings, the company behind the then eight-strong chain of Pho Vietnamese cafés in the UK, sent a legal letter to similarly named competitors in the country asking them to change their name. The reason? Pho Holdings were trademarking the word pho.
Pandemonium followed — both the legal action and the trademark were quickly dropped. But imagine what would have happened if this had gone through. Vietnam would have been in uproar. How can some lowlife, exploitative foreign company trademark this country’s national dish? It’s unthinkable!
That so much currency is placed internationally on Vietnamese cuisine represents a sea change. 15 or even 10 years ago, finding authentic fare outside of the Vietnamese-inhabited areas overseas was almost impossible. This writer remembers eating at a ‘Vietnamese’ restaurant in London’s Soho. The owners were in situ, but except for a few words, they didn’t speak Vietnamese. They were Chinese. But the tell-tale sign was the cuisine. It had no connection whatsoever with the fare produced in Vietnam.
Times have changed, and now together with nail salons, coffee, catfish and rice, Vietnam’s cuisine is one of its best-known and loved exports. Also, compared to other more established Asian cuisines overseas, it gets premium prices.
Get it Right, Please
One reason for the quality upgrade in Vietnamese cuisine is that so many people have now visited Vietnam in recent years; the knowledge is out there. Foreign arbiters of taste know the difference between the real thing and all that is fake.
As UK-born food blogger, Uyen Luu, says in an article in the UK’s Telegraph, “When I eat out and notice people have used the wrong herbs or the wrong size noodles, it drives me mad.”
This writer is equally frustrated when the restaurants overseas get it wrong.
A recent trip to a certain Vietnamese restaurant in North London demonstrated the errors that can be made. We ordered thit kho tieu — claypot pork with pepper — but the meat, while tasty, was all wrong. It was braised, braised in the same way as it would be for thit kho tau, another Vietnamese staple. With claypot dishes, the meat or fish is quite literally cooked in the claypot. Likewise, when restaurants overseas serve bun thit nuong with pho noodles rather than bun noodles — an all too common occurrence — this particular writer feels let down. Something inside me wants the cuisine I eat outside of this country to taste authentic, to taste as it does here.
Yet, this obsession with authenticity is a fickle friend. Why should a Thai curry, for example, have to be made to the same recipe used in Bangkok? And why do banh xeo, or Vietnamese pancakes, have to be cooked in the same way they are in Hue? They don’t have to.
Variations are fine, but labeling something wrongly isn’t. One of my favourite Thai restaurants in the UK, Busaba Eathai, gets this spot on. They cook the dishes as they would be cooked in Thailand, but with their own little twist. It works to a T. Everything is correctly labeled. And oh does it taste good!
No one person can own a particular type of food. It’s like saying only Italians can cook Italian cuisine, or that the only authentic Vietnamese food you’ll ever eat will be in Vietnam. Both assertions are absurd.
Providing what you’re serving up is what you say it is, then forget authenticity. There’s no such thing. It’s a case of how well or how badly the dish is created. As for trademarking the words pho, banh xeo and pizza? Now, that’s just utter madness.