Restaurants and revolutions

The night the Iraq war began, I went out to dinner with family at Breads of India in Berkeley. It was my mother’s birthday, but our talk was the farthest thing from festive. Instead, we talked about the brand-new war.

Except on such unusual occasions, the question of war is hardly what’s on the minds of most people when they sit down to peruse the menu in a favorite restaurant. Battles and military history don’t exactly spring to mind when deciding between crème brûlée and molten chocolate cake, despite the implicit violence in the desserts’ names. The fast-food “burger wars” are just metaphorical, but the history of restaurants—and our local dining scene—owes a surprising amount to the wars of the past.

Restaurants as we know them emerged in France and long were thought to be a product of the French Revolution. The old legend is that the cooks of the aristocrats, turned out of noble kitchens once the ancien régime fell to the guillotine, used their skill by opening restaurants. Rebecca L. Spang’s fascinating book The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture shows that the truth is more complicated. Originally, the French word restaurant referred to a kind of condensed bouillon, served to “restore” delicate (and rich) Parisians in the decades before the revolution. The establishments where such broths were served began offering other food as well and eventually, in the rigors of the revolution, dropped the quasi-aristocratic broth altogether. In the pleasure-seeking era after the Reign of Terror, the Parisian restaurant scene began to take its modern form, with menus, waiters and even guidebooks and reviewers.

Though I’m pleased to be able to trace the roots of my work to the Napoleonic era’s ravenous appetites, all that is fairly ancient history. Our local restaurant scene has far more direct links to war—the boom in Vietnamese restaurants being the most obvious example. The waves of Vietnamese immigrants who came to California as a result of the Vietnam War have started countless eateries, ranging from simple noodle and sandwich shops to high-end places, like Mai Pham’s renowned Sacramento restaurant Lemon Grass.

One of the early Vietnamese restaurants in the Sacramento area was Andy Nguyen’s, which is still family-owned and now serves a vegetarian version of Vietnamese cuisine. Jennine Tran, a daughter of the family, says that they left Vietnam in 1978.

“We are part of the boat people,” she said. The family arrived first in Indonesia and then, in 1979, in San Francisco, where an uncle of Tran’s—a general in South Vietnam who had left before the fall of Saigon—had already settled. Eventually, they relocated to Sacramento and opened Andy Nguyen’s, located at 2007 Broadway.

Opening a restaurant was a natural choice for a displaced people longing for their homeland. “Cuisine is very important in Asian culture,” Tran explained. “For the Vietnamese at that time, it was very important to provide that service. Before, you couldn’t find it, especially authentic dishes like crepe. And some staples, like beef noodle soup, have to cook a long time and are hard to make at home. Finding a good Vietnamese restaurant is a joy.”

If at first Vietnamese restaurants served the immigrant Vietnamese community, native-born Americans soon discovered their appeal. Indeed, new generations of Americans too young to remember the Vietnam War firsthand (I’m one of them) may be more familiar with pho and banh mi than with the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon. “People come and enjoy our food, enjoy our culture, but they don’t know the story behind it,” said Tran. “We lost our freedom, and we lost our country.”

Loss of both country and possessions also figures in the story of Mousa Amiri, a native of Afghanistan who owns Bamiyan Afghan Restaurant, located at 7622 Greenback Lane in Citrus Heights. Amiri was 12 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. His father and other relatives were arrested for speaking out against the Communists. As the situation in Afghanistan worsened, the family left everything behind in Kabul to move to New Delhi in 1981. After three years there, they went to Hartford, Conn., where they opened a franchise restaurant called Chicken Delight.

“After a few years, we said, ‘This is not for us,’” Amiri said. “Especially my mother and I. We wanted to have our own restaurant. We opened in 1989, and my mother did all the cooking. She loves to cook. In Afghanistan, the family recipes passed from mother to daughter.” Amiri, who moved to Sacramento in 2002 and opened Bamiyan in 2003, has written a cookbook based on her traditional recipes.

Tran’s mother also brought cooking skills with her from Vietnam; she had been taught cooking and sewing as a young woman growing up there. Tran says the restaurant business appealed to her mother because it was a way that she could use her skills, and the whole family could work together.

In both cases, wars separated the families from their homelands, but their restaurants and others like them have introduced their foods and cultures to Americans. Diners in such restaurants might seldom think about the bitter history that underlies the food, but the rich broth of a dish such as pho, much like the original restaurant, conceals a complex history.