Global Food, Health, and Society

A Colby Community Website for ST297, Fall 2018

The Inauthentic Hamburger: How War and Globalization Changed a Vietnamese City’s Food Scene

Having studied abroad in the United States for years, one of the many kinds of food that I miss from Nha Trang, my hometown in Vietnam, is a hamburger. This may sound odd to you; after all, the US is the birthplace and global capital of hamburgers. The truth is, the hamburgers I ate in Vietnam bore very little resemblance to the ones served at McDonald’s here in the US. And although that means the hamburger I had was inauthentic, it did not stop me from enjoying the dish. In fact, it stirred my curiosity about how the hamburger came to Nha Trang, and what the recent arrival of McDonald’s and other fast food chains means for the future food scene in my hometown.

A typical hamburger in Nha Trang

It is hard to pin down the exact origin of the hamburger, and even more difficult to determine how and when the hamburger came to Vietnam. One thing that food historians agree on is that while the name “hamburger” originated from the Hamburg steak of Germany, it was an American who first served the beef patty on a bun, and thus creating the modern hamburger.1,2 However, it was regarded as a cheap and low-quality food until Walter Anderson and Bill Ingram opened a hamburger restaurant called White Castle in 1921, with emphasis on the freshness and cleanliness of their food.2 By the 1950s, hamburger was popular all over the US, largely due to the opening and expansion of McDonald’s in the 40s and 50s.2,3 But how did hamburger travel to Vietnam from there? Although I could not find any concrete evidence, it is likely that the dish came around the same time the US joined the Vietnam War in 1965,4 since it was Vietnam’s first significant contact with the US. Further evidence can be gleaned from the accounts of veterans like William Kahane, who recalled that American soldiers at his base (the largest US base in Vietnam) were provided with very good food, at times made by a Hungarian cook.5 Since it appears that American troops did not have to rely exclusively on local food, it stands to reason that popular American dishes like hamburger would be brought to Vietnam to serve the soldiers. In addition, my hometown was the site of an important US Air Base,6 so the chance that hamburger came to Nha Trang during the Vietnam War is high.

In any case, while the history of hamburger in the US is inextricable from the spread of fast food chains like White Castle and McDonald’s, Vietnam did not have any fast food restaurant until 1997.7 Consequently, if we assume hamburger came during the Vietnam War then its presence in the country predates fast food restaurants by around thirty years. It is thus unsurprising that the hamburger in Nha Trang has completely different form and role from its counterpart in the US. Firstly, hamburgers in Nha Trang are sold at bakeries rather than fast food restaurants, and I usually ate them for breakfast. Secondly, hamburgers are typically grilled in the US, but Vietnamese recipes prefer pan-frying the patties.8 A reason is that while outdoor grilling or barbecue became a national pastime in the US after WWII, especially in suburban areas,9 the dense urban setting in Nha Trang offers no space for grilling. The texture of the burger is different too. In my experience, Vietnamese people typically prefer fattier meat than Americans. That is likely why the burgers I had in my hometown were much juicier than the ones in the US. (In fact, Nha Trang’s hamburger had the consistency of an Italian meatball, so the proper term for it by US standards would be “soggy” rather than juicy). Finally, the most common hamburger sauce in Nha Trang was hot chili sauce rather than ketchup, mayonnaise or mustard sauce.

The hamburger I had in my childhood was thus heavily influenced by local cooking methods and preferences, so it is anything but authentic. This is unsurprising, since many other dishes have been transformed on their long journeys to other countries. Examples that we can see in the US include the famous General Tso’s Chicken and everyone’s favorite spaghetti with meatballs. However, while inauthenticity is often considered a flaw in the US, it does not lessen the enjoyment or nostalgia I have for the hamburger from my hometown. To me, the fusion of Vietnamese and American cuisines in that hamburger fits perfectly into the larger patterns of Vietnam’s history, which has been shaped by more than two millennia’s worth of exchanges – both peaceful and confrontational – with countries as close as China and as far as the US. On the other hand, there is still the criticism often heard in the US that inauthentic food engenders a false sense of multiculturalism. This is a valid opinion; however, I am not sure to what extent it is applicable to the hamburger in Nha Trang. Although its name (hăm-bơ-gơ in Vietnamese) clearly marks its foreign origin, I feel that not many people would consider it an ethnic food, as it has been so deeply integrated into the local food culture. Another reason why hamburger is not regarded as ethnic food in Nha Trang possibly lies with its setting. To illustrate, the bakery where I got my hamburgers also sold donuts, croissants, Danish pastries, Pâté chaud (a French-inspired Vietnamese pastry), dumplings, traditional Vietnamese pastries, and birthday cakes. This eclectic lineup in a corner bakery helps the hamburger blend in, so people do not single it out as representative of the American cuisine.

Pastries sold at my local bakery, alongside hamburgers. From top down: Pâté chaud, dumplings, and a Vietnamese traditional pastry made from mung bean and pineapple leaves

However, the recent arrival of McDonald’s and Burger King to Vietnam may change that situation. While hamburgers from my local bakery are not considered quintessentially American, the Big Mac certainly is. Therefore, when McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Ho Chi Minh city in 2014, people lined up for hours to try the iconic American food.7 The opening of the first McDonald’s in Ha Noi in 2017 created a similar hype, as hundreds of people from young children to 80-year-old ladies wait to order their hamburgers.10 Nonetheless, this fast food fad seems to be dying down, as McDonald and Burger King failed to maintain their popularity. After 4 years, McDonald’s has only established 17 locations in Vietnam, while Burger King only has 13 stores after 7 years.7 Their unfavorable positions can be attributed to fierce competition against established Vietnamese street food vendors, among other factors.7

Given the current rate of globalization, the food scene in Vietnam is in flux. However, next time I come home to Nha Trang, I will definitely have a good old corner bakery’s hamburger.

References

  1. History and Legends of Hamburgers. What’s Cooking America. Retrieved from https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/HamburgerHistory.htm

  2. McWilliams, M. (2012). The Story Behind the Dish: Classic American Foods. ABC-CLIO.

  3. Tarshis, L. (2015). Hamburger History. Storyworks, 22, 10-11. Retrieved from https://colby.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1642187169?accountid=10198

  4. Spector, R.H. (2018). Vietnam War. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Vietnam-War

  5. Hunt, M.H. (Ed.). (2010). A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Univ of North Carolina Press.

  6. Cam Ranh Bay Air Base. USAF Police Alumni Association. Retrieved from https://www.usafpolice.org/cam-ranh-bay.html

  7. Greeter, D., & Turner, A. (2018). Why McDonald’s and Burger King are failing in Vietnam. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/video/2018/08/28/mcdonalds-burger-king-vietnam-fast-food.html

  8. (2016). Cách làm humburger siêu nhanh, siêu ngon. Tips. Retrieved from https://meovatdoisong.net/cach-lam-humburger-sieu-nhanh-sieu-ngon/

  9. Miller, T. (2010). The Birth of the Patio Daddy‐O: Outdoor Grilling in Postwar America. The Journal of American Culture33(1), 5-11.

  10. Vuong, P., & Mai, A. (2017). Khai trương McDonald’s đầu tiên tại Hà Nội: Cụ bà 80 tuổi xếp hàng từ sáng sớm chờ chiếc bánh mì quốc tế. SaoStar. Retrieved from https://saostar.vn/xa-hoi/khai-truong-mcdonalds-dau-tien-tai-ha-noi-hang-tram-nguoi-xep-hang-cho-mieng-banh-mi-1867741.html

1 Comment

  1. Hi Thu, I really enjoyed your blogpost! I thought it was a great idea to trace the origins of a certain food item, the hamburger, to Vietnam in order to track how the American-based recipe was altered to fit the style of Vietnamese cuisine. It is really interesting to see how wartime can result in a mixture of cultures, ideas, and practices, especially in regards to food. I loved your explanations of how and why these changes to the hamburger recipe came to be between the 30 years that the hamburger arrived and the time that fast food restaurants opened in 1997.

Leave a Reply