Today is International Migrants Day, and while it’s mainly a day set aside to create awareness about the difficult and complicated issues migrants deal with, according to a paragraph on a U.N. website it’s also a day of celebration:
“Migrants contribute greatly to the sense of cultural diversity in modern societies, and to our appreciation of the oneness of the human spirit. They give us the experience of living in a global neighbourhood.”
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the food we eat. Immigration is partially responsible for introducing us to so many wonderful new cuisines. My current obsession is with pho, which is the heart and soul of Vietnam in a soup bowl. Pho (pronounced “fuh” with a bit of an upward lilt to the end of the word– like you’re saying it as a question) is beef and noodles in a rich, complex beef broth seasoned with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and fish sauce. Pho is typically garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro (coriander leaves), thai basil and chiles.
There is no shortage of places to find pho in Adelaide, but my favorite discovery this year was in a little community near where I live about 45 minutes outside of the city. Virginia, South Australia is pretty rural and home to many immigrant families who are market gardeners. In the past, market gardening was the domain of Italian and Greek immigrants, and still is to some degree, but the new generation of market gardeners are typically Vietnamese. So, tiny Virginia has a pho shop (right next to the bahn mi shop) where you can find workers taking a late morning break and enjoying steaming hot bowls of pho.
When I’m in there, I think about immigrants and the food traditions they bring with them. Certainly when immigrants open restaurants it’s often a means of helping others like them feel connected to their homeland and the culture they left behind. Some people might see an ethnic restaurant as a refusal to assimilate. But I see it as a way of sharing their culture with their adopted country and as a means to gain acceptance. When we eat that food, we are experiencing a culture in a very intimate way. Food is the only part of a culture that we physically ingest and make part of our being. So by eating the food of another culture, either conciously or unconciously, we are sending a message that we think they’re okay; that they are one of us and we are one of them.
Of course, it’s a big leap from acceptance of immigrant food traditions to acceptance of people, but coming to the migrant’s table is a good place to start.