Soon after I posted a photo of Vietnamese grilled chicken legs on Instagram, this comment arrived: “Can you recommend an Asian market in the Bay Area?” I’d described the recipe as deliciously simple, but the person nevertheless assumed that special, hard-to-find ingredients were involved.
Whenever I’ve had conversations about the feasibility of making good Asian food from regular grocery store ingredients, people react with raised eyebrows (skepticism) or a smile (pleasant surprise). But the chicken legs are proof that you don’t have to shop at an Asian market to make great Vietnamese dishes. In fact, I developed all the recipes in my new book using ingredients purchased at mainstream grocers and American supermarkets.
Despite the food cognoscenti thinking that supermarkets are plebeian, I’ve always loved them. In May 1975, when my family and I visited our first supermarket in America, I was practically giddy. Piles of polished apples and oranges, tidy aisles, well-labeled products, meat neatly wrapped in plastic: The situation was far from the chaos of the open-air “wet market” that I regularly visited with our housekeeper in Saigon. I learned to appreciate grocery shopping, super-fresh food and haggling in Vietnam but welcomed the sparkling calm of America’s mega-food palaces.
Our family had just fled Vietnam’s communist takeover, and one of my mom’s concerns was how to nourish our family with familiar savors. At the Albertsons in San Clemente, Calif., she found cheap chicken backs, ginger and onion, which she fashioned into a fragrant stock and then harvested the fat and flesh to prepare comforting pots of chicken and celery rice that we gobbled up.
Unlike the unreliable sugar back home, American granulated white cane sugar is consistently fabulous for making bittersweet caramel sauce, a staple deployed for traditional Vietnamese braises of meat and seafood. Perky lettuce, cilantro and mint were readily available for wrapping up fried and grilled morsels. Swans Down cake flour proved to be a decent substitute for rice flour to make banh cuon (steamed rice rolls).
We relied on soy sauce until we could obtain fish sauce on excursions to Chinatown in Los Angeles. (Little Saigon in Westminster didn’t develop until later.) Making do during those first years was a fun adventure. Like many other refugees, we realized that culinarily, we could indeed be Vietnamese in America.
Because mainstream grocers helped my family resettle here, I remain fond of and fascinated by them. I regularly roam the aisles to look for ingredients to use for Vietnamese dishes, much like my mom did when we first arrived.
In the past few years, I’ve noticed that supermarkets have become much friendlier to Asian cuisines. Better and more authentic ingredients are available, as inventories have grown to an average of 40,000 items per store from about 9,000 in 1975. Checking out the Asian food sections wherever I travel in the United States, I’ve found excellent fish sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, coconut milk and rice at such markets as Giant Eagle, Kroger and Publix. Lemongrass, daikon and hot chilies are often found in the produce departments. Rice paper is easy to find, too.
How did those changes happen? I called Phil Lempert, founder and editor of SupermarketGuru.com and a food industry analyst for more than 25 years. The trend started with the Silent Generation, many of whom served in the Pacific during World War II, he explained. After coming home, they wanted to continue eating foods that they had tried while abroad. Their children, the baby boomers, wanted more Chinese and Japanese foods. These days, with globalization and the Internet, there’s broader knowledge, and people are more educated and curious.
“Supermarkets were losing market share to Asian markets. The distributors were doing volume at little stores,” he said. “With demographic changes and more acculturation in food, retailers understood that they ought to carry more Asian products. The supers want to be one-stop shops.”
Young people have affected inventories, too. “Millennials and Generation Z go to Instagram and look at a food photo and they re-create it. They’re willing to experiment,” Lempert said. “They don’t care to be introduced to the chef in the backroom and would rather just have great food no matter where it comes from. They’re value-conscious, do not want to be overcharged and want great quality.”
Decades ago, the initial growth of food television resulted in many hip foods being sold at gourmet stores and associated with expensive restaurants and celebrity chefs. “That has changed a lot. Look at the rise of Aldi and Lidl,” he said, referring to two popular discount grocers that have helped democratize food.
Increased interest in global flavors combined with a strong natural food movement has also pushed such ingredients as fresh turmeric, coconut water and virgin coconut oil to mainstream stores. Those items may be wonderful health boosters to some people, but to me, they’re game changers for creating flavors that beautifully capture what I’ve enjoyed in Vietnam. For example, I’ve long chased the alluring flavors of a golden-hued coconut rice that my parents adore. Now, I can easily render the vibrant rice whenever I want.
When the rice noodle selection is poor or I want to enjoy noodles in whole-grain form, gluten-free pastas come to the rescue. Brown rice capellini is excellent for refreshing bun noodle salad bowls and rice paper rolls; its heftier spaghetti sibling is perfect for spicy bun bo hue noodle soup.
Late last year, Whole Foods issued a trend report for 2019, putting strong bets on Pacific Rim flavors and citing dried shrimp and fruits such as guava, jackfruit and dragon fruit as ways for people to better experience “the world through their palates.” More of the exotic and unfamiliar is moving from the margins into the mainstream.
American supermarkets welcomed my family more than 40 years ago. We mined those grocers as well as Asian markets to replicate the flavors we feared had been lost. It was an issue of cultural survival.
Nowadays, I shop less frequently at Asian markets and see the future of Vietnamese food being buoyed by accessible ingredients, which allow more people to easily experience the cuisine’s brilliance. The story has shifted from surviving to thriving, from being Vietnamese in America to shaping Vietnamese America.
Nguyen is the author of “Vietnamese Food Any Day” (Ten Speed Press, 2019).
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