Dish: Shrimp Pad Thai
Cooking in Nashville since 2008
It is Vui Hunt’s half sister who she credits for getting her family to the United States. Born in Vietnam towards in the ’70s, Vui is one of five children—their mother held several jobs, like trading coffee with a tribal unit in the area, and working at an embassy. Her sister’s father was American, making her Amerasian and through the Amerasian Homecoming Act, the family was able to emigrate to the U.S.
It was a long process, Vui says. “We moved to Saigon, to Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed in Thailand for awhile, stayed in the Philippines for awhile. It was an amazing time—I loved it. I thought, why do I have to go to U.S.? It’s great here!”
Finally the family arrived in Atlanta in 1986. Vui was 12 and vividly remembers her first trip to the grocery store. “Everything was so neatly lined up and already made—canned food! It was just eye opening. In Vietnam, we’d go to the wet market every day to get our fresh seafood. Here, it was ‘what’s this?’ Canned corn, canned beans,” she says. The family survived on ramen noodles at first, as they figured out how to adapt. Eventually they settled in Smyrna, just outside of Atlanta.
Vui started working in restaurants while she was in college. She found a job at a vegetarian restaurant and left school altogether—later, she came to own the restaurant and even met her husband, John, there, when he came in looking for a smoothie. Soon, the two decided to move to Nashville, since John was originally from Hendersonville.
Vui worked at Whole Foods in Franklin for a bit, and later started her own juice bar business. She remained a vegetarian until she got pregnant with her first daughter—that’s when she started craving the tastes of home. Specifically, pigs’ feet dipped in raw fish sauce. “No one was selling pigs’ feet,” she says. “I went to an HG Hill and finally found them. It took me over two hours to make them, but I finally sat down with my belly in front of the television and ate them and it was so satisfying. I called my mom up and said, ‘hey, guess what I’m eating!’”
Vui started asking her mother for more recipes, and writing them down. “My mom doesn’t have anything on record because she doesn’t read or write. Everything is up here,” she says.
“I had started to really miss the comfort of being around family,” she adds. “For me [cooking] was a way to connect with all of the food that [my mother] made for us. It gives me a sense of family, togetherness, because it was always like that,” she says. “Here, we all live in different towns, different places, it’s not communal like it is in Vietnam.”
This recipe for shrimp pad Thai, which Vui has adapted by taking out the MSG her mother uses, has become a way for her to recreate that communal feeling. Her two daughters, who are ages five and seven, love eating it, too.
This past summer, Vui opened a restaurant dedicated to fast, healthy versions of the food she remembers from home, called Vui’s Kitchen in Berry Hill. There’s no pad Thai on the menu, but she regularly cooks it at home.
“I entertain a lot—friends, families, coworkers—and what do I cook them all the time? I always cook them pad Thai,” she says. “The freshness of it, the simplicity of it, it’s family friendly, you can make it vegetarian, you can make it whatever you want.”