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The Flavors of Viet Nam

by:
Laurence Civil

The Flavors of Vietnam

Vietnamese food is possibly one of the healthiest in the world using raw vegetables, fish and shrimp of which the country has abundance and little deep-frying. So what are the flavors of Vietnam?

The Vietnamese describe their country as two great rice baskets on either end of a carrying pole. In the north the Red River Delta surrounds Hanoi to provide rice for the residents of North Vietnam. While down in the south the tremendously fertile Mekong Delta, centered on Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) provides rice plus a variety of fruits and vegetables not only for itself but also for the central strip of the former Imperial capital of Hue.

Vietnam as a former colony of China adopted Confucianism, Buddhism, chopsticks and the wok. But its food has managed to retain it’s own character. The proximity of the North to China did however influence of use of soy sauce in cooking, but in the central and southern regions it is replaced by fish sauce (Nuoc Nam).

The cuisine of the Northern region uses fewer herbs and vegetables than elsewhere in the country largely due to its inhospitable climate and the food is spiced using black pepper rather than chili. There is also a preference of beef to pork, a taste acquired during the 13th century Mongolian invasion. As with elsewhere in Southeast Asia there is an ancient Indian cultural presence possibly explaining why Indian curry powders are used in Vietnamese curries. A typical northern Vietnamese dish would be Grilled Fish with sugar, shallots, ginger and vegetables.

The Royal tradition in the central region goes back beyond the more recent Vietnamese royalty to the ancient kingdom of Champa when the area was a part of the Khmer Empire. The locals take advantage of abundance of fresh produce grown in their mountainous regions and like to have many small different dishes on the table at the same time. The larger the number of dishes is a sign as to the wealth of the family. But even the poorest of families enjoy just having several different dishes of simple vegetables. In Hue popular dishes are Turmeric flavored crispy crab filled with pork and shrimp, and vegetable spring rolls.

In the Mekong Delta region of the south the size of the dishes are larger but fewer in number. With the wealth of fruit grown in the regions results in some of the sweeter variety making its way into dishes of meat and vegetable.

Vietnamese cuisine of the last 200 years is a fusion of Asian and French cuisine as a result of French Colonization of Indochine, which began in the 16th century and lasted until the mid 20th century. Before the US-Vietnamese war and the subsequent communist take over of the country, there were a large number of French restaurants in Vietnam, particularly in Saigon.

The Asian elements in Vietnamese cuisine are the importance of vegetables in the daily diet and the habit of chopping food before cooking. This allows it to be eaten with Chinese chopsticks rather than the western knife and fork. The French elements are that the base of most Vietnamese soup is consommé to which noodles are added to create consommé noodles (pho bo). French terms are still used in Vietnamese cooking and the most commonly used spice of Lemon Grass is still referred to by its French name of Citronelle. Where there is a difference in cooking methods is that very little oil is used in the preparation of Vietnamese food. The most common method of cooking is to stir-fry in the north and simmer in the south.

Vietnamese cuisine is a balance of all the different influences. One street vendor might be selling noodle soup while the next-door vendor might sell a baguette smeared with a local pate. Both may be complemented by either the fish sauce or the dipping sauce (nuoc cham) – made up of fish sauce, water, sugar, and lime juice seasoned with chilies and garlic.

Meals are rarely divided into courses rather the food is served at once and shared from common dishes. The meal will most likely be served with noodles in the North and rice in the central and southern regions. The Vietnamese prefer long-grain rice to the glutinous short grain variety preferred in Northern Thailand and Japan. Most meals will include a soup and stir fried dish and another main dish. Vegetables are often left raw, especially in the south, to act as a contrast to the spicy cooked meat. The distinctive flavors of Vietnamese food come from the primary ingredients of mint leaves, coriander, lemon grass, shrimp, fish sauce, star anise, ginger, black pepper, garlic, basil, rice vinegar, sugar and spring onions. Sometimes the food is served rolled in rice paper or lettuce leaf, or both and dipped in a pungent sauce.

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Email:  Lawrence Civil

Laurence Civil is a Food, Travel & Lifestyle writer based in Bangkok Thailand. Born in Kent in south of England, he started his working life in the UK's airline industry in 1976. This allowed him to indulge his passion for travel. In the early eighties, returning from a trip to the newly opened China, he started to write about his travel experiences. (More about this writer.)

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