I wish I could tell you all about my extensive travels through Vietnam and how I’ve tasted the cooking from the various regions by visiting the people who make them. I wish I could recall long meals of traditional Vietnamese cuisine scented of mint and spice enjoyed at the table in a foreign country with fragrances that are just as foreign. But sadly those scenes only exist in the hopes I have of one day visiting.
But I have had enough pho to gush about the softly scented broth that is both meaty and sweet. I can tell you it’s the sour, sweet and salty flavors that have me longing to know more and eat more of this beautiful country’s food. Because of this, I spend time learning about their cuisine, culture and recipes through experts like Andrea Nguyen and others who have spent the time in that country and have been studying and cooking the food for years.
If you want to learn more about cooking Vietnamese food, I highly recommend Andrea’s class, Vietnamese Classics: Pho, Noodles & Beyond, where she walks through several classic dishes, like fresh rolls and pho, while talking about traditional ingredients and methods of cooking in Vietnam.
It’s all about balance
In Vietnamese cuisine it’s all about balance. It is the precarious balancing act of the five basic taste sensations -- salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami -- that give this food depth and intrigue.
Lime juice, fish sauce and fermented foods both salty and sour to the palate. There is sweetness in the fresh mint and Thai basil. It is a continuous quest for a yin-yang balance of salty/sweet, bitter/sour, hot/cool and fresh/aged or fermented.
It’s a common mission that many Asian cuisines share with the difference being the palette of ingredients they are working with to create that balance. This balance, they believe, is not only pleasing to the taste buds but beneficial for the body as well.
Regional differences and the common thread
If I were to head to Vietnam, I think I’d want to spend the majority of my time in the southern region where the cuisine is highly influenced by Thailand, Cambodia and the tropical sun. The food is sweeter than in the north and common ingredients include coconuts, fresh herbs and palm sugar. The northern region snakes up near China and is greatly influenced by its neighbor with more noodle dishes and stir-fries as common place.
Believe or not, even the French have their hand in Vietnamese food as their presence via the missionaries who began arriving in the 18th century and lasting until 1954 brought with them the birth of the báhn mì. A báhn mì is a sandwich served on a crusty baguette (thank you, French missionaries) along with pickled vegetables, cilantro, chilies and either pork or fish. It remains to be one of my favorite sandwiches and stands as a symbol of when the influence of one country infiltrates another.
Even the classic pho is said to have French influence as the Vietnamese didn’t eat beef before the French colonial rule which began in 1858. Pho was a dish only known in the north until the country was no longer divided into North and South Vietnam after the country’s revolution in 1954.
Whatever part of the country you are traveling in, you are sure to meet loads of fresh food. Lots of vegetables, fresh herbs and a bit of meat that is just cooked. You’ll eat of a lot of broth and other soup-based dishes and around the bowl you’ll find several small dishes filled with condiments and sauces to add to the soup. Most likely this classic meal will end with fresh fruit or a dessert based on sweetened condensed coconut milk.
Most meals are served in the middle of the table, family style. A dish is served and then you can add to it with any number of fresh or pickled condiments or sauces.
I don’t know about you but I’m ready to book my ticket. Until then we’re fortunate to learn about Vietnamese cuisine from those who have spent much of their lives cooking and learning about this exciting cuisine.