Folk Artists Gallery Ho-Thanh Nguyen
About Ho-Thanh Nguyen:
Ho-Thanh Nguyen of Mechanicsburg, PA is originally from Vietnam. Cooking the traditional foods of her native land keeps that culture alive and fresh for Ho-Thanh and her family. In August 2020, she shared with folklorist Amy Skillman that cooking is an artistry of love.
Her name is pronounced Ho-Tang Win.
Cooking as art
Ho-Thanh Nguyen believes that cooking is an art. Reflecting on her traditional Vietnamese recipes, she notes, “Not all the Vietnamese foods have the same color. We have different colors. We have yellow, we have green, we have red, we have orange. If you cook and you’re happy, you put the seasoning in and stir it up and you taste it. You either say ‘wow, it's good,’ or, you say ‘no, we need this or that.’ It is the same way when you do a painting.” While achieving just the right flavor is paramount, color also matters. She offers the example of phở, (pronounced halfway between “foe” and “fuh”) a traditional soup made with rice noodles and beef or chicken. You use a certain kind of mint for the garnish, just the right color to complement the color of the soup. “You want to make it appealing to people.”
When everything changed
But Ho-Thanh did not always know how to cook. As a child in Saigon, she was sent away to boarding school and then returned home for high school and college. Focusing on her studies kept her from domestic responsibilities such as cooking. She was on track to become a lawyer. Then, on April 29, 1975, everything changed. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and, in an instant, she found herself transformed from college student and sister to the parent of five younger siblings.
In the midst of chaos, she said good-bye to her parents and led her charges to a cargo ship heading away from all that she knew. After a week, they landed in the Philippines. From there they boarded a plane to Guam, “a C130; everybody on the floor holding onto the cargo straps.” Still uncertain where they were headed, they stayed together. From Guam, they were eventually put on a large passenger plane to the United States. After more than a month of travel, they arrived in Harrisburg and were taken to Fort Indiantown Gap on June 1, 1975. They were officially settled into a home on August 23rd that same year. She was barely 20 years old.
Because she had five younger brothers and sisters to care for, Ho-Thanh had to go to work immediately, so she divided up chores among the other siblings. The 18-year old went to college and the 14-year old was asked to be in charge of laundry and keeping the house clean. It was the 16-year old sister that Ho-Thanh asked to make dinner for the family because “she was pretty good with cooking.”
Our First Meal in America
“I didn’t learn to cook at all in those early years, but I remember my first meal when we settled in Lebanon [Pennsylvania].” Knowing the importance of rice to people from Vietnam, their sponsors thoughtfully stocked the kitchen with Minute Rice and chicken for their first meal. “We rinsed the rice off, three or four times, then we put it in the pot, and put cold water in there, just like my Mom showed us — you do one knuckle of your finger for water. And that’s what we did. And 20 or 25 minutes later we opened it up and tried to stir the pot... it wasn’t rice, not the rice like my Mom cooked at home. It’s just like soup, like porridge. We took it out, put it in the bowl and we all sat there and cried.” They had chicken and salad but no rice. How could they survive without this staple? But her sister (“she’s so smart!”) took the chicken and rice out to the kitchen and made chicken rice soup.
She continues, “It was hard, but at least we had a meal. Forty-five years later I look back and think that’s funny because we tried to improvise and survive — the survival skills that my sister and my family have, you know? If we don’t eat the rice, what do we do with that? Do we throw it away? And we will not throw it away, because when we [were] on the boat, for a week we had no food, no food or water. That’s why we don’t throw away food.” They share that story in the family every time they get together. It is a good story with a valuable lesson — sad at the time but funny now. “Because we learn. And that made all of us eager to learn English. Now we can read the directions.”
Learning to cook
It wasn’t until a year after she married, that Ho-Thanh began to cook. Her husband, Bang, (pronounced Bohng) was a good cook and she laughs when she says, “I told him he would have to cook for me.” But when they started having company over, she began to feel bad. She reached out to her sister-in-law who started teaching her. “I could put all the ingredients together but I couldn’t taste it. I didn’t know how to taste the food. It tasted good to me but not to anyone else.” So she always made Bang taste it.
Eventually her parents were able to join her in the US so she eagerly started learning her mother’s recipes. Her specialty was phở, the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup. “My Mom made very good phở because my father loved it, we all loved phở. She showed me how to make it; some days it’s good, some days not so good. Now, when I make that phở, I’m thinking of my mom and my sisters. We have a saying and we laugh about it. Is this a happy phở or a sad phở?”
When you are happy, she explains, your taste buds work better. It is easy to tell if the food is good or not, what ingredients are needed to improve it. But when you are sad or something is bothering you, you just want to make it and get it over with. You don’t put all your heart into it. Her father once told her that after all the children left Vietnam, her mother was so sad that when she made phở, it just didn’t taste the same. But after coming to the US, her family all wanted her phở, even the grandchildren. That made her happier, her taste buds returned, and they all say “this is a happy phở.”
In his gastronomic travelogue, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal , Anthony Bourdain comes to the conclusion that the best meal in the world is in Vietnam. He notes that the food, culture, landscape and smell are all inseparable and they show up in the food. Ho-Thanh agrees, saying, “Vietnamese food, it fills you up, it’s not rich, it’s not plain, but it is refreshing, and comforting.” With influences from Chinese and French cuisine it is no wonder the food has just the right blend of spices, herbs, color, texture, and aroma. A good cook knows just the right amount in a pinch or dash without resorting to measuring spoons. Referring to a bowl of phở from a market stall in Vietnam, Bourdain says “This is as sophisticated and complex a bowl of soup as any French restaurant.”
Despite its origins in a tropical climate, for Ho-Thanh, phở has become a winter meal. In the spring and summer, her specialties are Spring Rolls (which are not fried) and Grilled Pork. First, she marinates the pork for a full day in a mix of garlic, pepper, sesame oil, lemongrass, fish sauce, and sugar. Then it is grilled on skewers outdoors (see photos and recipe). The pork is served in a bowl with cucumber, lettuce, and fresh herbs over rice stick (a very thin cooked rice noodle). She garnishes the bowl with crushed peanuts, sautéed scallions, pickled daikon and carrots. Finally, she sprinkles it with a fish sauce dip.
Ho-Thanh says that 95% of all Vietnamese food has fish sauce, maybe even 99%. She even seasons the peanut dip for spring rolls with a dash of fish sauce. “It sounds bad, but it’s not. The fish sauce is pretty diluted. Some people think it stinks, but it doesn’t. It tastes good!”
Ho-Thanh's Grilled Pork
Like most traditional cooks, Ho-Thanh does not measure anything. There is no recipe. It is all a matter of taste; and developing that ability to taste is what makes someone a good cook.
Photos by MaryAnne Nguyen Reynolds
For the love of culture
Preparing traditional Vietnamese food is time consuming. Good phở can take two days; the grilled pork needs to marinate for 8 hours. Even Spring Rolls (not fried) and Egg Rolls (fried) require the time and patience to wrap with care. There are shortcuts. For instance, the wraps used for Chinese egg rolls are much easier to work with than the thinner rice paper wraps of the traditional Vietnamese egg rolls. Ho-Thanh will tell you the time, joy, and love that go into the longer process are what makes the food taste good. And sometimes it becomes a family affair. For the last several years, Ho-Thanh and her family have set aside a weekend each year to make over 200 dozen egg rolls to sell to friends in the community. Because so many of her children’s friends wanted her egg rolls, they decided to make it a fundraising event. All the proceeds go to support orphanages and domestic violence shelters in her home country.
Like most women who come to America in search of freedom, Ho-Thanh blends the best of her Vietnamese traditions with those of America to create a third culture that values both. As the retired founder of the Pennsylvania Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Network (PAIRWN), she seeks to empower women and connect them to the resources they need to succeed as American citizens. Twenty years ago, their first project together was a cookbook. Not only did it contain recipes they had brought with them from around the world; it also included stories, like her own Happy Phớ story, that illustrate the importance of food to cultural identity and well-being. Food is a significant part of every PAIRWN gathering. Check their website (pairwn.org) for upcoming events.
“Hopefully, I will keep that tradition for our culture for a long time. And I hope that my kids will continue to learn and appreciate the traditions and the culture that we have... It looks like we are losing it a little bit at a time now. It’s really sad.” But Ho-Thanh says there is hope. When she cooks Vietnamese food for her family, they feel like she has given them a treat. And her children are learning some of her recipes. They don’t read Vietnamese but there is a second generation of chefs who are now creating recipes in English. She believes this will motivate the younger generation to learn the traditional recipes. “It is a happy time for me to see them taking those recipes and making Vietnamese food. It is happy for them because they accomplished something — they keep the traditions alive.”
Try it yourself!
For many years after Ho-Thanh came to the United States, she had to travel to New York or Philadelphia to find the ingredients for Vietnamese cooking. Fortunately, times have changed! Here are a few markets and restaurants in Central Pennsylvania that she likes, if you want to try Vietnamese cooking yourself.
Neither the Susquehanna Folk Music Society, nor the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, nor Ho-Thanh herself endorse any of the businesses listed here. They are included for reader interest only.
Markets in Harrisburg, PA
- Little Saigon Food Market at 2800 Paxton Street - (717) 561-2827
- Asia Mail at 1030 S 13th Street
- Tu Do Market at 2223 Derry Street - (717) 558-0204
- Kim's Oriental Foods at 5490 Derry St - (717) 238-3405
Restaurants in Harrisburg, PA
- Kimlee Vietnamese Restaurant at 4141 Linglestown Rd - (717) 999-3080
- Little Saigon Restaurant at 2800 Paxton St (with the market) - (717) 561-1117
- Pho La Vie at 6003 Allentown Blvd - (717) 888-9671
- Kim's Pho Restaurant at 5490 Derry Street B (with the market) - (717) 836-7562
1. Hill, Lauren Jade. “My First Trip to Vietnam Changed My Life.” Conde Nast Traveler, September 26, 2015.