Many of Vietnam’s culinary origins stories are historically rooted from a conflict with a foreign occupying force. Like pho, we have the French Empire to thank for this weird love story about spring rolls.
Before the French were overhauled and sent packing like kids in a fire drill, they’d drafted a number of soldiers from various other colonial conquests to control the situation in what is now Vietnam. Among them were a number of Senegalese soldiers – the Tirailleurs Sénégalais – a motley crew of former slaves, prisoners and conscripts. As men at war in foreign lands are often apt to do, many returned with more than just exotic diseases and battle stories – some brought Vietnamese wives and children back home with them.
And so the Vietnamese community of Senegal found a humble beginning in the last-ditch power play by a failing empire and the wartime romances that took place from the 1930s through to France’s final defeat in Vietnam in 1954. The taste for Vietnamese cuisine took hold in Senegal as around 100 women accompanied Senegalese soldiers back to Dakar – Senegal’s capital. It was here, on this westernmost point of mainland Senegal, that Vietnamese wives revived their culture’s culinary traditions and brought nem tan (fried spring rolls) to West Africa.
Spring rolls have become a common sight in Senegal, with vendors frying them up in a street-side style similar to all the wondrous sights that adorn the labyrinthine roads of Hanoi, but most of the women who originally brought their culinary traditions to Senegal have since passed away. Speaking with Roads and Kingdoms, Jean Gomis recounts life following 1947, when he shipped out of Saigon and headed for Senegal at the age of 14. Gomis was born to a Senegalese father – who’d served in the French Empire’s Tirailleurs Sénégalais – and a Vietnamese mother.
It was in the packed streets of Dakar that Gomis learnt to cook spring rolls, guided by the skilled hands of his mother. “In Vietnamese families, all the kids help cook…it’s a great education.” Having grown up in the countryside of Vietnam with an often absent father fighting France’s wars, Gomis spent a lot of time working with his mother cooking and she helped him to perfect the methods that those of us in Vietnam enjoy on a daily basis. Getting the tight roll of the spring roll right is key, according to Gomis, but beyond tightly wrapping the ground meat, herbs and glass in rice paper, there are other measures that must be taken to achieve perfection. Everything matters – from the moisture in the rice paper, to the heat of the oil and the space between rolls when they enter the frying pan.
As the original wives of Senegalese soldiers have passed away, so too has much of the faithfulness to the original methods. Gomis’ nephew, Pierre Thiam – a restaurateur, author, social entrepreneur, chef and culinary ambassador for Senegal – also spoke with Roads and Kingdoms warning that the spring rolls prepared on the streets of Dakar today are lacking that crucial Vietnamese touch. In short, they have mutated into something inspired by Vietnam, but not of Vietnam. “They’re not the same anymore – it’s night and day.”
With the Vietnamese population in Senegal dwindling under the weight of time, the language and the nem ran recipes are dying out, but one man – documented by Viet Kieu YouTuber, Kyle Le – is determined to preserve the authentic spring rolls on the streets of Dakar. Mr Yang Nem – affectionately known as Duong Nem in Senegal – told Kyle Le that he was “tricked” into travelling to Africa. Believing he was bound for France, Nem arrived in civil-war torn Côte d’Ivoire in 2003, but by 2004 had made his was to the safer refuge of Dakar, Senegal. It was here that he began working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. He received no salary initially and worked for accommodation and food, but as the years dragged by, he grew more accustomed to Senegal.
“You have to get used to a country before it’s liveable, if you’re not used to it, you can’t live.” Eventually he worked his way up and is now owner of a spring roll stall. Duong Nem concludes that his life out in Senegal is a strange mix, crafting a food that reminds of him of home yet doing so in such a different part of the world when his family remains in Vietnam has taken its toll. “It’s lonely, but it’s fun.”
Colonies and culinary habits have a long, interwoven history – ever wondered how curry got to be so popular in the UK? That meal travelled a long, murky way through twisted times on a rocky road of blood, fire and anguish to reach the people back home – much in the way that spring rolls made it to the menus of Dakar, but oddly it all seems to highlight that food, as ever, is further proof that there remains more than unites us than the geographical boundaries that divide us. Here and now, in 2018, Vietnamese food is rapidly expanding across the world, but Senegal was one such nation who has long had a head-start in tasting the treats on offer from the wonderfully strange, sweaty land that is Vietnam.