Viet Nam’s Culinary Culture

Viet Nam, sharing borders as it does with China (to the north) and Laos and Cambodia (to the west), has long been influenced by other cultures. Most obvious of all are the influences of the Chinese and the French.

Vietnamese cuisine incorporates large amounts of fresh ingredients

However, even though its cooking has borrowed from the methods and products introduced by its neighbors, occupiers and the European traders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Viet Nam has retained a cuisine unique in its subtlety.

 It is a cuisine characterized by an enormous consumption of fresh vegetables and herbs, the use of fish sauce as a seasoning and salting agent and the myriad rice dishes and by-products.

The Vietnamese Melange

With the Chinese came chopsticks and noodles, which now form an integral part of Vietnamese eating. Buddhism, also introduced by China, has been responsible for the creation of a rich and varied vegetarian cuisine, which developed largely in its monasteries.

European traders and French colonials introduced many vegetables, including carrots, tomatoes, cauliflowers, artichokes, potatoes, chilies and asparagus. The French also brought the baguette, pastries and a love of filtered coffee, all of which have been incorporated into the local cuisine with unexpected but delicious results.

As most of the population survives by rice cultivation, it is not surprising that much of the food eaten in Viet Nam is grown in or near the water that is so essential to the growing of the nation’s staple.

Fish and other creatures, such as freshwater prawn, eels, and frogs, provide the main source of protein inland, whereas the long coastline, which takes in the entire eastern side of the country, provides a wealth of seafood. Poultry and pork are the principal meats cooked, beef is especially appreciated in the north (a legacy of Mongol invaders centuries ago) although it is rather scarce and considered a luxury.

Three Square Meals

Canh chua or sour soup (L) and ca kho to (fish simmered in caramel sauce) are typical dishes enjoyed in southern Viet Nam

Three meals are generally eaten each day in Viet Nam, with various snacks and sweet things being taken between them. Sweet drinks and snacks can be enjoyed from street stalls or in cafes at any time of the day or evening. Young courting couples are particularly fond of stopping for one of the sweet drinks known as che.

Breakfast consists of a large bowl of noodle soup accompanied by fresh herbs and other condiments or a rice congee with a side dish of pickles. Lunch could be a dish of broken rice with a topping of assorted pork delicacies and a fried egg and pickles or a bowl of barbecued meat or seafood over rice vermicelli. Noodle soups of different sorts are also a popular lunch choice.

Dinner, the main meal of the day, is usually taken at home with the family. Sometimes an appetizer is served first with a table salad and a bowl of nuoc mam (fish sauce). The main meal consists of a communal bowl of rice and three or four dishes, which might include a fried dish, a simmered dish, a soup and perhaps a steamed offering. The rice and accompanying dishes are put on the table at the same time and the meal is eaten from small rice bowls using a porcelain spoon and chopsticks.

Each diner fills a bowl with rice and takes small portions of the dishes in any order he or she pleases. The food is eaten with chopsticks from the bowl, which is raised to the mouth. Some of the soup is used to moisten the rice and, at the end of the meal, the remaining soup is poured into the bowls and eaten with the spoon.

Traditionally, no drinks are served during the meal as the soup provides enough liquid. These days, however, beer or soft drinks are quite widely drunk (dry white wine also complements Vietnamese food very well).

Anh Thu

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