San Francisco Magazine “Harmonious Christmas”

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Harmonious Christmas
A HOLIDAY DINNER WITH FRENCH-
VIETNAMESE ROOTS BRINGS
FOUR GENERATIONS TO THE TABLE

By Sara Deseran
Photographs by Richard Jung

Standing in the kitchen of Thanh Long, her Vietnamese restaurant in the outer Sunset, Hannah An laboriously stuffs one snail shell after another with lemongrass as she tries to remember the English translation of a saying her mother, Helene, taught her five daughters. Hannah scrunches her brow until the words come. “It goes like this: By attending to the food we eat, we can enhance the quality of our life.”
Judging by the dishes being prepared for this holiday meal, life for the Ans is indeed rich. Chewy rice dumplings filled with pork are molded into roses; coins of shrimp pâté are arranged with the curled stems of water spinach to look like orchids; bowls of daikon and carrots that have been sliced into flower shapes await a bath of hot broth. Christmas dinner is one of the biggest celebrations of the year for the Ans, bringing together up to 30 family members from four generations.
Days have been spent getting ready, and everyone, even the 8-year-old great grandmother and founder of Thanh Long, Diana Dung Do An, helps out. “We spend all this time and energy on our holiday food to show respect to our ancestors,” Helene explains, ladling spongy fish maw into a bowl of snow peas. “Respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility must be a part of every dish.”
Although some dishes, such as the escargots, are An creations, the majority are traditional, layered with symbolic meaning. A mildly sweet sticky rice dyed brilliant red is for luck. Earthy brown pressed ham touched with cinnamon represents stability and depth.
The Ans are descended from Vietnamese royalty, yet prosperity has not always been a part of their life. While Thanh Long now draws loyal patrons in droves for the roasted crab and garlic noodles, it used to be a nondescript deli on a fog-whipped corner of Judah Street. On a whim, Diana purchased the deli when she vacationed in San Francisco in 1971. Four years later, when Saigon fell and the Ans were forced to flee the country, it was all they had left.
In San Francisco, grandparents to grandkids moved into a one bedroom across the street, and with everyone’s help—17-hour days, pot scrubbing, crab cracking—Thanh Long was born and not only survived but flourished. Two Crustacean restaurants followed, here and in Beverly Hills. In 2000, Hannah and her husband, Danny, plan to launch another restaurant, this time in Union Square.
As she and her sister, Trang Tran, sprinkle slivers of cooked egg over bowls of soup made with a tangle of black angel-hair seaweed, Helene recalls their culinary upbringing. “In Vietnam,” she explains, “we had three cooks for the family: French, Vietnamese, and Chinese. This is still our tradition.” The fusion of cultures is evident in the roast chicken stuffed with sticky rice and mushrooms as well as in a rich banana cake soaked with coconut milk and rum. The soup, however, is strictly Asian and one of the most significant elements in their holiday meal, as the seaweed symbolizes longevity.
Once a booster seat is found for Tiffany, the youngest in the family and all cheeks, everyone sits down to eat in the banquet room of the recently expanded Thanh Long. A large ceramic crock of homemade rice wine that has fermented for three months is set in the middle of the table. Everyone dips in a thin, curving bamboo straw and, at once, takes a long drink, a ritual they save for Christmas and the lunar New Year. “By drinking from it all at once,” Helene explains, “it shows that we are one—we are in unity.”