A Long and Flavorful History
With its long expanse of borders, Vietnam has historically been vulnerable to waves of countries that came to invade and colonize. While influencing everything from religion to government, this parade of intervening countries has also helped shape an art form that is distinctively Vietnamese-the cuisine. Vietnamese cooking represents an amalgamation of influences that create a truly unique flavor.
With its ten centuries of rule and its proximity in the north, China has strongly influenced Vietnamese cooking. From the Chinese, Vietnam adopted the use of chopsticks, the art of stir-frying, and a use of noodles and bean curd. The Chinese introduction of Buddhism in Vietnam also led to a vegetarian cuisine that is remarkably varied and extensive. The Chinese influence is unsurprisingly strongest in Northern Vietnam, where stir-fries, soups and stews are popular in the cooler climate. The food tends to be milder than the cuisine found in the rest of Vietnam since fewer spices are available.
To the southeast, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand radically changed the flavor of Vietnamese cooking by introducing the Indian curries and spices that they had incorporated in their cooking. The Vietnamese have modified the use of the spices, so a spicy Vietnamese dish is usually milder than its Thai counterpart, even though both cultures use fish sauce, shrimp paste, lemon grass, mint, basil, chili peppers, and curry as key ingredients.
After colonizing the country for almost one hundred years, the French played a central role in the development of Vietnamese cuisine. From introducing the technique of sautéing, which was adopted in the South, to introducing new types of Western produce, Vietnamese cooking adopted a nature distinct from other Asian cooking. The French also implanted a love of baguettes, café au lait, and gateaux that has persevered. Com tay cam, Vietnamese sandwiches consisting of French bread, slices of paté, fish or pork, vegetables, and chilies, are served as snacks from carts throughout the entire country.
Even with all these influences, Vietnamese cuisine has retained a distinctive character through Vietnamese cooks' creative adaptation of these foreign influences. The Vietnamese are skilled at combining complementary ingredients to form new flavors with contrasting textures. The food is also healthy, thanks to its reliance on fresh vegetables, stir-frying, and use of vegetable oil rather than butter.
With the exception of a few formal restaurants, most meals in Vietnam are sold at stalls that line the maze of streets and alleys. Many of these stalls provide the traditional dishes of Vietnam. Pho, more or less the national dish of Vietnam, is a noodle soup eaten at any time of the day. It is such a staple that most Vietnamese eat pho more than once a day. The Northern version uses beef, and the South makes it with chicken, but both versions use rich flavorings of chili peppers, coriander and mint.
Cha gio, another popular food, appears similar to Chinese egg rolls, but that is the extent of the similarity. The method of preparation and taste is totally different from the Chinese version. Filled with spicy bits of seafood and vegetables, the small crispy rolls are wrapped and lightly fried in rice paper. The rolls are served with the ubiquitous nuoc mam sauce.
Nuoc mam is a characteristic ingredient used in practically every Vietnamese dish. Considered the Vietnamese alternative to soy sauce, nuoc mam is a distilled and fermented fish extract that becomes a salty sauce used as seasoning. A jar of it sits at every Vietnamese table.
The cuisine of Vietnam possesses a rich variety of dishes. Those mentioned here represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Vietnamese possess a consuming national pride about their food, and with its delightfully complex flavors, Vietnamese cuisine represents a field well worth exploring.