While Vietnamese cuisine abroad mostly flies under the banners of phở and bánh mì, its full spectrum is an endless combination of intriguing and fresh ingredients. The food varies from region to region, but generally, it’s characterised by simplicity and unmistakable flavours.
Growing up in Vietnam, I realise that our cuisine is an embodiment of the country’s history and lifestyle. Decades of hardship had driven the Vietnamese cooks to utilise what they have at hand and make the best out of it. The result is unfussy dishes that are made of local and seasonal ingredients. They are often inexpensive and can be re-created just as well on the side of the road as in high-end restaurants.
Despite this simplicity, Vietnamese food is delightfully textured and rich in flavours. That’s because every dish is cooked with great care, with every component are meticulously prepared. Let’s take phở as an example. This popular dish might look simple, consisting of rice noodles, boiled beef, broth, and herbs. But making a good bowl of phở, especially the clear and aromatic broth, is an elaborate process. It involves many steps and is usually very time-consuming.
Those are just some main features of Vietnamese food. Yet the world of Vietnamese cuisine is far more complex, with regional differences and foreign influences. Through this series, I would like to give you a glimpse into this world and explore its richness and diversity.
The Philosophy of Vietnamese Cuisine
Like other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is built around the idea of harmony. This means that each meal should be balanced in terms of flavours. For instance, seafood that is considered “cold” needs to be seasoned by heat-provided ingredients such as lemongrass, ginger or chilli. Reversely, spicy food needs to be relieved by “sourness” which has the cold attribute. Furthermore, each meal should also feature different colours. For example. vivid colours from main dishes, a milder tone of rice or noodle and green shades of veggie dishes or herbs. Frankly, it is rare to see a Vietnamese meal with a single colour dimension.
Regional differences in Vietnamese cuisine
Another aspect of Vietnamese cuisine is the availability of regional variation. As Vietnamese cook with products and ingredients coming from their vicinity, their food often carries the unique characteristics of the respective area. Generally, Vietnamese cuisine can be categorised into three distinct fractions: Northern, Central, and Southern. They vary in terms of main ingredients, tastes, and flavours. Yet these dishes share many fundamental features, including the complementary textures, the liberal use of herbs and vegetables, as well as the presence of traditional spices such as fish sauce or shrimp paste.
In northern Vietnam, the food tends to be light and balanced on the palate. It is not bold in any particular taste – neither sweet, salty, spicy, bitter nor sour. In fact, it combines the subtle flavours of many different seasonings such as lime, fish sauces, and black peppers. Chillies and other exotic spices are sparsely used in northern cuisine as the colder climate limits production. Some signature dishes of the North are bún chả (vermicelli with grilled marinated pork), phở (rice noodle in soup) or bánh cuốn (rolled rice sheet).
The food of Vietnam’s central part, however, boasts a complex mixture of spicy flavours. This spiciness comes from chillies, which grow in abundance on this dry mountainous land, and by-products of chillies. Saltwater fish is the main source of protein here, as well as prawns, squids, and clams. Additionally, Central Vietnam is where the last dynasty of Vietnam was positioned. That’s why many regional dishes are strongly influenced by the royal cuisine. These dishes are often meticulously prepared and served in small portions. Some signature dishes of the Central are mì Quảng (Quang-styled noodle), and Hue’s savoury pastries.
On the other hand, the food in southern Vietnam is vibrant and flavourful. Thanks to the natural richness, cooks in this region are not restricted to certain ingredients, with even more liberal use of herbs, garnishes, and condiments. The southern land is also known for its unorthodox cooking techniques such as mud-baking. In this technique, fish or chicken are covered in mud and then cooked over fire. This reflects exactly the open-minded lifestyle of the people living there. Moreover, sugar is often added to southern cuisine, making it distinctively sweeter than other regions. Some signature dishes of the South are cơm tấm (broken rice with grilled pork) and cá lóc kho tộ (braised snakehead fish in clay pot).
Cuisine of the ethnic minorities
Aside from the three main regional cuisines, tribal food is an unmissable piece of Vietnam’s culinary scene. It is usually rustic and bold in flavour, with many ingredients coming directly from the mountain such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, freshwater fish, and wild animals. In these regions, insects are sometimes considered a delicacy. And traditional spices often give place to a wide variety of nuts, leaves, and medicinal herbs. Most prominent dishes include cơm lam (sticky rice cooked in bamboo) and thịt nướng lá mắc mật (roasted meat with seasoning leaves).
Foreign Influences in Vietnamese cuisine
Situated on the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam has been a cultural melting pot for centuries. Merchants from near and far came to ports like Hoi An to commence trading, bringing with them customs, religions, and undoubtedly culinary knowledge. For example, noodles from China, spices from India and Indonesia, coconut milk from Khmer and Champa, etc. However, the Vietnamese didn’t just copy the whole thing. They imbued foreign dishes with a national identity. In other words, they alternate the food so that it is more suitable to the Vietnamese palate. Typical dishes that display this cultural adaption are Cao lầu (Hoi An-styled noodle), thịt kho hột vịt (caramelised braised pork and duck eggs) or mì hoành thánh (wonton noodle soup).
Decades of French occupation also have a huge impact on Vietnamese cuisine. New ingredients such as tomatoes, coffee beans, and even baguettes started to appear in the Vietnamese kitchen. But again, the Vietnamese re-created the food, making them more Vietnamese. The results are bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette), cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk), and many delicious dishes.