Why don’t you sell Vietnamese foods?

Thứ sáu, 11/03/2016 09:44

The 5 criteria that Golden Spoon aimed for has been turned into real action, as Mr Minh Ngoc Ly returned to Vietnam. He returned armed with a decision of starting a new journey which whilst challenging, is also full of energy and hope.

Having traveled on missions abroad too many times to count, Mr Minh Ngoc Ly feels that these trips have become part of his normal routine. One thing that won’t be fade away is memory; no matter how busy work, socially complicated relationships or constantly plans become. Memories are not only of the journey or the home but also the kitchen and all the good and delicious Vietnamese food that goes with it.

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to find an Asian food, especially Vietnamese food in Frankfurt (Germany) it wasn’t really so difficult. There were a few dozen restaurants selling Vietnamese dishes and run by Vietnamese people, to be found near the Ambiente Fair area. Every time Mr Minh Ngoc Ly attended the annual international ceramic fair there, he took his staff out to try German dishes. However, they were feeling homesick after 10 days in Germany. Nobody complained of course, but he realized by the way they looked at the German food on the table that they were missing the smells and remembering the tastes of home. He also recognized similar feelings in himself, one of the things that normally stays deep in the memory, is the flavor of our hometown food.

We were surprised every time we found a Vietnamese restaurant selling authentic Vietnamese dishes such as “Bun Rieu”- a noodle soup with crab cake or “Pho”- the famous noodle soup with beef, fresh or fried spring roll and also dishes from Hue. In the numbing cold of Germany, everyone felt warm, not only because they were reminded of home in the Vietnamese dishes, but also by the fact that no matter where in the world they traveled, they can still find Vietnamese food. However, Vietnamese restaurants in Germany are in decline and are not as numerous as before. Each year Mr Minh returned to Germany it became more difficult for him to find Vietnamese food. In 2013, the Golden Spoon Contest was inaugurated and Mr Minh wanted to do something to drive Vietnamese cuisine to dinner tables on a truly international level.

Mr Minh returned to Germany in the Spring of 2014 to visit the old restaurants but sadly some of them had been moved or changed to another type of business. He asked his staff to search for Vietnamese restaurants and then report back to him. A few days later one of his staff introduced him to a Vietnamese restaurant and he invited the rest of his staff to join him there after work. However, it turned out to be more of a Thai restaurant selling Thai snacks. The shop owner is Phong- an MBA and engineer with a passion for food. The shop was elegantly decorated and well run. With a European style and well ventilated it was busy and the clientele seemed very happy. Mr Minh was though a little bit disappointed. After all, surely a Vietnamese restaurant should sell Vietnamese food. With this in mind Mr Minh asked Mr Phong the following questions:

- I wonder why you don’t sell Vietnamese foods?

- Actually when I opened the shop I did intend to sell Vietnamese food, but it soon failed and I had to change to Thai, Japanese or Italian dishes.

- Do you know why selling Vietnamese food didn’t work here?

- I have thought about this a lot but still don’t understand why. Maybe it’s because local people just don’t enjoy the flavor or maybe our Vietnamese food isn’t popular enough. I also don’t know...

Picture: Mr Minh Ngoc Ly- Chief of the Organizing Committee of the Golden Spoon Contest and General Director of Minh Long I Co.Ltd

Mr Phong was sad to inform Mr Minh of about dozen Vietnamese restaurants that all had financial problems until gradually they had to close or face bankruptcy the same as him. This prompted him to change over to selling Thai, Japanese and Italian foods. Mr Minh and Mr Phong chatted late into the night. Before leaving Mr Minh asked him:
- If you had an opportunity would you want to go back to sell Vietnamese foods?

- Certainly. It is my wish, also.

Maybe when I come back to Germany next time your restaurant will have become famous and popular.

- Mr Minh laughed and said goodbye to Mr Phong. “Why wasn’t Vietnamese food successful? Mr Phong didn’t know the reason any more than the other owners of Vietnamese restaurants. Nothing happens without a reason, but the reason has not yet been discovered, Mr Minh thought.

Mr Minh walked around the city and remembered the places that he used to visit and restaurants where he would eat before. As a man of great experience he realized that everything depends on the Vietnamese mind-set when it comes to food. It is often said “when in the Rome do as the Romans do” when talking about people adapting to a new environment. For example, fish and meat stewed until its broth is thick and salty and accompanied with white rice might not be suitable for Western people. Spring rolls are often recorded as in the top 50 tasty dishes in the world but don’t figure in the most popular dishes in the world. Possibly its large size is over-facing for Western people. Slurping sour soup with whole fish, suits Vietnamese people but may not be suitable for western cultures when it is considered good manners to eat without making any noise. Western cultures have etiquette for the use of a knife, fork and spoon.

Another reason depends on the style of the restaurant and seemingly many people think that Vietnamese restaurants don’t have enough character. For example, raw spring-rolls as mentioned above, are made in different ways. Some establishments make them the size of a small loaf of bread, simply too big for some people. Other places use different ingredients as well as different presentation. This differs from Thai or Japanese restaurants who maintain a consistent standard. They also maintain a great balance between individual features and international standards. If we compare sushi in Japan, which has a similar standing as Vietnamese spring-rolls, it has grown in popularity all over the world. For Japanese people, Sushi is similar to our spring-roll, but it is very clear that spring rolls can’t compete for popularity around the world. The small cylindrical Sushi roll are wrapped in seaweed and cut into short pieces usually 6 to 8 pieces from each roll, with a precise size for each. No matter where in the world you buy Sushi its appearance remains constant. Comparing Vietnamese sour soup and the Thai, Tom Yum soup, both have very good taste but Vietnamese sour soup is inconvenient to eat because it is served with the whole fish including bones and the head. The presentation often is neither attractive nor consistent. In addition people don’t trust additives. But Tom Yum Goong soup differs, in that wherever in the world you find it, it is recognized easily by its unique spicy, sour flavor plus the great aroma of lemongrass. Moreover the Thai soup consistently maintains its beautiful golden yellow color. In addition it is very convenient to eat as the prawns are served peeled and other ingredients are prepared in suitable sizes, making it easy for the diner.

He was delighted to catch a newspaper headline which said: “Vietnamese cuisine, the perfect combination of charming Asian and classic French cuisine”. Thanks to this great comment, supported by most of people of Vietnam, our cuisine has been put among the top 5 most valuable culinary experiences in the world.

Why isn’t a valuable world cuisine’s popularity in proportion with the density of population? A few days later, walking to a subway station, Mr Minh was still running this question through his head. He went to market to buy some Vietnamese ingredients and asked his staff to cook some food at home to cure his homesickness as well as to ease his boredom with western food. Mr Minh’s staffs are as close as his family. He is a person who always respects others as well as taking the feelings of people staying around him, into account. He isn’t a strict person and people who are honest and friendly will get on with him, just fine. He stopped by an Asian run store that he has frequently many times before. This shop has now been expanded. Where once there was one counter selling Chinese food, now there are three or four, demonstrating Chinese food’s popularity. In addition there are many different kinds of dishes. Whilst there are several vegetables imported from Vietnam, all packaged products are Thai and Chinese. There is absolutely no Vietnamese food.

On the shelves, the sparse few Vietnamese foods are mixed in among many Thai food items, which are organized in a convenient and tidy way. They are arranged in long lines and up to hundreds of items. This is also a reason why Vietnamese restaurants prepare food with a lack of consistency. Exported Vietnamese frozen foods are not as fresh, so it reduces its flavor significantly. In addition Vietnamese food also relies on the use of different spices and there simply aren’t enough spices available in the markets. Therefore, most of the unique taste of Vietnamese foods, cannot be maintained, to the point where sometimes a dish ends up as a different meal, it is so far removed from traditional recipes. The name may still be the same but it has become a completely different dish. Meanwhile most of Chinese, Japanese or Thai foods keep consistency in preparation with ingredients and recipes allowing the presentation to follow and respect international standards. Bearing this in mind, it isn’t surprising to see that Vietnamese food can’t compete with others on international party tables.

This concern remained with Mr Minh and bothered him; he called his son and shared the story. Both father and son talked about the idea of the Golden Spoon contest. Changing long held habits is inherently difficult; changing a culinary mind-set is even harder. However, difficult does not mean impossible, especially if all traditional recipes are still available. Keeping national identity and following international standards in a positive way harmonizes and maintains standards. The Golden Spoon has a bigger mission. It isn’t only a project or idea related to ceramics that the Ly Family wanted to create. The 5 criteria that Golden Spoon aimed for has been turned into real action, as Mr Ly Ngoc Minh returned to Vietnam. He returned armed with a decision of starting a new journey which whilst challenging, is also full of energy and hope. To change something of this magnitude you have to tackle it from the bottom to top. It simply has to be a large and synchronized change.

Golden Spoon

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