|The Flavors of Viet Nam
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
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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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.)