Can Anan Saigon Make Vietnamese Food Modern?

food - Saigon/HCMC: Nov. 10, 2017

Food news netizens might remember a particular commotion last year inadvertantly caused by famed British chef Jamie Oliver, who enraged Spanish eaters the world over when he publicised his recipe for paella, a rice dish traditionally cooked with shellfish, revamped by Oliver with the addition of chorizo and chicken.

Offended masses took to Twitter to share their outrage with what many called a bastardisation of a national dish—making something traditional into something barely recognisable. At that point, why even label it a paella, many wondered. Instead, maybe it should be called “rice with stuff”.

As Anan Saigon Executive Chef Peter Cuong Franklin remarked to #iAMHCMC, the uproar touched on the centrality of food to a country’s national identity. “I think food becomes personal, and also to some extent nationalistic,” he said.

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This has never been more true than in Vietnam, where many bristle over suggestions that hu tieu came from Cambodia and pho came from the French word for fire, feu.

However, Chef Franklin has made it his mission to change this—or, at the very least, to push diners to question it.

Asking the Right Questions

How do you make a cuisine rooted in the individualised traditions of millions of people in a broad and diverse country into a unified whole? What is Vietnamese cuisine really? This is a question Chef Franklin has been asking himself as he works to explore the possibilities of a different type of cuisine—all, he says, while respecting the history and culture of Vietnam and its food.

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It’s a question that’s never been more important to answer, especially at Anan Saigon, a restaurant literally situated between tradition and a rapidly changing modernity: almost hidden in one of the oldest street markets in the city, it’s also flanked on all sides by high rises, with a clear view of Bitexco from the rooftop bar.

This interplay between modern and traditional is a tapdance on a highwire that Chef Franklin has come to perfect, with crowd-pleasing favourites like his banh xeo tacos, served on contemporary made-in-Vietnam plateware and accompanied by personally curated cocktails. Ultimately, they strive to give guests a taste of Modern Vietnam, with a capital ‘m’.

A Global Affair

But whatever you do, don’t call it fusion. “I think that words like fusion [are] very dated, because it’s based on the old way of thinking,” Franklin reasoned. With an increasingly globalised world, borders continue to fall, and cuisine has been, and will continue to, follow suit.

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“The world is becoming globalised,” he said with a grin. “Fusion cuisine is about combining different cultural traditions to make something new and different. But in a globalised world, it’s happening all the time every day.”

Chef Franklin has big plans, and he’s not afraid of shaking up the status quo. His next project, for example, will be “redefining pho”, a project he’s both secretive and excited about. Is Saigon ready for a new take on the national dish? The real test will be seeing if it will meet the Jamie-Oliver-paella fate when it’s released.

Image source: Emilio

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