Looking for a quick lunch of soup, salad or a sandwich? Maybe you ought to think Vietnamese. Perhaps an exquisite vegetarian meal? Well, then, why not think Vietnamese? Or is tonight time for multiple dishes, contrasting flavors, varied textures and exotic ingredients? Once again, it’s a good time to think Vietnamese. Or perhaps something healthy and “lite?” Guess what: think Vietnamese.
While Vietnamese food has long been appreciated in France, the former colonial power, U.S. residents are only beginning to discover its many fine features. Vietnamese chefs like to refer to their cooking as “the nouvelle cuisine of Asia.” And indeed, with the heavy reliance on rice, wheat and legumes, abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables, minimal use of oil, and treatment of meat as a condiment rather than a main course, Vietnamese food has to be among the healthiest on the planet.
Cuisine in this country of 70,000,000 people differs strikingly between the north, south and central regions, but two key features stand out. First, rice plays an essential role in the nation’s diet as it does throughout southeast Asia. But this is also a noodle-crazy population, regularly downing them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in homes, restaurants and at roadside stands. Noodles are eaten wet and dry, in soup or beside soup, and are made in different shapes and thicknesses of wheat, rice and mung beans. Secondly, no meal is complete without fresh vegetables and herbs. A key portion of every meal, north, south and central, is a platter containing cucumbers, bean threads, slices of hot pepper, and sprigs of basil, coriander, mint and a number of related herbs found principally in southeast Asian markets.
As in any country, Vietnam’s cuisine reflects its geography and history. Geographically, it consists of two great river deltas separated by a belt of mountains. Vietnamese describe their country as two great rice baskets hung on either end of a carrying pole. The Red River Delta surrounding Hanoi provides rice for the residents of North Vietnam. The tremendously fertile Mekong Delta, centered by Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) produces rice plus a wide variety of fruits and vegetables both for itself and the central strip of the country whose principal city is the former imperial Hue.
A former colony of China, Vietnamese adopted Confucianism, Buddhism, chopsticks and the wok. But in spite of centuries of domination, Vietnamese food retained its own character. Due to its proximity to the border, north Vietnam reflects more Chinese influence than central or south. Soy sauce rarely appears in Vietnamese dishes except in the north. It is replaced by what is perhaps the most important ingredient in all of Vietnamese cuisine — fish sauce or nuoc mam. Stir frying plays a relatively minor role in Vietnam and once again is seen more in the north than elsewhere. Frying in general is less important than simmering.
Northern cuisine exhibits fewer herbs and vegetables than the other regions because its climate is less hospitable than that of the Mekong Delta. For heat, north Vietnamese cooks rely on black pepper rather than chilies. Residents also exhibit a particular fondness for beef, picked up from the Mongolians during their 13th century invasions.
The royal tradition in the central region goes back beyond the more recent Vietnamese monarchy to the ancient kingdom of Champa. The royal taste reveals itself in the preference for many small dishes placed on the table at once. The more lavish the spread, the wealthier the household. But even the poorer families are likely to have multiple dishes of simple vegetables.
Servings are larger and fewer in the south; and hot chilies replace black pepper for heat. The profusion of fruit in the area means that sweet fruit occasionally makes its way into a dish of meat and vegetables. Preparations are less complex than many of those in the center and the style of cooking often resembles that of neighboring Cambodia. This is the part of Vietnam responsible for curries. Once again history influences cuisine for ancient Angkor, centered in Cambodia, once ruled this portion of Vietnam.
But what about the ordinary eater? For in spite of this glorious culinary tradition, Vietnam remains a poor country of peasants and workers. Just what does the ordinary Joe or Jill eat from day to day? I asked a friend who had just come back from a year as a bartender/ English teacher in Hanoi. “Noodles!” exploded Toby Miller of Berkeley, California. “Noodles and soup. There were times when I was convinced I was going to turn into a noodle!”
At mealtimes, noodle stands line the roads where people pull over their bicycles or, if they are somewhat wealthier, motorscooters for a quick meal, a shared chat and a cigarette with their co-workers. Three meals a day of noodles is not uncommon.
Fortunately for us living in the U.S., we have the option of sampling both the healthy, simple and delicious meals-in-a-bowl provided by the Vietnamese noodle passion and more elaborate meals at our local restaurants. So get out there and do yourself a favor. Or buy one of the excellent cookbooks on the market and start experimenting at home.
Vietnamese Soup Customs
Soup is customarily served for breakfast in Vietnam–big bowls of steaming noodle soup, with meat and any number of ingredients added at the last minute, like bean sprouts, cilantro, basil, chili peppers, lime slices, and green onions. All, of course, spiced with with plenty of fish sauce (nuoc mam), chili-garlic sauce, and/or hoisin sauce in nearby dipping dishes. It’s an unusual melange of cooked rice noodles, raw vegetables and herbs, and shaved raw meat or seafood that cooks in the broth just as it’s brought to table.
Phó, as it’s known, is now hugely popular in the United States–and people line up at the doors of Phó restaurants night and day to sit at trencher tables and feast on the soup til sweat pours down the backs of their heads. The term phó translates as “your own bowl,” since it’s one of the few meals where the food is not passed around and shared.
“Small” soups, by contrast, are served as first courses–they generally don’t have noodles; they’re served in small portions; and they’re called sup. The famous Sup Mang Tay, or Crab and Asparagus Soup is in this category–so is Sup Nam Trang, a fascinatingly complex soup of crab, shrimp, and dried white fungus (mushroomlike).
Finally, the class of soups known as Canh are generally served family style, out of one big bowl–often spooned into smaller bowls at table with rice. And they are generally light–also served as a first course to whet the appetite. These include Canh Sa Lach Soan (Watercress-Shrimp Soup), Canh Chua Tom (Hot and Sour Shrimp and Lemongrass Soup), and Canh Chua Ca (Hot and Sour Tamarind Fish Soup).
But what about soups for snacks? Foodwriter Thy Tran from San Francisco (website at www.wanderingspoon.com) writes “the Vietnamese enjoy sweet bean soups as snacks. The whole class is known as che, but they each have a specific name that usually reveals the color of the bean: che dau den (black bean), che dau trang (“white bean,” or what we know here as black-eyed peas), even che dau xanh (“green beans,” referring to the green covering on mung beans). Coconut milk, lotus seeds, taro root, tapioca, even crunchy seaweed are common additions. Western Vietnamese restaurants sometimes offer them as dessert, but they’re really meant for snacking, which SE Asians love to do. You can serve che warm or chilled.”
Thy adds, “Interestingly, the idea of using beans in savory dishes (other than sprouts) is not as natural for most Vietnamese people. Just like when I told my family, while sipping artichoke tea in Saigon, that in the States we serve the whole vegetable as a delicacy, they were horrified.”