Guidebook The food is seriously special


The food is seriously special

Food permeates every aspect of Vietnamese daily life, observes Sarah Gilbert in Wanderlust magazine. “There are markets in every neighbourhood and cooks on every pavement.” Walk down any street in Vietnam, says Vietnamese Food Lovers, and you’ll find “restaurants and cafes spilling out onto the sidewalks … from meat grilled on makeshift BBQs in the middle of a busy intersection to high-class restaurants serving only the most refined dishes, the flavours and fundamentals of Vietnamese food delight the palate and surprise the senses.”

There’s a brilliant balance in Vietnamese food, says Erin Zimmer in Serious Eats, of “aromatics, heat, sweetness, sourness, and fish-sauciness … as with other Asian cuisines, it's all about the yin and yang; the sweet and the salty, the cooling and the warming, the fresh and the fermented.”

Invaders and neighbours have shaped the country’s eating habits over the centuries, explains Gilbert in Wanderlust. “The Chinese, who ruled on and off from 111 BC, introduced stir-fries and chopsticks. Later, the Mongolian hordes brought beef, and in the 19th century, French colonists shipped in asparagus, coffee and baguettes.”

“Follow any lane in any Vietnamese city at any time of day and you’ll find some contented soul crouched over a bowl of broth or rice. Then again, if you lived in Vietnam, you’d eat all the damn time, too. The food is beautiful to behold, if only for the colors alone: turmeric-yellow crêpes, sunset-orange crabs, scarlet-red chiles, deep-purple shrimp paste, and endless jungles of vivid green. Vietnamese cooking is fresher, healthier, lighter, and brighter than, for instance, Chinese or Indian or French, three of its closest relations … flavors and textures are deftly arranged so each note rings clear, from the piercing highs of chili paste and nuoc mam (fish sauce) to the bottomless depths of a stock that’s been burbling since dawn. These are tastes that sate, soothe, and just as often shock you awake—particularly the pungent greens and herbs that figure in almost every dish. After the wonder that is Vietnamese produce, the stuff back home seems like a recording of a recording of a cassette that was left out in the sun.” - Peter Jon Lindberg in Travel and Leisure

Cuisine is local as well as national. Vietnam is made up of over 50 provinces and there are three distinct food regions, explains SBS Broadcasting: the North, the Central Highlands and the South -- “each of which has its own climate, culture and food traditions.” Broadly speaking, “the North is more influenced by neighbouring China and the food tends to reflect its colder climate; the South draws more upon Khmer and Thai influences and its hotter climate means more emphasis on salads, grilled meats and so-called ‘cooling foods’; whereas Central Vietnam is more of a blend of the two styles.”

The tropical fruit is not to be missed, recommends The Culture Trip. “Fans of watermelon, pineapple, banana, mango, and mandarin will certainly find paradise here, as well as discovering new, strange, spiky types that they might have never seen before … fruit is sold everywhere in the markets, on the sidewalks, or in the mall, and is always fresh and cheap.” And, adds The Culture Trip, don’t forget the coffee: “the second largest coffee exporter worldwide, Vietnam boasts an excellent coffee culture in the green tea continent. Black coffee, coffee with condensed milk, coffee with coconut milk, coffee with egg yolk, coffee with yoghurt; try it all.”

Then, of course, there’s pho. Found all over Vietnam and “indeed, anywhere in the world with a Vietnamese immigrant population,” notes SBS Broadcasting, pho is “a fragrant, rich rice noodle soup typically made with beef or chicken and served with Vietnamese basil, lime, bean sprouts and chillies … although it is a quintessentially Vietnamese dish it has Chinese and French influences in its use of spices and stock technique.”

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