Vietnamese Cuisine from the North to the South
Vietnamese cuisine has been loved by many food-lovers in the world. In America, more and more Vietnamese restaurants are opened. These restaurants are not only where abroad Vietnamese look for taste of home but also where others find a good switch from the American meal to a much lighter treat. However, the Vietnamese food in America is mostly prepared in the Southern Vietnamese style and in the form of fast food. If a person loves Vietnamese food in America, he will definitely enjoy the native Vietnamese cuisine and trying out each region’s special dishes. The food differs from the North to the South of Vietnam with the resources that each area has and blends with influence from other countries, creating a unique and versatile cuisine.
Having only Vietnamese food in America, a person might never know of the Vietnamese communal meal, in which each person has his or her own bowl of rice and share food with other people. As the main source of grain in the Vietnamese people’s diet, rice is planted everywhere across the country and the most productive regions are the two deltas: Red River Delta in the North and Mekong Delta in the South. These two areas are provided with rich soil brought by the rivers, thus they have always been the main sites of rice production of the country. However, since Vietnam’s landscape is narrow but long with mountains range from the North to the Central of Vietnam, the weather and soil quality change across 15 parallels, which leads to differences in agricultural production. In the north, there are four seasons. With cold winter from November to January and cold monsoon blowing from China, farmers in the North can only harvest rice twice a year. On the other hand, there are only dry season and raining season in the South and the temperature is warm all year round; people in the Mekong Delta can harvest three to four times a year. At mid-May, the rice field in the North is still green and will have seeds soon because farmers in the North have to wait for warm spring to start planting rice. At the same time, rice in the Center is already harvested to avoid raining season because rain in the Center can last for a few days and ruin all the crops. In the South, rice is just planted. Thanks to the nine branches of the Mekong River that always supply the region with fertilized soil and water, planting rice in the Mekong Delta is much simpler than in the North. Instead of having to fertilize the soil, germinate the rice seeds and replant the rice seedlings as farmers in the North have to do, farmers in the Mekong Delta only need to spread the rice seeds in the fields, wait for three to four months and harvest when the seeds are ripe. Rice has been in the Vietnamese people’s meal for so long that even the slightest difference of the white rice can be noticed. In the rice market, rice is sorted into different kinds based on how the white rice is after being cooked, whether it is soft or hard, wet or dry or smell good and so on.
Rice is the core and other dishes on the table make up the soul of the everyday meal. Normally the cook, usually the women of the family, will prepare at least one dish with vegetable, one dish with meat and one kind of soup (canh) for a meal. To cook a good meal, the cook needs to balance the five flavors: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and spicy. Actually, the Vietnamese people like to combine specific flavors of different ingredients together. For example, vegetable and meat are cooked with each other in many dishes such as stir fried greens with beef, stir fried squid with pineapple or eggplant and tofu with sliced pork in clay pot. Under the influence of French cuisine, Vietnamese loves to use broth from bones or meat in their soup; they like the sweetness that meat and bone add to the soup. Sour soup made of pickled cabbage or pineapple will be great with some fish; otherwise, some pork or beef as the replacement for fish is still sufficient. The flavors of the materials blend well together but the delicate taste of each element is still distinguishable. Sometimes, antagonist taste are used together to help increase the appetite. The sour taste is believed to decrease the fullness that rich and oily food creates. For instance, pickled carrot-and-papaya is a vital component of many dishes that include vermicelli rice noodle and grilled or fried meat. Sauce to dip spring rolls in is always sour, or papaya and carrot thread salad always present with sticky rice. Even in small meal, some people still have pickled eggplant. While combining different kinds of food, the cook of the family also tries to balance the amount vegetable and meat as well as to rotate the kinds of vegetable and meat used to avoid boredom.
Many people observe that Vietnamese food and Chinese food are so alike, which is true. In history Chinese dominated Vietnam and tried to assimilate the Vietnamese people with their culture for such a long time that Chinese influence on Vietnamese eating culture is expected. However, Vietnamese food has its own uniqueness that cannot be confused with Chinese food. First of all, Vietnamese food is much lighter since not much oil or fat is used in the food. Secondly, the fact that fish sauce is used in almost every dish which gives the food a different taste even if contains the same ingredients. Fish sauce might smell bad according to many people, especially when cooking, but when the dish is done, the salty taste of fish sauce merge with other ingredients and the smell is hardly recognizable. Last but not least, Vietnamese food has less kind of spices but they are used effectively. Fish sauce, salt, pepper, vinegar, sugar, garlic, onion, green onion, chili, curry powder, ginger, lemongrass are the main things that Vietnamese cooks utilize spice up raw ingredients. In addition, many kinds of fresh herb, including cilantro, basil, fennel and mint, are incorporated in many dishes and add an unforgettable essence to Vietnamese food.
Weather landscape blessed each region with the abundance of some specific kind of food. The North, with the cold winter and high mountains, can produce many temperate weather vegetable such as radish, daikon or broccoli. Of course, these vegetables could be found in the summer, too, but they are much cheaper at the right season. In the Center, seafood is abundant; just-caught seafood is available anytime. The South, with permanent hot weather has plenty kinds of tropical fruit that even the summer in the North cannot have. Beyond the diversity of fresh ingredients that nature gives, the Vietnamese cuisine is rich also because of the creativity of the people under the influence of other foreign cuisine.
This is a stereotype about food across the country: In the North people like salty food, in the Center food is very spicy and in the South food is sweet. However, the variety of food does not limit to what taste the people prefer: each region has its own specialties. It is amazing to know how many things originating from rice that Vietnamese people can create. When steam rice (com) becomes too repetitive, other derivations such as rice noodle or pancake-like dishes become in favorable. Pho is the most outstanding representative for the North. The broth, which is made from bone of beef or chicken and flavored by ginger, star anise and clove, has a great aroma which really seduces people to go to the Pho restaurant. The soft rice noodle, some slices of beef or chicken as ordered and the broth with addition lime juice or Vietnamese chili sauce create a very balanced taste that has gone far to many corners of the world. Northerners also like to dip “quay,” or fried dough stick, into the broth. Pho traveled down south with the migration of Northern people and Southerners modify Pho to suit their taste. In the South, people use smaller rice noodle and the broth is clearer and sweeter; they also use bean sprout and a great variety of herbs instead of green onion as in the North. The Southern Pho is the kind that is served in America. Besides Pho, rice roll (banh cuon) is also a famous dish of Hanoi. The rice wrap is made by steaming a thin layer of liquid ground rice on a plate, then rolled with thread pork or stir fried Jew’s ear and ground pork. This could be eaten with fried onion and Vietnamese sausage (cha gio), but the most important part is the sauce. Fish sauce is mixed with sugar, chili and vinegar or lime juice in a certain proportion to maintain the balance between four flavors. Each cook has his own secret on how to make the sauce, which determines whether he has long-term customers.
The variety of dishes that use vermicelli noodle (bun) is remarkable. Hanoi has the famous bun cha, the vermicelli noodle with grilled pork which is consumed with fresh herbs, fish sauce and pickled carrot. The aroma of the grilled pork is unmistakable even from afar. Bun cha ca La Vong (bun with fish, green onion and cumin fried in oil), when eating with shrimp paste and peanut, has such an unforgettable taste. Both of these two dishes are simple compared to the rice noodle specialties of the Center and the South. Hue, an outstanding example, is famous for its beef noodle soup with pork leg. This noodle soup is spicy and slightly sour because of tomato; the sweetness that the simmered pork leg gives the soup is very real. The pork leg has thick and chewy skin, but the meat inside is so soft after being cooked in the broth for a long time. The Southern Beef Noodle is also very popular and enjoyed even in the North. Very thin slices of scented beef are stir fried with bean sprout on hot pan quickly to keep the softness of the beef. Then, cooked diluted fish sauce is added; fresh lettuce is in the bottom of the bowl while ground peanut, fried onion and pickled carrot are added on the top. To make these noodle dishes, the cook has to do a lot of work because there are a lot of things to prepare for only one dish. Being the diners are the best: they only need to mix things up and enjoy the delicious food. They will not be fed up with so many dishes with vermicelli noodle, but noodle fills up the hungry stomach quickly yet does not help diners feel full for long. Thus, vermicelli noodle is just a pleasurable change for one or two meals.
Vietnamese cuisine is deeply influenced by that of the French and the Chinese, yet food preparation from some other countries is also imported to Vietnam and shows its present mostly in the Center and the South of Vietnam. Curry from South Asia countries traveled to Vietnam and was changed into a more watery soup with which people have their rice noodle or dip their baguettes. Hu Tieu Nam Vang, noodle soup that definitely has to have broth from ground pork and shallot, came to Vietnam from Cambodia. Hotpot from Japanese was at first extremely popular in the South then spread northward. The Japanese hotpot utilizes temperate vegetables such as pumpkin or radish, and very thin slice of fish and beef, but the Vietnamese uses other greens that are more available, including several types of cabbage, spinach (rau muong) and bok choy. Many more kinds of meat, especially seafood, are consumed. The Vietnamese hotpot is less refined but very satisfying.
Vietnamese not only cares about their main meals but also pays a lot of attention to the snacks that help them keep the hunger away during the afternoon or actually are desserts. It will take a person many months to try out all of the good stuffs that each region has to offer. In the North, cakes making from beans are well-known such as green bean curd andbanh gai. Che from Hanoi is a cold, thick and sweet mixture based on cooked black, green and red beans; different ingredients can be added to give che more kinds of flavor or for the visual effects, such as coconut milk, sugar-coated fruit, jelly, tapioca and so on. Different from Hanoi, the Center, especially Hoi An, has hot che brought by the Chinese and they are still called by their Chinese names like “luc tao xa” and “chi ma phu.” The Central region has the greatest sweet snack-for-the-road in the country. Things like keo guong, me xung, keo lac and kho me, which are made from brown sugar, sesame, peanut and rice cracker (banh da, banh trang) are extremely appealing. In the South, travelers will miss a lot if they do not try out the fruit shake that is served here. With such an abundant source of fruit, shake bars can offer a great range of flavors and drinkers can be creative by trying to mix some fruits together. Having a cold, sweet and smooth fruit shake to satisfy the thirst in hot summer day is such a great feeling.
Vietnamese cuisine has elements of many other countries’ food but still has it own uniqueness. Only some representatives of good Vietnamese food are mentioned and many kinds of exotic food are not described above, yet the number of dishes is quite enough to try out already. Vietnamese cuisine is very rich and has a lot to offer to those who want to explore and enjoy good food.