[Note from Frolic: Today, we welcome author Loan Le to the site today. She’s whipped up a delicious Valentine’s Day menu to go along with her debut novel, A Phở Love Story. Take it away, Loan!]
Growing up in my household, romance and love came in small gestures. Love was my mom spontaneously buying my dad new jeans from Costco. Love was my dad getting whatever my mom needed from the second fridge downstairs. (Yes, I said second.)
My young adult debut novel, A Phở Love Story, lingers on these tiny moments of love, and oftentimes, the characters communicate their affections best through food. My main characters, Linh and Bảo, have always been prohibited from speaking to each other since their families own rival restaurants, but they share their first real conversation over boba, a Taiwanese creation now embraced by many communities. In one scene, Linh’s mother lovingly gets her up in the morning by bribing her with bánh patê sô, a warm, savory, and flaky pastry. In another scene, a simple rice and soup meal symbolizes a peace offering between parent and child.
While there’s no go-to Vietnamese food for Valentine’s Day—in the way that some might associate fine Italian dining with romantic dates—Vietnamese cuisine can still comfort you and make you feel completely loved. From tasty sandwiches to desserts that sit sweetly on the tongue, here’s a sliver of Vietnamese cuisine that will make your Valentine’s Day date even more enjoyable.
Start your day with some light options. The following suggestions are ideal because they mostly require one hand, so you’d be free to hold your partner’s hand!
I can easily imagine my characters, Linh and Bảo, sitting in some secluded cafe just as dawn approaches, savoring bites of patê sô, or a French-influenced pastry stuffed with tender, moist chicken, crunchy water chestnuts, and chives.
But maybe you and your date would like to try a light serving of bánh bèo. These are chewy, steamed rice cakes the size of your palm, sprinkled with soft mung bean paste, salted dried shrimp, and chives soaked in bacon fat—paired with a fish sauce. Another option is bánh mì. Just imagine: a toasty baguette as long as the distance between your elbow and wrist, layered with a thin spread of buttery pâté, peppery meats, then finished with pickled carrots and daikons and cilantro. If you’re adventurous, add a couple of jalapenos along with the requisite drops of Maggi seasoning. My favorite is bánh mì xá xíu; I can never say no to barbecued pork!
Now boba is Taiwanese, not Vietnamese, but it’s beloved by many people these days! During one of their first clandestine meetings, Bao and Linh meet for bobas at 7 Leaves, where they decide to start a fun project together. So many flavors are at your disposal—from the traditional milk tea to fruity flavors like strawberry or mango. But a word of caution? Watch out for those tapioca balls. One careless sip can quickly lead to a back hug . . . but not the kind you want.
As your date slips into the evening, with the temperature dipping this month, you might want to try some cozy meals. How about phở? As the author of a novel with that very word in the title, I couldn’t not include it! It’s the ultimate comfort food, and through Linh’s eyes, we see it as more than just a simple meal: “star anise, cinnamon, the earthy tones of chicken and beef bones . . . dressed with shredded thai basil, fresh bean sprouts, finished with a generous swirl of hoisin sauce, glossy under our lights. A work of art.”
Then there’s another beloved noodle soup called bún bò Huế, often unfairly overshadowed by phở. If you like a lemongrass-infused beef broth, with just enough spice to give your lips a pleasant tingle, this is for you. Or you and your date can try lẩu, Vietnamese hot pot. Gather around a bubbling pot of light broth. Drop in your choice of leafy vegetables, tofu, fish, or beef, then enjoy.
After dinner, Vietnamese people usually like to have light desserts (ăn món tráng miệng, which literally translates to “to eat food that coats tongue/mouth”). For my family, they can’t take anything that is too rich in sugar, so dessert is often a plate of fruit. But if you want to bring your fruit to the next level—like ripe mango, orange, or pineapple—toss it in finely pressed salt and chilli peppers, or muối ớt.
If you want a dessert with a bit of everything, definitely try chè, which sort of translates to Vietnamese porridge or parfait. Chè can be hot or cold. I’m a huge fan of chè Thái that adapts a traditional Thai dessert: coconut milk, sweet, plump longan, cubes of grass jelly that snap under your teeth, and red-dyed tapioca pearls made from water chestnuts. In my novel, Linh’s mom brings this home to celebrate a successful restaurant campaign, and they’re able to enjoy together as a family.
There are so many choices for Valentine’s Day, and I hope you’ll consider a few of these dishes.
About the Author:
Loan Le is the youngest child of two Vietnamese immigrants hailing from Nha Trang. She holds an MFA degree in fiction from Fairfield University, also her undergraduate alma mater. A Pushcart Prize-nominated writer, her short stories have appeared in CRAFT Literary, Mud Season Review, and Angel City Review. Loan is an editor at Simon and Schuster’s Atria Books imprint and lives in Manhattan. A Pho Love Story is her first novel.
A Phở Love Story by Loan Le, out now!
If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal.
If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant.
For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition.
But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember.
Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories?