Vietnamese Cuisine through the Eyes of an American
Vietnam is a long, narrow country in Southeast Asia. China borders it to the north; the South China Sea, to the east; and Cambodia, Laos, and the Gulf of Thailand to the west. The country stretches from Hanoi and the Red River in the north to Ho Chi Minh City and the fertile Mekong River Delta in the south. Evaluating the food in a country provides an insight to the culture and the influences other countries have had on its society. Chinese, French, Cambodian, and Thai cultures exemplify the hybrid of societies that shape Vietnamese cuisine. For example, stir fries and noodle soups found throughout Vietnam, exemplify the Chinese impact. The Chinese influence in the north is due to its proximity to the Chinese border. Therefore, the northern part of Vietnam reflects more Chinese influence than the central or southern areas. Soy sauce rarely appears in Vietnamese dishes except in the northern dishes. Even though cuisine in this country differs between the north, south, and central regions, there are main commonalities. Since Vietnam is the world’s second leading producer in rice, it is widely found throughout the country and is an essential part in the nation’s diet. Noodles are another widespread product that are served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and can be found at restaurants, street vendors, and homes. The Vietnamese cooking methods include braising, simmering, steaming, grilling, and stir-frying. The food is not greasy as evidence by the fact that little or no oil is used even in cooking stir-fried dishes. Traveling throughout Vietnam during this trip provided an opportunity to experience firsthand the similarities as well as the differences in food in the various areas. Fish and other aquatic animals, such as squid and shrimp, are essential elements in the Vietnamese diet. Pork is widely found throughout Vietnam; beef and chicken are also a part of the cuisine but are less common components to the Vietnamese diet. The unique flavorings in Vietnamese cooking are created with a variety of spices and seasonings, such as black pepper and chili pepper. Vegetables are very popular and include an assortment of crunchy green vegetables, bean sprouts, and the flower of plants. A typical Vietnamese meal is served family style and includes seafood, meat, soup, and vegetables. The food is normally eaten with chopsticks, rice, and an array of dipping sauces normally accompanies the meal. The food’s traditional preparation techniques are influenced by eating habits, geography, climate, economics, and the influence of other countries.
The meals throughout the trip in Vietnam had several common elements which were rice, noodles, fresh vegetables, and herbs. Similar to other Asian cultures, rice is a common staple eaten throughout Vietnam. White rice, com trang, is served at all meals and is the centerpiece of the Vietnamese diet. Com trang was especially appreciated when accompanying some of the very spicy and pickled dishes. One pickled dish for instance, sour soup, is a pickled soup, served over rice in Vietnam. There were many different versions of this soup but the most common elements were pineapple, pickled cabbage, fish, and tomatoes. The main difference between Chinese and Vietnamese rice is that Chinese mainly use short grain rice and Vietnamese prefer long grain white rice. Rice is also the main component in other common ingredients such as rice wine, rice vinegar, rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, and rice noodles. There are a variety of rice noodles in Vietnamese cuisine and include wide white noodles called banh pho and long white string noodles known as rice vermicelli called bun. The Red River Delta that surrounds Hanoi provides rice for the citizens in Northern Vietnam. The fertile Mekong Delta, centered by Ho Chi Minh City produces rice, fruits, and vegetables both for itself and the central strip of the country.
Noodles are eaten throughout the country in various forms, shapes, and thicknesses. The noodles were served in soups and stir fries. Each part of the country has its own unique preparation of noodles. A well known noodle dish in Hoi An is called mi quang. Mi quang is a rice noodle soup with either pork or seafood boiled in well water found in Hoi An and then flavored with peanuts, lime, and mint. Fresh vegetables and herbs are another commonality served at most meals throughout Vietnam. Cilantro, basil, and mint are most commonly found in both cooked and uncooked dishes throughout the country. It is not uncommon to have uncooked vegetables served in the form of salads and condiments of pickled vegetables such as baby eggplant accompanying the meals. The herbs and spices not only provide a distinctive flavor but also add a visual beauty with the additional colors. A common dish served at every meal in the north, south, and central Vietnam, named nom bap chuoi, contained cucumbers, banana flower, bean threads, slices of hot pepper, spring of basil, ginger, coriander, and mint. Lemongrass, a tropical grass, is also found in tofu and meat dishes in order to give the cuisine a lemony tang.
The geography of Vietnam contributes significantly to the country’s cuisine. For example, fish and seafood are prominent in the central and southern areas due to the surrounding ocean and the extensive web of rivers in the country. In the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the South grow the mainstay of the Vietnamese diet, rice. One of the Vietnamese students from the Vietabroad Club told me that Vietnamese people believe that their country resembles a bamboo pole, the narrow central region, with a basket of rice at each end. Vietnamese cuisine varies to some extent by region. There is less availability of fresh produce and herbs in the north due to the cooler climate. To compensate, black pepper mixed with salt and lime juice is the primary seasoning for the food. The Chinese influence is also apparent as stir fried dishes, noodles, and the use of chopsticks is very popular in this region. In central Vietnam the food is very hot and spicy and much more flavorful than the north. The mountainous central region contains the former imperial capital, Hue, at its center, and provides the area with plenty of fresh produce. Different varieties of pancakes are also popular in the central region. An egg pancake, called banh xeo, had the consistency of a crepe and was filled with bean sprouts and either shrimp or pork. Another central Vietnamese specialty is banh khoai. The dish is served with crispy shell and with various meats and vegetables found in the inside. Banh khoai can best be described as a Vietnamese hard shelled taco. Southern Vietnamese cooking incorporates a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, spices, and sugar. Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, and French influences are found in the food in the south. Food preparations are less complex than many of those in central Vietnam and the style of cooking is similar to that of neighboring Cambodia. Neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Thailand introduced egg noodles, spices, chili, and coconut milk. This is the part of Vietnam responsible for curries. The majority of the land in Vietnam is hilly or mountainous and the country has a long seacoast and numerous inland waterways. French cuisine can be experienced throughout Vietnam but primarily in the southern region. When the French colonized Vietnam they introduced foods such as pate, coffee with cream, milk, custards, butter, cakes, and of course baguettes. The French baguettes are another reminder of France’s long presence in Vietnam. Baguettes were often found at street vendors and could be filled with pate, dried pork, fired eggs, and pickled carrots and papaya.
Fishing is also an important industry in Vietnam with fishermen providing fresh seafood to the markets daily. Some of the fish is used to make the popular salty fish sauce, nuoc mam. The sauce is main ingredient in most Vietnamese recipes. It is produced along the coast of Vietnam. Phan Thiet is the country’s largest producing city of nuoc mamand the odor of fish from the factories can be smelled throughout the entire town. The sauce is prepared by combining fish and salt which are then layered in large wooden barrels, allowing it to ferment for several months. Nuoc mam is to the Vietnamese as soy sauce is to the Chinese and salt is to the Americans. The first liquid that is drained is light in color and is considered the best quality. It is also the most expensive and primarily saved for table use. The less expensive parts are used in cooking. Nuoc mam has a strong scent but it surprisingly does not have a strong fishy taste. Its subtle taste is a wonderful condiment that compliments the other fresh ingredients that are common to Vietnamese cuisine. At nearly every meal a saucer filled with nuoc cham was on the table to use for dipping food such as spring rolls and grilled meat. Adding crushed red pepper flakes, white vinegar, fresh lime juice, garlic, and sugar to nuoc mam makes the famous dipping sauce called nuoc cham. The amount of red pepper flakes depends on individual taste as this determines the spiciness of the sauce. The sauce gives any dish some additional depth of flavor. Just adding a few spoonfuls of nuoc cham over a bowl of plain rice is considered an authentic Vietnamese meal.
Not only does the geography affect the food in the region but so does the climate. The climate contributes to the availability of ingredients which in turns inspires the types of dishes served in various regions in Vietnam. My understanding is that during the cold winter months in the north, families serve a huge bowl of seasoned broth that contains cooked vegetables and meat. This dish is served for its nourishment and warmth. The version of this dish that contains fish instead of meat is called cha ca.The boiling broth is set on a small burner that is placed in the center of the table as the family gathers around to warm their cold bodies. These dishes remind me of the Chinese hot pot that is served on cold winter days in my family. The southern region of Vietnam climate is favorable for long growing seasons. This results in the availability of more ingredients which provide the region with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. In the south there is an abundance of sugar and sugarcane and one dish that is popular is chao tom, shrimp and crab meat wrapped around sugarcane. For the most part dishes in the south are cooked for a shorter time compared to typical northern dishes due to the southern tropical climate. Dishes are quickly grilled or in some cases eaten raw. Servings are larger and fewer in the south; and hot chilies replace black pepper for heat in the cuisine. In the north, stir fries and slow cooking stews are more common dishes and usually than that found in the southern region of Vietnam.
Beverages in Vietnam include the freshly pressed sugarcane juice which is available from vendors throughout the afternoon and evening. Also widely available are in array of fresh fruit and vegetable juices including coconut, lychee, tamarind, orange, mango, and pineapple. A beverage staple is tea and the Vietnamese grow their own tea in the Dalat region. Similar to the Chinese, the Vietnamese consume tea morning, noon, and night. Unlike Chinese tradition where tea is available throughout a meal, I found that the Vietnamese serve tea after but never during a meal. Another wonderful beverage is Vietnamese coffee served either hot or iced with condensed milk, which is called cafe sua da. The coffee is made in individual slow-drip filters and is very strong. Dessert is not a main focus of the meal as it is in America. Desserts at most meals consisted of a platter of fresh seasonal local fruits such as pineapple, mango, watermelon, and banana. Instead of rich, heavy desserts that are customary in the West, the Vietnamese desserts that were served were very light. Che is a customary dessert found in the central region of Vietnam. Fruits cooked in their own juices are simmered than cooled and are served over ice. Fruits such as lychee, lotus flowers, red bean, and coconut are very popular che flavors. Banh xu xe (or phu the), a traditional Vietnamese dessert served at weddings, exemplifies the long history of Vietnamese fare. These individual boxes wrapped in coconut leaves represent the joining together of husband and wife. The top part of the box is square shaped and stands for the husband and earth while the bottom part is circle shaped and symbolizes the wife and heaven. Filled inside banh xu xe is sweet rice filled with coconut and mung bean.
The trip throughout Vietnam has provided me the opportunity to experience the different foods from the various regions. The various spices especially the spicy ones gave the food a depth and character that is unique. The various seafood dishes are incredible and have provided an insight into the culture. One concern is too much fishing has caused the depletion of the fish and seafood in Vietnam waters. The marine life is also threatened by the oil field development in southern Vietnam. The country needs to ensure that various species of fish do not become extinct because this both a crucial economic base for jobs and a means to feed the citizens of this wonderful country. There is a demand for more agriculture to meet the growing population demands. Another issue that also needs addressing is that Vietnamese farmers attempt to clear land quickly by burning the vegetation to make way for crops. The land is overused and becomes no longer fertile or suitable for crops. This type of farming, mainly in the north, is called shifting cultivation or slash and burn. In the long term if this type of farming continues then the land will become unusable for growing vegetation. The culture as depicted in the food is an experience of a lifetime. The beauty of this great country is experiences in the people, culture, countryside, and the incredible food.