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American man wins Vietnam’s heart with traditional cooking

Sunday, December 25, 2022, 15:13 GMT+7
American man wins Vietnam’s heart with traditional cooking
A collage of photos shows Chad Richard Kubanoff cooking at his home. Photo: Supplied

It has been around six months since Chad Richard Kubanoff and his Vietnamese wife took their three kids back to Vietnam after years living in the U.S..

Over the past half year, Kubanoff took over 557,000 of his TikTok followers on a journey into the wonderful world of Vietnamese food where he not only explores local dishes but also learns to cook them from his wife’s family.

Though his TikTok channel puts a heavy focus on learning to cook, Kubanoff is not all that unfamiliar with making certain dishes, particularly canh khổ qua (bitter melon soup), bún thịt nướng (rice noodles topped with grilled pork), or thịt kho mắm ruốc (pork braised with shrimp paste).

A supplied photo shows Chad Richard Kubanoff is making 'canh khổ qua' (Vietnamese bitter melon soup).

A supplied photo shows Chad Richard Kubanoff making 'canh khổ qua' (Vietnamese bitter melon soup).

Kubanoff’s first introduction to cooking Vietnam’s food was in 2008 when he moved to Ho Chi Minh City to work as a chef.

“I quickly became fascinated by the ingredients, techniques, and dishes of Vietnam,” he admitted.

It was during this time that his coworkers began introducing him to the flavors of Vietnam.

“I was lucky that there were two older women in the kitchen who prepared ‘family meals’ every day for the staff. That allowed me to see and taste the ‘normal’ meals that most [Vietnamese] families eat at home,” Kubanoff said.

“On my days and hours off, I would hunt through the city looking to taste every dish I could find and try to find different vendors serving the same dish so that I could see how different people prepared it.

“This helped me to understand the popular restaurant dishes as well as the everyday humble dishes.”

Eventually, Kubanoff met a Vietnamese woman to whom he is married now and the couple took a road trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, stopping in as many cities as they could to try the local fare and compare regional culinary differences.

Hoping to bring the flavors he experienced on that trip to other foreigners, Kubanoff and his brother started a company called 'Back Of The Bike Tours,' which ferries tourists to different street food vendors in Ho Chi Minh City for a 'tasting menu.'

“[Running Back Of The Bike Tours] forced me to become very good at explaining the dishes and ingredients to foreigners from all over the world,” Kubanoff said.

“It also forced me to learn the vendors and streets of Ho Chi Minh City very deeply.”

After five years of living in Vietnam, Kubanoff’s wife got a visa to move with him to the U.S., so he sold his company and moved back to Philadephia, Pennsylvania, where the couple opened a Vietnamese street food restaurant named Same Same, which they ran for about two years.

A supplied photo shows Chad Richard Kubanoff and his son are cooking at home.

A supplied photo shows Chad Richard Kubanoff and his son cooking at home.

A 'Vietnamese Filter'

Now a full-time content creator, Kubanoff’s passion for eating and cooking Vietnamese food shines in each video he shares with his hundreds of thousands of viewers.

“I wouldn't say it was hard for me to learn how to cook Vietnamese dishes because once you understand how food works and how to season food, all cuisines are similar,” Kubanoff said.

“[At first] there were just so many new ingredients that I had never tasted or worked with, so I had to taste a lot to learn about those new flavors and how they are usually paired together.”

Kubanoff’s favorite Vietnamese dish to make is bun bo Hue (Hue-style spicy noodles).

“I wouldn't say I have mastered anything, as cooking to me is a lifelong journey,” he said, “but I do feel very proud of the quality of bun bo Hue that I make, because I think it's such a special dish.

“I had many Vietnamese in Philadelphia who thanked me for giving them a true taste of home with a warm satisfying bowl of bun bo.”

According to Kubanoff, overseas Vietnamese love watching his videos of Vietnamese cooking because they remind them of home, while foreigners enjoy the videos because they are totally new for them.

“There are overseas Vietnamese who are homesick, but the most shocking and exciting things to me are the first- or second-generation Vietnamese who tell me that I inspire them to connect with their Vietnamese culture or make them feel proud of their Vietnamese heritage,” he said.

“These are incredible and truly humbling messages to receive.”

A supplied photo shows Chad Richard Kubanoff is making Vietnamese 'chè' dessert.

A supplied photo shows Chad Richard Kubanoff making Vietnamese 'chè' dessert.

Living in Vietnam has also forever changed the way he cooks, Kubanoff said.

“I would say that every dish I cook, regardless of what cuisine, now always goes through a ‘Vietnamese Filter.’ For example, if I'm cooking Italian [dishes], I might serve [them] with pickled chilis or a squirt of lime. And most definitely fish sauce,” he said.

For the future, Kubanoff hopes to continue exploring Vietnamese and learning new techniques, such as making fish sauce, fermented fish, shrimp paste, and pickled shrimp. 

Banh mi khong (Vietnamese baguette), banh tet and banh chung (two types of Vietnamese traditional dishes made from sticky rice, mung beans, and pork for Lunar New Year) are also on his list.

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Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

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