The Prague Post: Student blog teaches Czechs about the joys of Vietnamese cuisine
By Fiona Gaze - Staff Writer
Considering how established and large the Vietnamese community is here in Prague - according to last year's census, it increased 292 percent over the past 10 years - it's crazy to think that up until very recently, there was practically nowhere for lovers of Vietnamese cuisine to get their food fix outside of the home.
Over the past year or so, that's changed very rapidly, with many Vietnamese-run "Chinese" bistros rebranding to their national cuisine and serving up bowls of pho and bun. The plethora of fresh vegetables, herbs and spices has won over a large minority of stodge-loving Czechs, and the increasingly widespread popularity and accessibility of Vietnamese cuisine across the country is due in considerable part to the efforts of two university students, Nguyen Mai Huong and Trinh Thuy Duong.
Huong and Duong launched their blog, Viet Food Friends, in November 2011. Huong says their intention was "to offer Czechs the opportunity to get to know our culture through our cuisine, through our blog containing general information about Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamese recipe and reviews of Vietnamese restaurants, as well as a food glossary."
"We wanted to introduce our traditional cuisine to the Czech public," she says. "The Vietnamese minority is numerous here, but little is known about our cuisine, mostly because of language barriers."
Both Huong, 24, and Duong, 23, have spent most of their lives here in the Czech Republic. Huong says her group of friends, who occasionally help her and Duong out with their cooking classes - a successful byproduct of the Viet Food Friends blog due to the great reception from Czech readers - all have "similar backgrounds."
"We were born in Vietnam but moved to the Czech Republic when we were around 5 to 7 years old," she says. "We all went to Czech schools and speak Czech fluently, but were raised in traditional Vietnamese ways, which is why we still have close bonds with our motherland."
Huong completed her bachelor's degree in political science and international relations from Charles University in 2011, while Duong finished her bachelor's in enterprise and law at the University of Economics Prague this spring. Studies aside, the blog and its popularity have kept the pair busy, as they have sought to regularly post informative articles and discussions (only in Czech for the time being) on the background and technique of Vietnamese cooking, accompanied by skilled and colorful illustrative photos. Recent posts include instructions on Vietnamese-style barbecuing and a review of Red Hot Chili in Karlin. As of press time, the blog had garnered almost 2,000 followers on Facebook.
Its popularity, and indeed, its genesis, is owed in part to the encouragement and support of a fellow Czech food blogger, Martin Kuciel, more commonly known as Pan Cuketka.
"A few years ago, we first cooked for a larger group of people, for members of the Forum of Migrants," Huong says. "Later, when we met up with Mr. Cuketka … it was he who encouraged us to do the same for the public."
Kuciel's skills in photography make frequent appearances on Viet Food Friends, and with the help of his website Scuk.cz, he helped the Vietnamese cooking classes get off the ground, as the site has done for numerous other specialty items in conjunction with Chefparade.cz. The courses have been a runaway success, with most selling out to capacity.
More than six months on, the feedback to the blog has also been glowing.
"So far we've been receiving mostly positive feedback from our readers," Huong says. "Because Vietnamese cuisine is getting very popular, but there isn't much information about it available in Czech, most of our readers are enthusiastic and curious to find out every little detail. We are happy that we can help them find the answers."
As for the city's expanding restaurant options for Vietnamese cuisine, Huong says the number of places opening up is encouraging, although improvements still need to be made.
"Many bistros just changed their names from Chinese to Vietnamese but the menus often remain the same," she says. "Even some new ones are offering Chinese or Thai food alongside Vietnamese dishes. It's as if the owners of these bistros are not confident enough to cook just Vietnamese food because they think the Czechs are not prepared for it yet."
There are several places, however, that get Huong's stamp of approval.
"There are a few bistros and restaurants, such as Remember on Biskupská street, for example, that cook authentically and use a wide range of ingredients," she says. "We hope in the future there will be more places offering other Vietnamese food besides just pho and bun."
Fiona Gaze can be reached at