Food in Vietnam One of Asia's best kept culinary secrets—but not any more!




Vietnam Food



Vietnam is a country on the rise. An almost palpable sense of optimism hangs in the balmy air. The Vietnam VVar (known here as the “American VVar”) has not been torgot- ten, nor have the years of oppression and toreign rule, but the country is moving on. The effects of doi moi, the eco- nomic retorm policy allowing small-scale private enterprise, introduced by the communist government in 1986, are becoming more and more evident. The accumulation of personal wealth is now encouraged, joint ventures with overseas companies are welcomed, and many overseas Vietnamese are returning to their country to start business- es aíter years abroad. The fancy new restaurants that are restoring lỉfe to old colonial buildings, and the modern hotels steadily creeping into the skyline, are just two of the many signs signaling Vietnam’s renaissance. And one needn’t go farther than a few steps onto any Street to experience the thriving culinary scene that is so much a part of this new vitality.

On the streets of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi in the early morning, food stalls appear on the sidewalks in front of old shop houses. Clusters of tiny chairs and tables surround a steaming hot cauldron of soup set on an open tlame; soon the chairs will be íilled vvith people huddled over their morn- ing bowl of pho, a tasty beef broth served with rice noodles and fresh herbs. At another streetside restaurant, a team of íemale cheís is busy making open-faced omelets in black- ened pans over small charcoal grills. Vendors with carts full of baguettes, cheese and sausages are making sandvvich- es and serving a reíreshing beverage of young coconut. Another vendor is wrapping sticky rice in a banana leaf, and handing it to a young schoolboy who is waiting impa- tiently with his mother. The markets are a hive of activity as well, literally over- flowing with fresh goods trucked in from the nearby vil- lages, the bountiíul Coastal waters, and the Central high- lands. Throughout the day, crovvds of people fill their bas- kets from the rows of fresh vegetables and tropical truits, live fish and game, pickled meats and vegetables, candied truit, dried and packaged goods, rice and bottles of the pungent nuoc mam fish sauce. There is a renewed vitality in Vietnam that revolves around food. At night, a seemingly endless stream of vehi- cles parades through the streets. Handsome young men, elegantly dressed women, young couples, and entire fami- lies speed about on motorbikes, stopping only to have a beer, talk with triends or have a meal at the literally hun- dreds of streetside restaurants or at fancy cafés, then race back out to join thề nightly procession. A land of breathtaking contrasts With lengths of unspoiled dramatic coastline, sheltered har- bors, tertile and well-irrigated lovvlands and vast upland torests, Vietnam is a remarkably beautitul and tertile land, rich in agricultural resources. It is rapidly becoming a major supplier of rice, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables to the rest of Southeast Asia. Vietnam’s narrow curving “S” shape hugs the coast of Indochina for 1,000 miles north to South, and measures just over 30 miles across at its narrowest point. The country boasts a 1,600-mile coastline in addition to countless dikes, canals and waterways, which include the Red River, the Períume River and the Mekong River—one of the longest rivers in Southeast Asia. It is certainly no surprise then, that seatood and aquatic life are such an integral part of the diet throughout the country. The other essential component of the Vietnamese diet is rice. The Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south are the two main rice-growing areas, although lush green rice paddies dotted with vvater buttaloes and rows of vvomen with their distinctive conical hats can be seen throughout the country. The importance of rice to the econo- my is indicated by VietnarrTs ranking as the third largest rice exporter in the vvorld after Thailand and the United States, although the quality of its rice has not been regarded as highly as that of the other nations. Sixty percent of arable land in Vietnam is given over to rice production, leaving little pasture for cattle tarming. Hence beef, in particular, is a luxury for most Vietnamese, and the tamous series of dishes, bo bay mon (literally, beef done seven ways) is highly regarded. In spite of urbanization and increasingly populated citỉes, roughly 80 percent of the population relies on rice for its livelihood. The applications of rice go well beyond simple steam- ing, occurring in a diverse range of dishes and not always recognizable as rice. In addition to being used in the pro- duction of wine and vinegar, rice grains are also converted into flour and used to make rice noodles; rice is trans- tormed into flat rice paper sheets for wrapping goi cuon, the Vietnamese fresh spring rolls; glutinous rice cooked overnight, then wrapped into attractive banana leat parcels, becomes breakfast-time xoi or the traditional banh tay and banh chung eaten during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday (that occurs at the same time as Chinese New Year, and was adopted from the Chinese). In the cooler northern region (conquered by the Chinese in the second century b.c.), vvhere undulating limestone hills recall Southvvest China and where many of the Vietnam’s ethnic groups have their homes, the cuisine shares distinct similarities vvith Chinese food. Stevving is a popular cooking method, and dishes rated highly in China, such as grilled dog meat and chicken feet are great delicacies. Yet the two most tamous dishes from the north are uniquely Vietnamese; both are soups eaten to fight back the vvinter chill. Pho is traditionally a breaktast dish, but can be eaten all day, and is as popular in Ho Chi Minh City as in Hanoi; bun cha is an aromatic dish of barbecued pork eaten in broth vvith noodles and herbs. In the center of the country, vvhich is less agriculturally rich, a lack of variation in the Vietnamese diet and the demands of the reigning emperor spawned a highly devel- oped cuisine. In the imperial City of Hue (the political Capital from 1802 to 1945), the symbolic signiticance of food was retined to a great degree. Small portions in multiple courses, each one more beautitul than the next, elevated the food from common fare to exquisite delicacies fit for the emperor’s table. Today, a delicious eggy pancake called banh khoai and a soup and noodle dish called bun bo Hue are two of Hue’s best-loved streetside dishes. In the temperate South, the cuisine more closely resembles that of neighboring Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. The food is more varied and rich than that of Hue or Hanoi, generously spiced with fresh chilies, coconut milk and a variety of herbs and spices. In Dalat, just a few hours north of Ho Chi Minh City on the Southern plateau, the hillsides are terraced with all sorts of western truits and vegetables—stravvberries, artichokes, oranges, mushrooms, carrots, eggplants and lettuces. The abundance of vegetables is so great that many of the regiorYs inhabitants are vegetarians almost vvithout thinking about it. Vast tea and coffee plantations surrounding the area could earn International attention if the quality of the harvest were improved through better handling and more sophisticated Processing methods. Heavy trucks leave Dalat every morning to deliver a bounty of fresh produce to the burgeoning markets of Ho Chi Minh City. Farther east, down the steep winding road out toward the coastline and the South China Sea, the low- lands are blanketed with canopies of dark purple table grapes. Here several local and toreign companies have joined íorces in wine-making ventures. As investment in agriculture continues to expand throughout the country, the quality of the food produced in Vietnam will certainly improve. What is Vietnamese Cuisine? In simple terms, Vietnamese food is lighter and more retreshing than Thai food—using crisp, uncooked vegetables, subtle seasonings, raw herbs, and unique tlavor combinations. otten described as textural, with fresh, Sharp ílavors, it is also more tropical and íragrant than Chinese food. At the heart of Vietnamese cuisine, with its hearty kick and unique aroma, is the salty, pale brovvn íermented fish sauce known as nuoc mam. The cuisines of Cambodia, Thailand and Burma use a similar sauce, hovvever the Vietnamese vari- ety seems to have a more pungent tlavor. Mandatory in Vietnamese cooking, nuoc mam is made by layering fresh anchovies vvith salt in huge vvooden barrels. This process takes about six months and involves pouring the liquid vvhich drips from the barrel back over the layers of anchovies. The grading of nuoc mam is as sophisticated as the grading of fỉne olive oils. Arguably, the best nuoc mam comes from the island of Phu Quoc, close to the Cambodian border. A bowl of steaming rice topped vvith this íragrant sauce is a culinary treat in itselí. Nuoc mam in its purest form has a strong smell and incredibly salty tlavor vvhich renders it an acquired taste for non-Vietnamese. It is certainly stronger than Thai nam pla and is used in marinades and sauces, for dressing salads and in cooking. Vietnamese rarely expect a toreigner to enjoy the taste, but are delighted when one does. Easier on the unac- customed palate is nuoc mam cham, vvhich is the ubiquitous dip made of nuoc mam diluted with lime juice, vinegar, water, crushed garlic and fresh red chilies. Nuoc mam cham is used as a dipping sauce on the table, served vvith dishes like cha gio (spring rolls), or simply as a dip for pieces of fish or meat. What also sets the cuisine apart from that of other Southeast Asian countries is the pervasive use of fresh leaves and herbs, which come in as many as a dozen different vari- eties. The use of dill in cha ca, Hanoi’s tamous fish dish served at the popular Cha Ca La Vong restaurant in the city’s Old Quarter, and also in fish congee, is likely borrowed from the French, however the extensive use of a variety of raw herbs nevertheless seems uniquẹly Vietnamese. VVhile Vietnamese restaurants in other regions of the world rarely manage to offer more than one kind of mint, basil or cilantro, markets throughout Vietnam sell a remarkable variety of herbs. Several varieties of the mint and basil tamily do not grow outside the country, and there are also some unusual, full-flavored leaves, like the deep-red spicy perilla leaf, tia to, and the pungent saw-leaf herb or long coriander that are specitic to the cuisine as vvell. Every pho shop has a huge plate of raw herbs set on each table, and a large plate also appears with an array of dishes, from grilled, marinated beef to cha dum (a type of pâté). But what do you do with the herbs? Sometimes, as in the case of pho, they are stirred into the steaming soup; with other dishes they are used as wrappers, together with rice papers or lettuces, and are teatured in Vietnamese shrimp and chicken salads. The herbs are also served with ban xeo, a kind of crêpe enclosing shrimp, pork, mung beans and bean sprouts. Certainly the use of these fresh herbs and leaty green vegetables is part of the appeal of Vietnamese food, providing fresh ílavors, beautitul aromas and many interesting textural variations. Other factors which contribute to the subtlety and unique- ness of Vietnamese food are the retined cooking techniques, the often unusuai serving of varying dishes and the combi- nation of flavors.



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