“The Vietnamese are a skinny people obsessed with food” —Anthony Bourdain
People tend to know two things about Vietnam: that it endured a long and painful war, and that it has one of the richest, most varied cuisines in the world.
You're about to embark upon an intimate journey through one of the world's most widely recognized and appreciated cuisines. Our obsession is giving you the information you'll need to intelligently eat and drink your way through Vietnam on an unforgettable culinary adventure. This list is only one part of that goal, on the ground your guide, local tour managers and people you meet will provide other suggestions. Also, don’t underestimate your hotel’s restaurants and cafes, some have fabulous food, in some places ranking better to what you may find outside in smaller towns.
If cooking were painting, Vietnam would have one of the world's most colorful palettes. The great diversity of its climate and terrain can produce almost anything which can be eaten. The Vietnamese themselves have no culinary inhibitions and are always willing to try something new. When you combine the two, nothing is ruled out.
The famous dishes such as pho and fresh spring rolls are but the tip of a gastronomic iceberg. In addition to a myriad of foods and preparations, there is a staggering number of sauces and dips limited only by the imagination of each cook. The picture of Vietnamese cuisine is vast and varied, always subject to innovation, and always vibrantly colorful.
You'll encounter the wonderful and the strange, the sacred and the profane. You'll find spices that sing in your mouth, smells that trigger emotions, dishes that amaze by their cleverness and beguile by their sensuousness, drinks that surprise, fruits that will shock and creatures that will make you shriek. Above all, you'll find the people that make up Vietnam's food culture who will charm, frustrate and intrigue you.
You are about to consume a culture. A culture that is still relatively poor in goods but rich in history, art, literature, music and pride. A culture that will reveal itself to you, if you are willing and hungry enough, through the medium of its cuisine. Vietnam lays itself bare in the kitchen and at the table. Its history, its legends and its lore are all reflected in its food and drink. As you navigate these pages, we wish you a good journey and a good appetite.
Historians like to say that geography is fate. Geography is also cuisine, for it determines what foods and what people may shape it. The topography of Vietnam presents virtually every climate and microclimate capable of yielding a crop or animal, whether tropical or temperate, from fish, rice and tea to beef, coffee and cream. Look at the map of Vietnam. As the Vietnamese are eager to point out, it resembles a don ganh (a yoke), a bamboo pole with a basket of rice slung from each end. The baskets represent the main rice-growing regions of the Red River Delta in the north, and the Mekong Delta in the south. The other thing to notice on this highly symbolic map of Vietnam is its waters, its 2,400km of coastline and its innumerable kilometers of rivers and streams.
Rice cultivation and the harvesting of the water world provide the cuisine of Vietnam with its two most potent symbols and substances: rice and nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce). This pair makes up the sine qua non of Vietnamese food. With them, Vietnamese cooks can go anywhere and still prepare something atleast close to their native fare. Without them, they are bereft.
In keeping with its geography, Vietnamese cooking is heavily influenced by China, especially in methods of preparation and kitchen equipment. They share the concept of `the five flavors, a balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot (spicy). A dish may be dominated by one or two of the five, but the others will usually play a pleasing harmony in the culinary tune. Stir fry is a common method of preparation but the Vietnamese generally use very little oil, displaying a lighter hand than the Chinese. The frying is more of a gentle simmering in the expressed juices of the food. Lightness and freshness are the goals.
As in China, vegetables play a central role in cuisine, but in Vietnam they are raw as often as cooked. Vietnam's fish and seafood are plentiful, and of great variety. Fish are generally alive at the time of sale to the consumer, and deftly killed and cleaned by the merchant upon selection. Vietnamese cooks rightly point out that fish are more flavorful if they are not deboned before cooking. This can be a problem for the uninitiated, as so many of the fish have numerous small bones. Vietnamese grow up practiced in the art of removing them while eating, but foreigners may find the process tiring and frustrating.
Like Chinese food, varying textures such as crunch and chewiness are prized at the Vietnamese table. Indispensable as a seasoning is nuoc mam (they seldom use soy); like a judicious splash of Worcestershire sauce, when cooked into a dish it buries itself in the flavors of the food and gives it greater dimension without altering its basic character. Also important are the fire spices, chili and black pepper. Normally they are not cooked into the food but served as condiments, and are used as commonly as salt. Sweet spices such as star anise and cinnamon, and pungent ginger are common. Vinegar is not widely used - acidity is provided by tamarind and lime.
The Vietnamese have three styles or manners of cooking and eating: comprehensive eating, or eating through the five senses; scientific eating, which observes the dualistic principles of yin & yang; and democratic eating, or the freedom to eat as you like.
In comprehensive eating, the most common form, you eat with your eyes first. Dishes must be attractively presented with a diversity of forms and colors. Then the nose follows: the Vietnamese penchant for aroma is brought to the fore, and each dish must offer pleasant odors of meat, Fish or vegetables and a sauce. When chewing, take care to feel the softness of noodles, the texture of the meat, and listen to the crackling sound of rice crackers or the crunchiness of roasted peanuts. And then you taste. The cook must see to it that each dish prepared has its own distinct flavor, and you, the diner, should take note of the differences. A dish might have all the five flavors, but none should predominate.
Scientific eating concentrates on the dualistic philosophy of yin & yang, in this case a balance between hot and cold. For instance, a fish stew would be seasoned with salty fish sauce which is yang, but balanced by he yin of sugar. Green mangoes (yin) should be taken with salt and hot chilis (yang); grilled catfish or duck (yin) must be eaten with ginger ;yang). This kind of eating is said to contribute to the good health of both mind and body.
Democratic eating is when you eat for the sake of eating. Everybody does it, but no one wants to make a habit of it.
By Richard Sterling ("the Indiana Jones of Gastronomy"), World Food Guide Vietnam (see Richard's other blog and books, including our favorite, Dining with Headhunters, a collection of currey recipes along with tall travel tales).
Browse a few of our restaurant recommendations in Saigon and also restaurants in Hanoi. For a complete list, login into our client site.
Luke Nguyen and Anthony Bourdain have many entertaining pieces from travel in Vietnam, focused on cuisine, on YouTube. Bourdain also has a book with sections on Vietnam: Chef’s Tour. The rare World Food Vietnam by Lonely Planet is no longer published and if you find a rare copy, it’s a great resource on Vietnam, regardless of focus on cuisine.
For blogs, we like the Hanoi-based Sticky Rice: http://stickyrice.typepad.com
For our dining recommendations in each city, please login into our client Web.
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