“Moi qui vi cung den thu thuc an Viet Nam!”(Welcome to Vietnamese cuisine!)
The cuisine of Vietnam is truly magical- a wonderful mix of textures, exotic flavors, and the enticing crunch and fragrance of fresh green herbs. The cooking techniques and ingredients are mostly familiar and straightforward, but the delicate balance of the dishes helps make this cuisine a sophisticated world treasure. The fertile deltas of the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south are separated by a long, narrow stretch of mountainous costal land. These three areas have produced three unique regional cuisines anchored by the major cities: Hanoi in the north, Hue in the center, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south.
Vietnamese people are of mixed Malay and Chinese origins. Ten centuries of Chinese rule have had a huge influence on Vietnamese culture and cuisine and, to a lesser extent, the French after 100 years of colonization. One result of this history of unwelcome guests is a distinct cuisine that is highly complex, sophisticated, and shares many ingredients with other Southeast Asian countries while maintaining strong Chinese influence and a little French. Other than China, Korea, and Japan, Vietnam is the only other Asian country to use chopsticks.
Traditional Vietnamese cooking is a rice-based cuisine that can generally be characterized by the use fresh ingredients, very little use of dairy and oil, the interesting interplay of textures, and an abundant use of fresh herbs and vegetables. Vietnamese cuisine always seeks to balance these five fundamental tastes (ngũ vị): spicy (white and black pepper), sour (lime), bitter (vinegar, caramelized sugar), salty (fish sauce), and sweet (sugar).
Most ingredients are fairly common and can be found at markets everywhere. Some ingredients are more specific to replicating the specialness’ of Vietnamese dishes and can be found at Asian grocery markets or online.
Fish Sauce – (Nuoc Mam) is a keystone to Vietnamese cooking, taking the place of salt in western countries and soy sauce in China. The sauce is made from the liquid created from fermenting heavily salted anchovies for months in wooden barrels. It is used sprinkled over rice, the base for Vietnam’s ubiquitous table sauce nuoc cham, and extensively throughout Vietnamese dishes, where it’s flavor enhances everything.
Rice – Vietnam is the 5th largest producer of rice in the world. As a staple food of the country, it is not only the plain boiled rice served with every meal, it is also used to make Vietnam’s famous rice paper, rice vermicelli, rice noodles, rice sticks, porridge, glutenous rice cakes, and much, much more.
Lemongrass – Many Vietnamese dishes would be lost without this fragrant tropical grass. The bottom-third is chopped or thinly sliced and added to marinades and stir-fried dishes. It imparts a delicate, slightly lemony perfume to everything its added to. It can be found fresh or dried in many grocery stores or ordered online. Fresh lemongrass can be stored in the freezer indefinitely.
Fresh Herbs – What distinguishes Vietnam’s food from it’s Southeast Asian neighbors is how they use fresh herbs. Mounds accompany each meal to enhance the textures and perfume of each bite. Besides using fresh herbs and vegetable to bring contrast to soups and rice dishes, they are often used as a vessel. A piece of the meat or fish dish is laid on a soft lettuce leaf. The diner then tops it with their choice of fresh cilantro, mint, basil, scallions, sliced cucumbers, soft rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, and peanuts. It is all wrapped up, dipped in a sauce, and eaten. The aromatic herbs explode in the mouth.
Cinnamon – Rich and dark with a spicy, fragrant punch, many cooks believe Saigon cinnamon to be the best cinnamon in the world. Although the name indicates Saigon cinnamon is from the south, it is actually native to the northern and central part of the country. Even though Vietnam ranks third in global cinnamon production, it is not heavily used in Vietnam other than in the broth for Pho (beef noodle soup) and the appropriately named Cinnamon Sausage.
Caramelized Sugar – An essential component of Vietnamese cooking, caramelized sugar imparts a savory-sweet flavor to stews, seafood, and tofu while imparting a glossy deep brown color to grilled and stir-fried meats. Caramelized sugar sauce can be purchased online or made from scratch at home. Dark brown sugar and molasses are reasonable substitutes.
Chile Sauce – Vietnam doesn’t share the same love of chili peppers and hot foods as its neighbors in Thailand and Indonesia. Heat is added to dishes with white or black pepper. A few small red chilis are chopped and added to some dips, but mostly chili heat is added to completed dishes in the form of the richly flavored siracha- the popular hot chili sauce.
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