Taste Bud Profile
Chef Nini Nguyen grew up confident in her community, her family, and the foods that she loved. A born helper, she remembers always wanting to do something to aid her grandmother in the kitchen. A visit to Vietnam opened her eyes to how much there was to learn even about a culture within which she grew up—and how learning, re-learning, and un-learning can be valuable for all of us.
Nini Nguyen: My earliest food memory is probably of making bành bao with my grandmother. I remember rolling out the dough, filling it, then wrapping it in a plastic bag and twisting it to enclose it. That was the most fun part, the twisting—and much easier than pleating the dumplings by hand, which is what I do now! I remember being so proud of them. My grandmother would tell everyone that I made them, even though all I really did was put them together. I was always performing some small task, whether it was with my grandmother in the kitchen or sitting in the living room watching tv. I always wanted to help her. I’d use the mortar and pestle to crush whatever she needed, or I’d pick leaves and herbs from the stems. I always remember her saying about the leaves with holes in them, ‘Do you really want the caterpillar’s seconds?’
My grandmother was good at feeding people—and she had a lot of mouths to feed. Between her own children and the children of my grandfather’s first marriage, they had 11 children to take care of by the time they were here in America. It was just what she had to do, and she did it. We were in a very strong, tight-knit community where everyone looked out for each other, and she did a number of things to take care of us and also be an important part of that community herself. She’d sell food that she made to the grocery store, specifically these rice crepes with crispy shallots and mushrooms. People would pay her to pickle certain vegetables, like these small white eggplants that she salted and preserved—they were crunchy outside, and then the seeds sort of burst when you bit into them. She also shucked oysters, and whenever I smell oysters today, I always think of her with her little bucket and her oyster knife. On top of all that she always had friends over, and I remember playing ‘server’, walking around offering people dried squid with lime or whatever else she was making. I took so much satisfaction from that. I’m happy that I’m in this career, because I feel like I was meant to be here. It would have been sad if I turned out to be a doctor or pharmacist like my mom wanted! My grandmother definitely knew how to hustle, and I think I got that from her.
I went to school in New Orleans. Where I grew up, the kids were mostly Black and Vietnamese. I think I was very lucky—I never had that bad lunchbox experience of kids saying that my food looked gross. In fact, I remember that kids all brought their own foods and other kids would say things like “oh yeah, we have a version of that too.” It’s actually amazing to think about, but we were all eating the same shrimp chips with our Kool-Aid, honestly. In high school, I used to make elaborate lunches for my group of friends, and far from anyone making fun of it, I remember people being curious, and asking if they could try some. I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is “don’t be a yum yucker!” I didn’t grow up with anyone who made me feel less for my food, but I do see it all the time now. Seeing Vietnamese kids prefer to eat chicken nuggets makes me sad. They won’t have the same kind of childhood that I had—I don’t know if it’s better or worse but it was important to me. I see a lot of kids learning to be afraid or ashamed of where they come from, or not wanting to eat the foods I grew up with because they don’t see the value in it. I remember thinking that the things that made me different made me more interesting, and made me who I am.
I think that characters like Kalamata could definitely help kids be more open minded to try new foods but also acknowledge the foods that are unique to them. I wish more people would be like that!
Going to Vietnam for the first time was such an important experience for me. I felt like I had a culinary “aha” moment—everything suddenly made more sense to me. Simple things I took for granted, like the names of foods I ate every day, suddenly needed explanation and more context than I had had before. For example, a simple egg roll: I grew up calling it chả giò, and when I went to North Vietnam, I had the exact same egg roll from a street vendor and she insisted that it was called nem. I was like, “I’m definitely not trying to correct you, I just don’t understand why it’s called this.” And I asked my grandmother and she explained that while most Vietnamese people in America are from South Vietnam, she was originally from the North, and even though there are pretty big linguistic and culinary differences, in the US, she just called things what everyone else was calling them too. It was amazing for me to realize that there was what I thought was “traditional” but actually was a result of immigration and movement, and I realized that there was so much more that I didn’t know. I’m writing a book now and trying to capture as much of these moments of confusion and clarity—it’s a journey of re-learning what I thought I know, and getting in touch with Northern roots, Southern roots, and recognizing that it is also inherently an American story.