Back in 2017, a far-right politician in France angered his supporters and caused a small scandal. The faux pas? Enjoying a plate of couscous. Couscous is one of the most popular dishes in France, and it’s also a symbol of North African immigration. So how does the food of a former colony become “French” — and how much credit should France get for its culinary influence on former colonies? Reporter Samia Basille tells the story of two dishes that have crossed borders as a result of French colonialism: couscous and banh mi. Samia is an Algerian-French woman whose mother grew up in a French colony, so for her, these stories are personal. (Pictured above is Samia's mom, Nadjat Basille, who is featured in the episode.)
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O'Connell, with additional production this week by Samia Basille and Isabelle Duriez.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Marimba Feels Good" by Stephen Sullivan
- “Talk to Me Now” by Hayley Briasco and Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- “Child Knows Best” by Jack Ventimiglia
- “Trippin” by Erick Anderson
- “Lost and Found” by Casey Hjelmberg
- “Saturn Returns” by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- “Galilei Counterpoint” by Paul Fonfara
- “Rogue Apples” by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Diercks
- “Iced Coffee” by Josh Leininger
- "Pong" by Kenneth J Brahmstedt
- "Legend" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Samia Basille.
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 1): Vous écoutez RTL
[NEWS INTRO MUSIC]
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 1): RTL Grand soir
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 2): Clic à la une ...
Dan Pashman: Back in 2017, a major food controversy erupted in France. The media would dub it “couscousgate.”
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 3): Le Front national, lui, s'écharpe sur Twitter à cause d'un couscous ...
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 4): On appelle ça le couscousgate ou l'affaire du couscous ...
Dan Pashman: Yes, the technique of adding gate to a word to name a scandal has crossed the Atlantic. But this was more than just a silly food argument. Like the original gate scandal, Watergate, couscousgate was actually very political.
Samia Basille: Florian Philippot was the vice-president of the National Front, the main French far-right party. A few months after an election, a far-right activist published a picture with Florian Philippot and a few other people on Twitter. They were eating what appears to be a delicious couscous.
Samia Basille: Couscous is a dish that comes from the Berbers, an ethnic group in North Africa. It's semolina that's been rolled and steamed, topped with a stew of vegetables and meat, or fish. Because of its origin, some people here in France view it as a symbol of immigration. More specifically, North African immigration. So when this photo went up, some supporters of The National Front saw it as an endorsement of that immigration.
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 5): Vous avez par exemple un internaute, Renaud, qui lui reproche ...
Dan Pashman: Supporters of the far-right party expressed their anger on Twitter. One person tweeted, "When I go to Strasbourg, I eat the local specialty: the choucroute royale". Choucroute is a traditional dish from the East of France. Another suggested that Philippot should be kicked out of the party, and that everyone should eat choucroute, not couscous, to celebrate his departure.
CLIP (FLORIAN PHILIPPOT): Ceux qui parlent de provocation ...
Samia Basille: Philippot himself said his critics were idiots, and that if they tried couscous they would see how good it is.
CLIP (FLORIAN PHILIPPOT): Ils verront que c'est très bon ...
Samia Basille: But there was one reaction that I found most intriguing. Some people said the debate had no grounds because the North African countries of Algeria and Tunisia used to be French colonies. Therefore, they argued, couscous is technically ... French.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. French colonialism helped spread France’s culinary influence across the globe. The Vietnamese bánh mì wouldn’t be the dish we know today without French bread. Colonialism also brought new foods like couscous to France — and with those foods came strong reactions, in a country that takes great pride in its cuisine.
Dan Pashman: Today we’re asking, what does it mean for a food to be considered French? And when the French leave their mark on another culture’s cuisine, how do people from that group feel about it, generations later?
Dan Pashman: Reporter Samia Basille will share stories of two different foods that have crossed borders as a result of French colonialism. Later on we’ll talk about how French food influenced cuisine in Vietnam, with dishes like bánh mì and phô. But first, couscous. Here’s Samia:
Samia Basille: Couscous is one of my favorite foods, but I've never tried to cook it myself. I leave that to my mom.
Nadjat Basille: Fait moi de couscous ...
Samia Basille: My mom is from Algeria, an Arab country that was a French colony for over a century. So when my mom was born there, she was considered French. She became Algerian four years later, in 1962, when her country gained its independence after a long, bloody war.
Samia Basille: In the first years after independence, a lot of French people who were living in Algeria, along with many Algerians, moved to France. And some people in France traveled to Algeria for the first time.
Samia Basille: My dad was one of them. In the '70s, he went for a couple of years to teach physics. My mom was working at the library of the local university when she met him. They fell in love. But after his teaching post was finished, he had to go back to France. My parents missed each other so much that he asked my mom to come live with him. But …
Nadjat Basille: C'était même pas imaginable que je me marie avec un Français ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: Marrying a French guy was inconceivable. So it had nothing to do with him being French. It was just that he wasn’t Muslim. He could have been American or German… The fact that he didn’t share our religion was the issue.
Samia Basille: My mom’s family was also scared about what could happen to her if she moved to France. A lot of Algerians were leaving for France, looking for work, which led to a backlash from some French people. Around this time, an Algerian tourist named Habib Grimzi was murdered while visiting.
Nadjat Basille: Il a été jeté ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: Soldiers threw him from a moving train.
Samia Basille: Grimzi was 26, about my mom's age, when he was killed. And that wasn’t an isolated case. Groups of men organized what they called "ratonnades", which is a racist term that specifically refers to violence towards North Africans. In 1973, close to 50 Algerians were killed, but most of the court cases ended up dismissed. At the end of that year, a bomb exploded at the Algerian consulate in Marseille, in the South of France. The police never identified the perpetrators.
Nadjat Basille: Et donc tout le monde m'a déconseillé, ma mère comprise ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: So everyone told me not to go to France, that I would get killed, that they killed Algerians there.
Samia Basille: My mom was frightened, of course, but she was in love with my father. She decided to go anyway. She packed up her stuff and boarded a ferry to Marseille.
Samia Basille: She made her way to the north of France, where my father lived. But it was so different from what she was used to. The weather there is more like England.
Nadjat Basille: Je me suis enfermée chez moi ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: I mostly stayed home. People who came over joked that I was recreating Algeria in the apartment, because I turned the heat way up.
Samia Basille: She felt homesick. She missed her family, her friends, her country and of course, the food.
Nadjat Basille: On mangeait du couscous quand on était invité chez la famille ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: In Algeria, we ate couscous with relatives, with friends at home every week. Couscous is a family dish that we eat when everyone’s home on the weekend. Even before you’re out of the womb, you know what couscous is.
Samia Basille: But traditionally, people don't eat it in restaurants. In Algeria, you never pay for couscous.
Nacima Ourahmoune: When there is a funeral, people are invited to have couscous. When there is a marriage, people are invited to have a couscous.
Samia Basille: This is Nacima Ourahmoune. Nacima is a marketing professor and researcher at KEDGE Business School in France. She comes from Kabilya, a mountainous region in the north of Algeria, where she grew up eating lots of couscous. A few years ago, Nacima co-authored a study about how people eat couscous in France.
Nacima Ourahmoune: And I found fantastic the opportunity because yes, I found couscous has so many meanings that I was interested to dig a little bit into it.
Samia Basille: Nacima told me that couscous is not just about food.
Nacima Ourahmoune: This is supposed to give the Baraka the Baraka.
Samia Basille: So good luck?
Nacima Ourahmoune: It's good luck. You know, a good spell? So it's all positive in a sense, and there is also the preparation and how for weddings, for example, we have all these women from the family that want to cook their couscous for their guests. It's not about really the couscous, but the moment we share couscous has always some kind of message.
Samia Basille: All this explains why my mom missed couscous so much when she first moved to France. But even though she’d seen women making couscous plenty of times, she had never made it herself.
Nadjat Basille: Ma mère nous a jamais ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: My mom never forced us to learn how to make couscous, or do any cooking. Because when she was young, she had to do a lot of chores around the house. It was traumatic for her. So she left us alone.
CLIP (WOMAN): Je vais chercher le couscous ...
Samia Basille: One day, in her first few months in France, my mom saw a TV commercial for ready-made couscous.
CLIP (WOMAN): Mmm. Cette semoule!
Samia Basille: The brand, Garbit , which still exists today by the way, claimed it tasted as good as it did "over there".
CLIP (MAN): Couscous Garbit, c’est bon comme là-bas dis!
Samia Basille: "Over there" meant 'Algeria'. The couscous looked so good in the commercial. My mom thought, that’s it, that’s exactly what I need.
Nadjat Basille: Et donc j'ai décidé d'aller acheter ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: So I decided to go buy this canned couscous, Couscous Garbit, that was supposed to taste as good as it did "over there". Your dad told me not to. I said I would go anyway. He was like, "Well, I guess she should try it for herself. There’s no point arguing.”
Nadjat Basille: Effectivement, je suis allée acheter ce couscous Garbit ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: So I bought this Couscous Garbit. As I opened the can, I spilled a little bit of sauce. I picked up some of the spilled sauce with my finger. I tasted it. I almost vomited. Really, I almost vomited. I threw out the can and your dad said, “I told you so.”
Samia Basille: But my mom wasn't done looking for the perfect couscous. A few months later, a friend told her about a Moroccan restaurant that she loved, so my mom went.
Nadjat Basille: Les grains qui étaient crus ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: The grains weren’t cooked. You have to steam it, you have to take the time to cook it. But it was uncooked. And all this meat, these greasy merguez sausages, this chopped meat ... Everything was so oily. It was unbelievable. And I thought, never again will I eat couscous in a restaurant.
Samia Basille: But my mom might have given up on restaurant couscous prematurely. As more North Africans moved to France, many of them took over restaurants. In Paris, Kabyle people had already been buying and operating restaurants for decades. And eventually, beyond traditional French dishes, they started selling couscous. Here’s Professor Nacima Ourahmoune again.
Nacima Ourahmoune: These places were not places for immigrants, you know, and not even an ethnic sort of offer on the market because they were brasseries that you even would find like your — you know, in their original sort of decoration and atmosphere. And you would realize that you can have a couscous because it's on the menu, but you could also have a very sort of Parisian French brasserie meal at the same time.
Samia Basille: One of the North African families that owned a restaurant were the Nizards.
Mike Nizard: Bonjour: Je m'appelle Mike Nizard, restaurateur à Paris, essentiellement du couscous sous l'enseigne Chez Bébert ...
Samia Basille: I met Mike Nizard, one of the two brothers who run a couscous restaurant in Montparnasse, in the West of Paris. It's called Chez Bébert, as a reference to Albert, his dad who founded the restaurant at the end of the '50s. And this restaurant would change the status of couscous in France in a big way.
Samia Basille: Mike's family is Jewish, from Tunisia, which was also a French colony. They left Tunisia in 1956, when the country became independent.
[MIKE NIZZARD CONTINUES IN FRENCH]
Samia Basille: When they arrived in France, Mike's parents worked at a convenience store. But after colonization, as many French people started returning from North Africa, Albert had another idea.
Mike Nizard: ... coutumiers pour eux, le couscous ...
Samia Basille: He felt that many of them would miss couscous, which had become an essential part of their routine. He opened the first location in a busy street.
Mike Nizard: ... qui fonctionnaient super bien. Mon père ...
Samia Basille: Business went so well that Albert opened a new restaurant, and then one more. In the '80s, there were 5 or 6 Chez Bébert. The restaurant played a key role in taking couscous from an immigrant dish to one you would see on menus across Paris. Albert is also credited with popularizing a new, very French, style of couscous. Nacima knows it well.
Nacima Ourahmoune: There is this recipe that is not encountered or that was piled up. In France, this couscous royale, and the mix — especially, for example of this sausage that comes from north of Africa, merguez — that we would never add to a couscous actually in Algeria.
Samia Basille: Couscous royale not only has merguez sausage, but four other different types of meat, as well as vegetables.
Nacima Ourahmoune: Usually in North of Africa, it's one type of meat. Here the proposition that you find, especially in restaurants, is to mix, which is kind of bizarre. [LAUGHS]
Samia Basille: Even Mike, whose family helped make it popular, said his mom would never serve it at home because it’s not really “authentic” to what they made in North Africa.
Mike Nizard: Mais je pense que c'est une demande très française ..
Samia Basille: But, as Mike says, the French love it. And, I was surprised to learn, so do some North Africans. Nacima told me that her Algerian uncle always gets couscous royal when he visits France. He calls it "Parisian couscous".
Nacima Ourahmoune: My uncle will take this couscous royal because he loves eating, and you know, it's rich and so on, and it's different — familiar but different. And it's fun in a sense. And then maybe other members of the family will opt for a more classic sort of option, you know, on the menu. But there's this idea that it's not the original one, it's not authentic, but at the same time, it's not negative.
Samia Basille: The demand for couscous in France extends way beyond people with a connection to North Africa. It’s become hugely popular in every corner of France. It’s served in schools and hospitals, and it’s adaptable to all kinds of different diets. In fact, French people like couscous so much that in polls about their favorite foods ...
Nacima Ourahmoune: It's been pretty much consistent among the top three. And even if it's among the top five, it's still very significant in a country that is known for their richness, for their culinary sort of proposition. Couscous has made his way for sure.
Samia Basille: But even with how popular couscous has become, it’s still a point of contention. Like with couscousgate, the far-right candidate who was photographed eating couscous dismissed his critics by saying that it was French people who had lived in Algeria, and then moved back to France, that introduced couscous. He was trying to make it seem less foreign, and in the process suggest the French deserve credit for the dish’s popularity. On the other hand, one left-wing politician praised couscous as a symbol of cultural mixing in France.
Samia Basille: Regardless of politics, it’s clear that couscous feels different. To people on both sides of the debate, it still doesn’t feel 100% French, which is actually kind of like my mom.
Nadjat Basille: Pour être honnête ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: To be honest, I’ve never really felt comfortable in France. I love being here, but there’s always something missing. I couldn’t tell you what it is. Only when I set foot in Algeria do I feel relaxed.
Samia Basille: When I asked her about the most difficult part of living in France, she told me …
Nadjat Basille: La solitude ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: The solitude. Your dad worked, so I was mostly by myself. I had to make my way here, make friends, be outgoing and all that. My own children don’t really understand my way of thinking, my Algerian culture. My kids, they’re little Frenchies.
Samia Basille: But one way of feeling more at home here has been learning how to make couscous. After her two awful experiences with couscous, my mom started making her own. With some tips from friends and family back home, and a little practice, she was able to teach herself. And the couscous she makes is delicious. In North Africa, people say that your favorite couscous is your mom’s. That’s true for me too.
[NADJAT BASILLE MAKING COUSCOUS]
Samia Basille: I never learned to make couscous — just as my mom didn’t learn from her mother. And honestly, I felt ashamed that I didn’t know. After all, it's one of my favorite dishes and it's also part of my culture – my Algerian side and my French side. So recently, my mom gave me a couscous crash course.
Nadjat Basille: Personne, enfin ...
Translator Isabelle Duriez: I think most people don’t take cooking lessons with their moms, unless they were forced to. But at some point, we know how to do it without even thinking about it.
Samia Basille: She shows me how she takes the semolina, puts cold water in it, rolls it by hand. She steams it and then she repeats the process — rolling and steaming, back and forth until the texture is just right. She says that’s what makes good couscous. If you don’t spend enough time rolling the semolina, it’ll be too hard or too mushy. She also makes a stew with vegetables and meat, spiced with coriander, Ras el hanout, and other spices, to go along with the couscous.
[NADJAT BASILLE MAKING COUSCOUS IN FRENCH]
Samia Basille: Now that my mom showed me, I'll always have her instructions on hand, for the day I finally make it myself.
Samia Basille: I'm the result of a cultural mix between two countries that have had a troubled relationship for two centuries. I have an Arabic first name, so French people sometimes ask questions about my origins. But I don't speak Arabic, so when I go to Algeria, I feel like a foreigner.
Samia Basille: Still, when I’m in France, eating couscous, I feel like I’m home.
Nadjat Basille: Et voila, bon appétit.
Dan Pashman: Coming up after the break: How do Vietnamese people feel about France’s contribution to their beloved national sandwich, the bánh mì? As Samia finds out — it’s complicated. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s episode I dig into two of this fall’s hottest cookbooks: Shabbat by Adeena Sussman, and Chili Crisp by James Park. James moved from Korea to America, by himself, when he was just a teenager. He felt lucky to find a family that hosted him and treated him like their own.
CLIP (JAMES PARK): We would literally line up and she would cut little corners of crispy chicken skin and, like, dangle in front of our front.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHS]
CLIP (JAMES PARK): Like, what do you say, and like, I love you. And then she, she'll like, feed all of us.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Like a mama bird.
CLIP (JAMES PARK): Yeah. And I just love that I have that kind of memory.
Dan Pashman: James later became obsessed with chili crisp, which is how he ended up writing a whole book about it. So you can bet that our conversation goes deep on the Chinese-inspired condiment. It's a great story, that one’s up now. Check it out.
Dan Pashman: Okay, now back to reporter Samia Basille in Paris.
Samia Basille: In the first part of the episode, we talked about how couscous traveled from North Africa to France, from a colonized land to the colonizer. But it can also go the other way. And that’s what happened in Vietnam with French food.
Samia Basille: Before the U.S. was in Vietnam, France colonized the region for a century. French Indochina was made up of what we know today as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as a small part of China. The French left in 1954, right before the Vietnam War. But they left their mark on Vietnamese culture.
Minh Tâm: And I can see the link between the history with a big H, the capital H, and the history of the food. It was very connected.
Samia Basille: This is Minh Tâm.
Minh Tâm: I'm Minh Tâm and I'm a cook and I've been giving Vietnamese cooking lessons for over ten years in Paris.
Samia Basille: Minh has also made it her life’s work to understand more about Vietnamese food and its history. She does a lot of research and writes a blog about it.
Samia Basille: Her own family history is typical for many French Vietnamese people. Her parents were born in Vietnam during French colonization, when Vietnamese were required to speak French in school. And like in Algeria under French rule, there was a lot of movement between the two countries — French people living in Vietnam, Vietnamese people moving to France. In 1961, Minh’s dad moved to Paris to study music. Her mom also moved from Vietnam to Paris and worked in a restaurant. That’s where they met, and where Minh was born.
Minh Tâm: And at home we invited lots of people and Vietnamese friends a lot over for big meals. Food was very important in my family. First, because we love to eat. So it's a good reason. [LAUGHS] And every meal had to be at the table and we took the time to eat together. And secondly, food is a strong emotional bond, especially for immigrants.
Samia Basille: Over these meals, the situation in Vietnam was a common topic of conversation.
Minh Tâm: My father talked a lot about politics, the conflicts in the country, the separation between the south and north. Yeah, it was a very worrying subject for all Vietnamese at that time, '70s, '80s.
Samia Basille: As Minh would learn, during French colonization, French and Vietnamese food became deeply intertwined. Many Vietnamese food words even come from French …
Minh Tâm: The fried eggs, les oeufs au plat we say opla, or the cheese is fromage in French and in Vietnam, in Vietnamese, we say, fomai. Or butter, beurre in French, we say bô. Or coffee, café in French, we say café.
Samia Basille: The French introduced all these foods to Vietnam — fried eggs, cheese, butter, and coffee. Perhaps most important, the French brought their bread.
Minh Tâm: You know, in French cuisine, you always have baguette — bread, with your dish. And the baguette was served as a side with a piece of paté or pork roast, pickles, mayonnaise or mustard, butter. And it was served to French people who lived in Vietnam. But the Vietnamese, they liked to appropriate foreign dishes and to transform it in Vietnamese style.
Samia Basille: Over time, the French influence would lead the Vietnamese to develop a sandwich. It’s become one of their best known dishes around the world — the banh mi.
Minh Tâm: Instead of putting pickles, cornichons, cucumber, cucumber pickles, they changed it to carrot and daikon pickles. And they kept the pâté. It's very rich. A layer of pâté, some carrot and daikon pickles. We put the mayonnaise in the sandwich and we put pork roast, but in the Vietnamese style, you know, with the Vietnamese seasonings.
Samia Basille: Today, Vietnamese bakers have become experts in a bread that was introduced to them through colonization. By adding Vietnamese ingredients, they’ve invented something all their own. But some French people want to take even more credit for it, beyond the baguette and the pâté. There’s a theory that keeps popping up, that the term 'banh mi' came from the French phrase 'pain de mie'. ‘Pain de mie’ is 'soft bread'. But Minh doesn't believe this claim.
Minh Tâm: It's not pain de mie because we don't eat pain de mie. Pain de mie is the white bread, you know, very soft one. We hate soft bread. [LAUGHS] We like crispy baguette. [LAUGHS] So it's not pain de mie. And mie is wheat. So it's literally, wheat cake or wheat bread.
Samia Basille: This theory about the term bánh mì is not the only instance of the French taking credit for something they probably shouldn’t. There’s also the case of phô.
Minh Tâm: It's a noodle soup for breakfast in the north of Vietnam. And After 1954, it was popularized in the whole country. And I don't know why, but I heard from my father when I was a kid, that phô came from pot-au-feu — the name of the French pot-au-feu.
Samia Basille: That’s right. Some people believe that phô, now thought of as the national dish of Vietnam, is a variation on the French pot-au-feu. Pot-au-feu is a dish made with stewed beef, vegetables, and broth, but the similarities to phô stop there.
Minh Tâm: There is nothing in common. There are no noodles in the pot-au-feu, no carrots the phô, but there are carrots in the pot-au-feu.
Samia Basille: And it wasn’t just Minh’s dad who made this claim. She says many people in France have a similar idea about what happened during colonization …
Minh Tâm: French people who have lived in Indochina, or who come from colonial families, are often nostalgic for the country. And so they are so proud to say, yes, the phô is a popular Vietnamese dish but it comes from pot-au-feu and I was so angry when I heard that.
Samia Basille: This reminded me of how the far-right member of parliament claimed that couscous is French, because Algeria used to be part of France. Some French people seem to have done the same with phô. But Minh had her doubts. She set out to uncover the real history of the dish.
Minh Tâm: I made some research about the phô soup. And I wanted to know the origins and I checked in my dictionary, a French-Vietnamese dictionary edited in 1992. So it's a Vietnamese publishing I bought from Vietnam. And when I checked the word phô in Vietnamese, the meaning was Chinese noodle soup.
Samia Basille: Chinese noodle soup. Minh started connecting the dots.
Minh Tâm: Noodle soup, it always comes originally from China. It's a Chinese dish. Noodles, in general, it's an influence of China. So there is a very similar dish in the south of China, by the Vietnamese border.
Samia Basille: And it’s not just about the noodles.
Minh Tâm: The broth of the phô contains dry spices. And dry spices, they are specifically from China, like clove, fennel seeds, coriander seeds. We don't use dry spices in our cuisine, Vietnamese cuisine. There are certainly influences from the French cuisine in the cooking techniques and preparation of certain ingredients. But to call it inspired by a French dish, when pot-au-feu and phô noodle soup have very little in common ...
Samia Basille: Based on her research, Minh concluded that the French were trying to take too much credit for phô, just as they did when they claimed that the term bánh mì came from a French word. So why was her dad so ready to go along with the pot-au-feu theory? Minh has an idea …
Minh Tâm: We had ten centuries, 1000 years of domination of China, until the 10th century. And we fought so hard to kick them — [LAUGHS] to kick China out. And the culture is so similar, it's Confucianism and Taoism and we inherited from Chinese culture. We are so, so close, physically. And philosophy — we don't like admit to admit that we have so many Chinese influences in our culture. And it's easier for Vietnamese to admit the French influence in the food and the culture because it belongs to the contemporary history. As it's the opposing cultures, it's more visible.
Samia Basille: So they had a positive view of France?
Minh Tâm: Yes. I was very, very surprised because my family told me that the French were very kind. And they brought education. They brought a structure to cities and countryside, architecture, the structure in administration. You know, the south of Vietnam was very poor and uneducated. So when you have you have some French who brought education and structure and richness for the country, it's okay. I asked my aunts. I told her, "But aren't you upset to have a foreigner to govern to rule over your country?".
Samia Basille: What did they say when you say that?
Minh Tâm: She said, "No, it's not the same. You are from the young generation, the following generation. So you cannot think like us. Because when we were there, we didn't see anything change." That pisses me off! My first recollection of the idea of colonization in Indochina is that I wondered how we could occupy a country or territory, cultivate it to exploit its natural and human resources and settle colonizers. With one nuance, after talking to my family about their thoughts in on French colonization, my feelings have slightly changed. History is history. So there's no going back. There was historical context in which the era of colonization existed in the world. So today the concept of colonization wouldn't be acceptable.
Samia Basille: In her cooking classes, Minh talks about colonization and its impact on Vietnamese cuisine. And she makes sure her opinion is clear.
Minh Tâm: There's nothing wrong with the fact that the very popular bánh mì Vietnamese sandwich is a product of French culinary influence. On the contrary [LAUGHS], if you look closely, the French part of the bánh mì is the French baguette, the mayonnaise and the paté. That's it. And the rest is 100% Vietnamese. Are there any French sandwiches that look like a bánh mì in Paris? No, I don't think so. [LAUGHS] And so the Vietnamese have reappropriated the baguette by creating a Vietnamese dish. Bánh mì is Vietnamese, not French. [LAUGHS]
Samia Basille: For me, the debate over the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is a reminder that France once colonized a part of Asia. We don’t talk much about it in school. I spent more time learning about America’s role in Vietnam than France’s. Meanwhile, many French nationalists still mourn the loss of Algeria. It remains a topic of contention in politics. And not just in the far right party. Earlier this year, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said that he wouldn’t apologize for colonization. It has been an ongoing issue between the two countries since the end of the war.
Samia Basille: Minh told me she’s proud to be French. But she will always feel uneasy about the country’s history of colonization. I relate to that. That's part of the experience of being both from France and from a former colony: You can never quite forget how you arrived here.
Dan Pashman: That’s reporter Samia Basille in Paris. She hosts her own podcast, in French, called La Chamade. We’ll link to more of her work in our show notes. Special thanks to her mom, Nadjat Basille, and Isabelle Duriez, who read the English translations.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show comedians Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher, who are married, join me to talk about the role of food in their relationship, and to give me advice on the role of food in my own marriage. That’s next week. In the meantime check out last week’s show, which features two exciting new cookbooks and the stories of the authors behind them. There's James Park's Chili Crisp and Adeena Sussman’s Shabbat. That one's up now. Check it out.