The Cornell Vietnamese Association’s annual Pho Night was a night of nostalgia for anyone of Vietnamese descent. The event, held on Nov. 17 in the Memorial Room at Willard Straight Hall, provided an opportunity to eat the most well-known Vietnamese dish, phở, as well as other traditional Vietnamese dishes to celebrate Vietnamese culture as a community.
CVA is a cultural organization at Cornell for those who are connected or interested in Vietnamese culture. Through events like Phở Night, CVA promotes Vietnamese culture on campus in order to help those who have similar upbringings find a community that they can call home. All the food at the event was prepared and served by members of CVA.
As someone who is Vietnamese and who has grown up in the Little Saigon of Southern California, the region of the largest Vietnamese American population outside of Vietnam, I was excited to get a taste of home. However, my background also makes me have high standards when it comes to Vietnamese food. To those that enjoy Saigon Kitchen, I apologize, but I think Ithaca lacks good traditional Vietnamese food. So, while excited, I also entered the event skeptical.
For $6 for those that pre-order and $8 for those who paid at the door, guests had the opportunity to try three dishes: phở, bánh mì and chè đậu trắng. Guests had the choice of enjoying an entirely vegan meal since both the Phở and Bánh mì had vegan options and since the Chè đậu trắng was already vegan. I opted for both the non-vegan options when it came to the Phở and the Bánh mì. Guests also got to enjoy performances ranging from singing performance of mash-ups in Vietnamese and English by CVA members to a dance performance by the Cornell Lion Dance team. Guest even got the chance to win a CVA t-shirt from a game of trivia on Vietnamese culture.
My excitement was evident as I got to the event 20 minutes early and was the first one in line. The doors opened promptly at 6:30 p.m. and guests were greeted by CVA members, some of which were wearing the traditional Vietnamese dress called Áo dài. Guests were given a ticket once verified that they pre-ordered the ticket or once they purchased. There were two lines for food. The left side of the room served both vegan and non-vegan options of the phở, bánh mì and chè and the right side served just the non-vegan version of the phở. After receiving each dish, members of CVA checked the dish off the ticket. Guests sat down with their food on eight-top tables that were covered in a white plastic table cloth, some of which had decorative lotus flowers or candles in the center.
As soon as I sat down, I tried the phở bò, a popular rice noodle dish served in a bone broth and topped with beef brisket, scallions, bean sprouts and a lime to squeeze on top. Bò translates to beef in Vietnamese. Immediately as I tasted the broth, I was transported back to my dinner table at home. The warm broth had the same complexities to that of the broth that my mom cooks for 24 hours. It had the deep and rich aromas of ginger and star anise, the way phở broth should be. The lime juice balanced out the fattiness of the broth. While the beef was tender, I wish there were more pieces in the bowl. The complexities of the dish created a complexity of feelings; it made me warm, happy and homesick at the same time.
Next I tried the bánh mì xíu mại, meatballs in tomato sauce with shredded carrots and cucumbers sandwiched by a French baguette. Bánh mì means french baguette and xíu mại means meatballs. I typically have grown up with bánh mì thịt nguội, pork sausage accompanied with pate in a French baguette, so this version of bánh mì was actually new to me. You might think of a meatball sub when thinking about this dish and honestly the flavors were not too far off from one. The bread was a bit tough due to it probably being toasted long before it was served given that all of the dishes were prepared in Stocking Hall earlier that day. The meatballs were savory and well-seasoned and were balanced out by the acidity of the tomato sauce.
To top the meal off was the chè đậu trắng: a Southern Vietnamese rice pudding dessert with black-eyed beans and topped off with coconut milk. Chè translates to any Vietnamese sweet beverage, pudding or dessert soup and đậu trắng translates to white bean in Vietnamese. Nostalgia flooded right back as I tasted the dessert. I was taken back to Saturday nights where my family would end a long day of shopping in Little Saigon at our favorite chè place. The consistency was perfect, it was not too thick and not too watery. The dessert met all of the criteria of a perfect chè: creamy, refreshing and sweet. It was not overly sweet as the coconut milk topping (that I may have added beyond the recommended amount) counterbalanced the sweetness.
What made the event even more unique were the sustainable practices put in place. Many of the ingredients used were sourced from Anabel’s Grocery and all of the utensils were reusable. After guests finished their meal, they were directed to an area where they put any food they had left into compost bins.
Phở Night went beyond just eating Vietnamese food. It created a community that celebrated the experiences and culture of many. For me, the event became one that made me proud of my culture and one that showed me I had a home away from home.