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Ethnic Cuisine: Vietnam

by Nancy Freeman

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Looking for a quick lunch of soup, salad or a sandwich? Maybe you ought to think Vietnamese. Perhaps an exquisite vegetarian meal? Well, then, why not think Vietnamese? Or is tonight time for multiple dishes, contrasting flavors, varied textures and exotic ingredients? Once again, it's a good time to think Vietnamese. Or perhaps something healthy and "lite?" Guess what: think Vietnamese.

While Vietnamese food has long been appreciated in France, the former colonial power, U.S. residents are only beginning to discover its many fine features. Vietnamese chefs like to refer to their cooking as "the nouvelle cuisine of Asia." And indeed, with the heavy reliance on rice, wheat and legumes, abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables, minimal use of oil, and treatment of meat as a condiment rather than a main course, Vietnamese food has to be among the healthiest on the planet.

Regional Cuisine

Cuisine in this country of 70,000,000 people differs strikingly between the north, south and central regions, but two key features stand out. First, rice plays an essential role in the nation's diet as it does throughout southeast Asia. But this is also a noodle-crazy population, regularly downing them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in homes, restaurants and at roadside stands. Noodles are eaten wet and dry, in soup or beside soup, and are made in different shapes and thicknesses of wheat, rice and mung beans. Secondly, no meal is complete without fresh vegetables and herbs. A key portion of every meal, north, south and central, is a platter containing cucumbers, bean threads, slices of hot pepper, and sprigs of basil, coriander, mint and a number of related herbs found principally in southeast Asian markets.

As in any country, Vietnam's cuisine reflects its geography and history. Geographically, it consists of two great river deltas separated by a belt of mountains. Vietnamese describe their country as two great rice baskets hung on either end of a carrying pole. The Red River Delta surrounding Hanoi provides rice for the residents of North Vietnam. The tremendously fertile Mekong Delta, centered by Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) produces rice plus a wide variety of fruits and vegetables both for itself and the central strip of the country whose principal city is the former imperial Hue.

A former colony of China, Vietnamese adopted Confucianism, Buddhism, chopsticks and the wok. But in spite of centuries of domination, Vietnamese food retained its own character. Due to its proximity to the border, north Vietnam reflects more Chinese influence than central or south. Soy sauce rarely appears in Vietnamese dishes except in the north. It is replaced by what is perhaps the most important ingredient in all of Vietnamese cuisine -- fish sauce or nuoc mam. Stir frying plays a relatively minor role in Vietnam and once again is seen more in the north than elsewhere. Frying in general is less important than simmering.

Northern cuisine exhibits fewer herbs and vegetables than the other regions because its climate is less hospitable than that of the Mekong Delta. For heat, north Vietnamese cooks rely on black pepper rather than chilies. Residents also exhibit a particular fondness for beef, picked up from the Mongolians during their 13th century invasions.

The royal tradition in the central region goes back beyond the more recent Vietnamese monarchy to the ancient kingdom of Champa. The royal taste reveals itself in the preference for many small dishes placed on the table at once. The more lavish the spread, the wealthier the household. But even the poorer families are likely to have multiple dishes of simple vegetables.

Servings are larger and fewer in the south; and hot chilies replace black pepper for heat. The profusion of fruit in the area means that sweet fruit occasionally makes its way into a dish of meat and vegetables. Preparations are less complex than many of those in the center and the style of cooking often resembles that of neighboring Cambodia. This is the part of Vietnam responsible for curries. Once again history influences cuisine for ancient Angkor, centered in Cambodia, once ruled this portion of Vietnam.

Dining Customs

But what about the ordinary eater? For in spite of this glorious culinary tradition, Vietnam remains a poor country of peasants and workers. Just what does the ordinary Joe or Jill eat from day to day? I asked a friend who had just come back from a year as a bartender/ English teacher in Hanoi. "Noodles!" exploded Toby Miller of Berkeley, California. "Noodles and soup. There were times when I was convinced I was going to turn into a noodle!"

At mealtimes, noodle stands line the roads where people pull over their bicycles or, if they are somewhat wealthier, motorscooters for a quick meal, a shared chat and a cigarette with their co-workers. Three meals a day of noodles is not uncommon.

Fortunately for us living in the U.S., we have the option of sampling both the healthy, simple and delicious meals-in-a-bowl provided by the Vietnamese noodle passion and more elaborate meals at our local restaurants. So get out there and do yourself a favor. Or buy one of the excellent cookbooks on the market and start experimenting at home.

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introduction  |  sources  |  restaurants  |  cookbooks

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