America is known as a hamburger culture, a place where people shudder at foods the rest of the world eats -- such as innards and slimy animals. Yet, Americans have probably the broadest tastes in the world. The French eat French food, almost every day. The Chinese eat food of their very own region and none other. Americans eat food from all over the world, day in and day out.

We have an English breakfast and a Mexican lunch. Dinner could be anything from Italian to Ethiopian. And tomorrow our breakfast might be French and our lunch Japanese. Even in the Midwest, which has long held out as the center of traditional eating, tastes are changing. When I lived in Indiana two decades ago fish was a rarity, and generally eaten only fried. At a seafood buffet the whole poached salmon would go untouched. Driving east, I could tell I was out of the Midwest by the appearance of oysters on the menu. Now salmon is commonplace from coast to coast, not only cooked but cured, smoked and even raw. Sushi has no bounds.

Southeast Asian immigration has been a strong influence in the evolution of our eating habits. In the '70s New York got its first group of Vietnamese restaurants. Now even Minneapolis has more than a hundred Vietnamese restaurants. Near the University of Minnesota, three Vietnamese restaurants can be found on one block, and one of them, the Lotus restaurant, has branched into a chain of at least six -- including a mod carryout called Lotus to Go Go. Locals call the restaurant chain, McLotus. University students find Vietnamese restaurants good sources of jobs, so the next generation will not only eat Vietnamese, but probably cook Vietnamese.

San Francisco is growing Cambodian restaurants at a rapid rate, and now Washington has two, along with several new Taiwanese restaurants. Washington has had Vietnamese and Thai restaurants for 15 years. Once largely hole-in-the-wall little places, now they include some with glamorous dining rooms and inventive menus.

And the foods become more prevalent. Vietnamese egg rolls -- cha gio -- are as familiar as their Chinese counterparts were a couple decades ago. And barbecue grills are cooking satays as well as steaks.

The hamburger culture is also a cha gio culture.

Tabletalk One of the few countries with a reputation for food even worse than America's is Israel. And as America has made its culinary critics eat their words, so Israel is attempting to do so, as well. Feb. 8-11 is Israel Food Week in Tel Aviv. This exhibition of Israel's food industry will not only remind the world that Israel supplies much of France's foie gras and the world's oranges, but will show off new products. Among those surprises are frozen dates, yogurt powder, vegetable sausage and frozen peeled apple cubes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been accused of being behind the times. Now the charge is proven. On Oct. 28 I received a press release -- dated Oct. 13 but postmarked Oct. 19 -- about the upcoming World Food Day on Oct. 16. Secretary of Agriculture Richard E. Lyng was to talk about "The Small Farmer in the Year 2000." Maybe there is still time for that farmer to get the message.

London's Chelsea is going Cajun, with the opening of Fifty One Fifty One restaurant. The menu will be regional American, with an emphasis on Cajun and Creole dishes. The executive Chef, Beaney MacGregor, comes from New Orleans' Royal Orleans, and head chef David Wilby comes from London's Menage a Trois, the appetizer-and-dessert restaurant that was a hit in London but less so in New York. Now Londoners can graze on blackened fish, too.

VIETNAMESE CHARCOAL-BROILED BEEF (4 servings)

1 pound beef flank steak or other tender cut, cut against the grain into thin strips

2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions

2 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam)

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 tablespoons chopped or crushed dried lemon grass

2 tablespoons oil

FOR THE SAUCE:

1/3 cup fish sauce (nuoc mam)

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

Hot chile slices if desired

FOR SERVING:

Sliced carrots

Sliced cucumbers, halved

Sprigs fresh mint

Sprigs fresh coriander leaves

Sprigs fresh basil

Iceberg lettuce leaves

Combine beef with scallions, fish sauce, sugar, sesame seeds and lemon grass. Heat oil in a small pan until hot and pour over meat. Mix and refrigerate a few hours.

Combine sauce ingredients and marinate carrots in sauce.

When ready to cook, either arrange beef on a grill or thread on small bamboo skewers and grill over charcoal or broil until browned, 2 or 3 minutes on each side, turning once. Arrange beef on a platter with cucumber half-moons; fresh mint, coriander and/or basil; and lettuce leaves. Drain carrots and add to platter. Pour sauce into small dishes for each diner. For eating, wrap pieces of beef with carrots, cucumbers and herbs in lettuce leaves and dip in sauce after each bite.

1987, Washington Post Writers Group