About Vietnamese Cooking

Vietnamese Cooking

The cooking of Vietnam is like - and unlike - the cooking of China, with some influence from its other neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. There are also traits which are reminiscent of Thai food. Not the complex spicing of curries nor the richness of coconut milk, but the use of fresh herbs and salad-like ingredients.

Vietnam's national dish, pho, is basically a rice noodle soup, the beef stock strong and flavorsome, simmered for at least 6 hours. In the bowl are fresh bean sprouts, sliced onions and tomatoes and handfuls of fresh mint, bring to mind Thailand's tom yam. Unlike tom yam, pho is not fiery with chili but headily redolent of star anise, surprising at first encounter.

The single most important ingredient in Vietnamese food is nuoc mam, fish sauce. It is used to season food the way salt is used in a Western kitchen. Nuoc mam is now available in most Asian stores. When mixed with garlic, chili, sugar and some lime or lemon juice, it is called nuoc cham and is put on the table to be added to almost everything, starting with the breakfast bowl of pho noodle soup and continuing through lunch to dinner.

These meals may begin with an entree of fresh or fried rice paper spring rolls, wrapped in a lettuce leaf, with sprigs of fresh coriander or mint, the whole thing dipped in nuoc cham and eaten. Nuoc cham, (or the components which go to make up the salty, hot, sharp and sweet flavors) is also used as a salad dressing - oil free and refreshing. While many of the ingredients used in Vietnam are common to the Chinese kitchen, Vietnamese cooks fry fewer foods than Chinese cooks do, so naturally the food is lighter. Rice is the staple, and fish from the long coastline provides most of the protein. Pork and poultry are more readily available than beef. Beef is considered a luxury meat, which is what makes beef pho soup so popular. Paper-thin slices of beef are barely cooked by the heat of the stock. With the generous helping of soft, fresh rice noodles, there is no need to eat large amounts of beef - it is a seasoning rather than a main ingredient. Migration has resulted in restaurants as well as stores selling ingredients such as fresh rice noodles, fruits, vegetables and herbs needed for Vietnamese cooking in many a Western city.

Nearly 100 years of French colonization has also influenced the cuisine. Most intriguing is the sight of a Vietnamese bread or sandwich shop. Baguettes a French baker would be proud of, are filled with thinly sliced cold roast pork and pork sausage, sprigs of fresh coriander, thinly sliced onion or spring onion (scallions), shreds of raw carrot and, of course, nuoc cham sauce. Extra slices of red chili are offered for the brave. A petit pain with a difference!

Vietnamese may go out for pho noodles and sandwiches, but traditional Vietnamese food as cooked in the home is based on rice served with steamed, stir-fried or braised dishes, soup and salad. A Vietnamese kitchen equipped with the bare essentials would boast a mortar and pestle, woks, saucepans, bamboo or metal steamers and clay pots. The table setting comprises bowls and chopsticks, and small teacups. The custom of drinking plain, weak tea with the meal prevails and all the dishes are brought to the table at once.

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