Ho Hoang Anh: Ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine

VietNamNet Bridge - Called the “culinary diplomat” and “artist of royal gastronomy”, businesswoman and food expert Ho Hoang Anh has made it her mission to bringing the best of Vietnamese cuisine to the world

She declares: “Vietnamese food is not only our cuisine but also the painting of the country’s rich natural resources, the people’s hard work and their talent”.

Hoang Anh was born in the ancient village of Phuoc Yen, on the bank of the Bo River, 13km from the Hue royal citadel. Many villagers there were chefs for the Nguyen Dynasty. Hoang Anh is the offspring of a chief chef of Khai Dinh and Bao Dai kings.

Her résumé is impressive. A nuclear physics graduate. A student of restaurant management. A cooking teacher at the HCM City Tourism School. The owner of Phu Xuan restaurant in HCM City and in Tokyo and a Vietnamese cuisine expert.

Hoang Anh once “brought” an ancient Gia Lac market from Vietnam to Vietnam Week in Munich, Germany. This is a special market of over 200 years old, normally only open during the three-day lunar new year festival in Vietnam. This market was first organised by a Nguyen dynasty’s prince to allow ordinary people to taste royal cuisine and play folk games.

Hoang Anh decorated the market with traditional handicraft items like paintings of Sinh village, paper flowers from Thanh Tien village, wood sandals and toys.

Her meeting with Chinese American chef Martin Yan is also an unforgettable memory. Yan, who travels around the world teaching people to cook Chinese cuisines learnt about Hue cuisine from Hoang Anh.

Meanwhile, a meeting with South Korea’s Mrs. Hwang Hae Sung, 80, director of the Institute for Korean Royal Cuisines, inspired more new ideas.

The director of the Woosong University, South Korea, after tasting Hue cuisines and learning the history of Hue food at Hoang Anh’s Phu Xuan restaurant, invited Hoang Anh to an international workshop on food, organized by Woosong University, KBS channel, and the US’ Johnson & Wales University.

VietNamNet talked with Hoang Anh:

Why did you, a nuclear physics graduate, choose to be identified with gastronomy?

I grew up in a land with rich traditional cuisine and studied at the Dong Khanh School, a girls-only institution. At the school, discipline and the rules on women’s behaviour, including domestic tasks like cooking, were prioritised. Cuisine became my passion. Fate led me to open a restaurant specialising in Hue’s cuisine.

After visiting many places, observing how even the most developed countries would still treasure and take pride in their traditional cuisine, I took the time to learn more about Viet Nam’s traditional food and drink. I discovered many interesting things, especially about Hue’s royal cuisine. This cuisine is renowned, because it combines elements of the north’s traditional cuisine with the addition of the south’s diverse new spices.

What make a dish tasty, in your opinion?

The more people enjoy it, the more popular it will become. There are conditions to making it even more delicious: good company, timing and a good dining ambience.

Eating is not only about tasting and smelling, but also about listening and seeing. The presentation of Viet Nam’s cuisine in general, and Hue’s in particular, is an art form. It’s about mixing colours in a harmonious manner, making every dish a piece of art that is a treat for the eyes and all the other senses.

Philip Kotler, an American marketing expert, said when he came to Viet Nam: "Viet Nam could use cuisine as its most special characteristic to introduce itself to the world." What do you think about this opinion?

It is a very realistic and accurate comment. Viet Nam has a long-standing agricultural tradition. The four seasons over the vast north-to-south geography provide a diverse collection of fruits and other fresh ingredients. The long coast has provided the country with the advantage of cultural exchanges for a long time. All of these factors have helped create rich cuisine, with unique tastes from different regions, ethnicities and nations.

Vietnamese cuisine is not just food. It is a tapestry of the nation’s rich natural resources, the hard-work, delicacy and intelligence of Vietnamese people. Every dish has been preserved and developed over time. It is the country’s intangible cultural heritage.

Nem (springrolls) and pho (beef/chicken noodle soup) are often mentioned when talking about Vietnamese cuisine, but we actually have so much more to offer. To properly introduce our country’s cuisine to the world, we need to carefully research the most interesting, appropriate and edible dishes to foreigners in order to make them popular.

What is your most memorable moment as a Vietnamese cuisine expert?

I have been on many trips to various countries around the world to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to our international friends. Every single trip was memorable and each impressed me in a different way. However, the trip to France was particularly memorable.

On that trip, I worked with French counterparts to combine Hue’s traditional food with French wine. What impressed me the most was that the event was held at a cultural research and development centre. I didn’t expect to be introducing my country’s cuisine in such an environment. It introduced me to the idea that experiencing Vietnamese food was a cultural activity. I was very happy and proud.

Currently in Viet Nam many people, including cooks themselves, see cooks only as the people who make the food and nothing else. What do you think?

Gastronomy, cuisine, food...it is an art form, a beautiful cultural feature. In developing countries like Viet Nam, people might be too busy making a living to remember that. But I have observed that in developed countries where finances are not such a big problem, that people turn back to their traditions, including traditional cuisine.

In France, for example, cooks are respected very much.

I actually think it’s gradually changing in Vietnam. People from my generation are beginning to see food, and cooks, in a different, more cultural light.

There is currently a wave of Hue restaurants opening in big cities, like HCM City and Hanoi. Does it worry you that the authenticity of Hue cuisine will be tarnished because of this wave, which might lower the opinion of Hue’s original food?

As an element in this world, cuisine is a part of the flow of history. Thus, there is no protecting it from change. I believe the original should be preserved and promoted as part of the nation’s intangible cultural heritage, while at the same time the new should be encouraged to help make the original more popular.

For example, traditional Hue food is very spicy and may not appeal to the palates of foreigners.

So, as long as the new is edible, and holds on to its original aspects, it is actually helping to teach more people about the traditional cuisine. And that is very positive.