New Cuisine on the Block

Vietnamese menu items are slowly gaining acceptance in the non-commercial sector.

By 
Paul King, Editor

Mention Southeast Asian cuisine, and Thai immediately comes to mind. It historically has been the “go-to” Asian cuisine after Chinese and Japanese, most likely because of the country’s status as a tourist destination and the fact that Thai cuisine can be so unlike the foods of those better-known Asian countries.

But there is evidence of growth in interest of the foods of a neighboring country: Vietnam. Slowly, non-commercial operators are beginning to incorporate Vietnamese dishes into their menus. Pho, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup, and banh mi, a meat and vegetable sandwich, are the Vietnamese items most often found on menus in colleges, hospitals and corporate foodservice.

For example, at Glen Cove Hospital in Long Island, N.Y., pho is offered every week in the employee cafeteria.

“I like that it’s quick to make, it’s easy to eat and, for the most part, it’s healthy,” says Michael Kiley, director of nutrition and food service at the hospital. “The sodium content might be a bit high, but other than that it’s a great meal.” The hospital also offers banh mi sandwiches on occasion, selling “a couple hundred” each time.

When the foodservice department at the University of California at Los Angeles renovated its Reiber Dining Hall in 2011, it went with a multi-station concept called Feast. Asian foods figure heavily in the menu mix, including Vietnamese Fried Tofu with Vegan Nuoc Cham over Broken Rice, Banh Xeo Pork & Shrimp Crêpes, a Mekong Delta Fried Fish Sandwich and Tomato Fish Soup.

Daryl Ansel, associate director of foodservice at UCLA, says the biggest hurdle to overcome, and the key to Feast’s success, has been establishing relationships with suppliers of Asian ingredients that are usually unavailable through traditional distribution channels. [Read more about UCLA’s relationships with specialty vendors online in our Five Questions for Daryl Ansel.]

Asian food “relaxed:” A year or so ago, Campus Dining Service at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, revamped the dining center in Johnston Hall from an all-you-care-to-eat facility called Eva J’s to an à la carte operation called Sabai. The name, taken from the Thai word for “relax,” reflects the Southeast Asian focus of the menu.

“We had three all-you-care-to-eat facilities, and Eva J’s numbers were going down and down,” explains Eric Cartwright, executive chef for Campus Dining. “À la carte facilities had been having great success, and Asian cuisine also is something on the rise. But we didn’t want to do something like a Chinese buffet. We wanted something that was authentic and unique.”

When Sabai was opened, prepackaged banh mi sandwiches were sold. But as the concept evolved, the dining team switched to a build-your-own station for the sandwiches.

“We offer a variety of proteins, such as lemon grass chicken, coconut-braised pork, firecracker pork and marinated ginger tofu,” says Cartwright. “Then we have several vegetables students can add, such as daikon slaw, papaya salad and marinated cucumbers.”

The daikon slaw and papaya salad also are sold as side dishes. Other Vietnamese items on the menu include lettuce wraps; chilled salad rolls, made with rice paper; and crispy pork spring rolls, a fried item.

Seattle’s Asian hotbed: If ever there were a U.S. city that embraced Vietnamese cuisine, it would be Seattle, says Eric Eisenberg, executive chef for Swedish Health Services in the city.

“It seems like there are pho shops on practically every corner,” Eisenberg notes. “We have had pho on the menu for a long time. We even had a pho station for a while. We discontinued it but still serve the soup. We have a chicken banh mi on our patient menu, for which we sometimes substitute tofu.”

Eisenberg says what he likes about Vietnamese cuisine is its ability to incorporate four flavors—sweet, sour spicy and salty—into each dish.

“It is a cuisine where every bite has those four flavors coming together,” he explains. “In other Asian cuisines, like Chinese, those flavors tend to be separate.” He also refers to Vietnamese as a much lighter version of Chinese, where sauces are often heavier.

For example, Eisenberg has done a Vietnamese version of chicken with cashews, using ginger, soy sauce and fish sauce, bok choy and chilies.

But at Swedish, the “new kid” on the menu is Cambodian. Eisenberg explains that every Friday, the cafeteria offers a station with a Pan-Asian or Pacific Island theme.

Recently he began offering a couple of Cambodian dishes, one of which is larb.

“Larb is a chicken salad,” he says. “It can be served warm or cold. Basically it is ground chicken, cooked with lime leaf and tamarind paste and served with green papaya, lettuce, shredded carrots and other vegetables. You can serve it as a dish or in a banh mi.

“When we put it on the menu I thought for sure it was going to be a tough sell,” he adds. “But we sold out of it. I guess in our neck of the woods there is definitely no aversion to new types of cuisine.” 

Chefs to the Rescue

At one Long Island hospital, a taste of “home” nurses man back to health.

Late last year, the foodservice department at Plainview Hospital, in New York, found itself in an unusual situation when faced with the challenge of a patient who was losing weight. Eric Sieden, director of food & nutritional services for the hospital, explains that the dilemma was twofold: the patient was in isolation because he was suffering from tuberculosis, and he was Vietnamese.

“We already had two strikes against us,” recalls Sieden. “But I had received a call from his doctor asking if we could send a dietitian to the room. So we did.”

Using a translator phone from outside the isolation room, the dietitian discovered that the man didn’t have any appetite for American food. He then asked for Vietnamese dishes.

Sieden says that although the department had been adding to its ethnic menu variety through an awareness program called Dignity and Respect, Vietnamese food wasn’t on the menu. So team members set about to rectify that.

“Our chef, Tony Volpe, and Lead Cook Margarita Santiago started looking at recipes for Vietnamese dishes,” he explains. “Margarita saw that some of the ingredients were so foreign that our suppliers might not carry them and went to her local market to find them. The cooks worked with myself and the dietitians to prepare a variety of meals in advance for this patient so he always had something to eat. The foods ranged from a Soy Sesame Chicken to a Coconut Milk Pork all the way to Peanut Sauce Rice Noodles.”

The meals were individually packaged and then frozen. At regular meal times, one meal was taken out, rethermed and delivered to the isolation unit.

The story has a happy ending. The patient eventually regained the weight he had lost in the early stages of the illness and was finally discharged last month.

“The funniest thing was, on his last night here, he asked if he could have a cheeseburger,” Sieden says, laughing. “When I do orientation for new employees now I tell that story and it always gets a laugh. But mostly I tell it because this was an amazing story about how everybody pitched in for this one patient. That’s what our jobs are all about.”