There’s a close relationship to the foods of Northern South-East Asia – the Yunnan Province of China, Laos, Vietnam, Khmer (Cambodia), Northern Thailand and the North East corner of Burma (Myanmar). They are all touched by the Mekong River, which has always played an important part in the area’s cuisine, providing an easy means of transport. It is home to one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, and the area where rice was first cultivated. The region has always been an area of conflict.
The Vietnamese originated from northern Vietnam and were ruled for almost 1 000 years (until 938AD) by the Chinese. In the 13th century they repelled Mongol invaders and in 1428 defeated and expelled the Chinese for the last time. The Khmer controlled southern Vietnam and the whole delta from the 9th to the 17th century, when the delta was ceded to Vietnam. They then started to expand their empire southwards and in 1802, with the help of the French, laid their final boundaries. Vietnamese culture further expanded in recent history from 1949 to 1975 during the post-colonial wars in the region, where large communities of Vietnamese were displaced to Cambodia, Laos and north-eastern Thailand.
Vietnam has one of the richest and most varied cuisines in the world. With its great diversity of climate and terrain, it produces almost anything which can be eaten. Vietnam’s culinary traditions are relatively different to its neighbours. Being on the crossroads between north and southern Asia, it has a diversity of flavours, foods from the south are hotter than their northern cousins.
As in China and Thailand, the Vietnamese kitchen shares the concept of five flavours – a balance of salt, sweet, sour, bitter and hot. One or two flavours may dominate a dish, others play a pleasant harmony. Bowls of soup in a variety of guises are the fast food of Vietnam. These are whole meals, noodle based, usually with a clear stock, a few shavings of meat and a handful of fresh herbs. Sir-frying is also an extremely common method of preparation, but using less oil than in China. From the French came baguettes and coffee.
Fresh salad leaves and herbs play an important part in everyday meals and are ever present on the table, often used as wraps together with rice paper, for morsels of fried or grilled meats and fish. Salads are usually presented in separate piles as opposed to tossed, allowing diners to choose what leaves they prefer. Presentation plays as an important role as does taste. Rice is served with every meal, whether in grains or in noodles.
Vietnamese dishes have more of a tarty base from a combination of lime and tamarind juice, and fish sauce. Chilli is used as a dip, allowing diners to establish their own degree of heat. Fish sauce (Nuoc mam) is the most important ingredient, replacing soya sauce. Vietnamese Nuoc mam is regarded throughout South-East Asia as the best fish sauce.
The Vietnamese table
Vietnamese eat their meals with chopsticks from rice bowls, when not eating with their fingers. For soups, a soup spoon is used for the liquid and chopsticks for the solids. A table setting always includes a pot of dipping sauce (nuoc cham) and a bottle of nuoc mam. The meal is composed of rice and something else. A meal without rice is regarded as a snack. Ideally a meal includes vegetables, fish or meat and a soup. All food is brought simultaneously to the table.
A distinctive ingredient is rice paper, used in a variety of guises to wrap food in. Throughout Vietnam you will see disks of rice paper drying in the sun. It is a major cottage industry, and once you master the procedure, relatively easy to make.
Vietnam has three distinctive food styles, southern, central and northern. Southern is thus by far the spiciest, northern the most bland, while the central cuisine is the most complex.
Herbs and spices
- mint – indispensable, it comes in a number of varieties;
- star aniseed – coming originally from China, it has cloves which resemble an 8-pointed star, with a strong licorice flavour, it is essential in the making of pho.
- turmeric – related to ginger, the ground powder with its deep yellow colour is used as a dye as well as in curries.
- chives – are sold fresh by the bunch, with a stiff flowering stem being most sought-after.
- cane sugar – unrefined is an essential ingredient, with the cane itself used as one of Vietnam’s national dishes, wrapped with a prawn paste.
- chillies – are used mainly for garnishes and dips.
- coriander – is an essential herb, especially with fresh salads.
- basil – with its mild anise seed flavour is used as a garnish in soups, especially pho.
- Vietnamese mint – an important fresh ingredient with a slightly anise seed chilli flavour. If unavailable a combination of mint and coriander is a good substitute.
What’s on the menu?
At Wickedfood Cooking School our cooking classes on South East Asian cuisine takes the students into the Vietnamese kitchen and teaches them how to prepare a scrumptious combination of some of Vietnam’s best love dishes. Click here for more information.
Great Asian recipes – Click here:
Kaeng kari ka – yellow curried chicken
Phanaeng Beef Curry in sweet peanut sauce
Warm squid salad in a pineapple
For other articles on South East Asia see:
Cooking schools in South East Asia
Thai House cooking school • Bangkok • Thailand
Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School • Thailand
Red Bridge Cooking School • Hoi An • Vietnam
Books reviewed by Wickedfood on Asian food:
Runs cooking classes throughout the year at its purpose-built cooking studios. Classes are run in the mornings and evenings 7 days a week (subject to a minimum of 12 people). The venue is also popular for corporate events and private functions – team building cooking classes, birthdays, kitchen teas, and dinner parties with a difference.
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