A steaming saucepan full of soup, as well as some bowls, spoons, chopsticks and a few stools are all it takes to create a pavement snack shop and an ideal opportunity to get a taste of Vietnamese cooking. In Vietnam, snacking is a national pastime and full-blown meals often only take place during festivals or family get-togethers. In towns, street canteens are open from dawn to dusk, and sometimes later. Satisfying a sudden pang of hunger or quenching one’s thirst is never a problem.
A savoury blend
The day traditionally begins with savoury rather than sweet foods in the form of noodle soup (pho) or a dish made from rice and steamed meat. But many Vietnamese also tuck into improvised sandwiches made with fresh bread from banh mi pedlars.
Despite the use of chopsticks and countless noodle-based recipes, Vietnamese cuisine is only distantly related to its Chinese neighbour. Sauces are used rarely and oil sparingly. Neither is a Vietnamese meal a succession of starter, main course and dessert. It is rather a combination of flavours and textures served at the same time, into which everyone dips at will. Fresh herbs are used freely, including coriander, ordinary and purple mint (tia to), basil, dill and la lot (Vietnamese herb) together with more complex flavours such as aniseed, lemon and cumin. Thin slices of cucumber and turnip refresh the palate. Among the variety of textures, crunchy foods are unavoidable, ranging from shallot fritters (hanh kho phi), grilled, ground rice and ground peanuts. Nuoc-mam, fermented fish sauce, plays the role of salt, spices substitute for pepper, lime juice for vinegar.
A balanced diet
Rice, water spinach, bean sprouts and nuoc-mam make up the basis of a typical Vietnamese menu and are a reflection of its coastal countryside, with its rivers and rice paddies. Dozens of varieties of rice exist, ranging from round, ground, perfumed or sticky. Whether steamed (com) or fried (com rang), it is the staple element of all dishes. Xoi is a mixture of sticky rice, beans, fresh peanuts and lean pork, rolled up in a banana leaf and steamed. Chao is a dish of ground rice cooked slowly with pieces of meat and served piping hot, strewn with chopped coriander and chives. Meat, fish and shrimp often only feature sparingly.
Whether for feasts and banquets or everyday snacks, Vietnamese food reveals a clear culinary divide in the country, even if the dishes remain basically the same. In the North, the population prefers fresh-water produce – snails, frogs and eels – while in the South they opt for more Chinese-style meat dishes. In the North, the soups are relatively bland, while elsewhere they are more liberal with spices, coconut milk (ga cari, chicken curry in coconut milk), sweet flavours (chao tom, shrimp paste baked on sugar cane or heo kho, pork in caramel) and acidic notes such as tamarind (canh chua, acidic fish or shrimp soup). Daring associations which combine land and sea produce are far from uncommon, as in thap cam nhung dam, which is an enormous fondue of meat, fish and seafood. Cha lua, a pork paste mixed with nuoc-mam and steamed, makes a tasty snack on bread.
Rice is the symbol of life. Called the pearl of the gods, it is also the preserve of specialists. Dried on bamboo racks, translucent moon-shaped rice paper pancakes, called banh da in the North and banh trang in the South, are what gives the food its crunchy or tender texture. Rolled around a stuffing of white meat, vermicelli, bean shoots, black mushrooms and shrimps, they are then sautéed in oil and become crunchy spring rolls (nem in the North and chao gio in the South). Cha bap from the centre is stuffed with pork and corn and cha gio chay is a vegetarian version of the same thing. “Fresh” spring rolls (goi cuon) are a refreshing mixture of vermicelli, soya beans, shrimps and mint. Banh cuon, or Vietnamese ravioli, is a pancake stuffed with minced pork, shrimps and mushrooms and steamed. Banh da and lettuce leaves are frequently used to make interesting combinations of flavours. In the cha ca muong, pieces of grilled fish are wrapped with vegetables and fruit in a rice pancake. Bo lui is a mixture of beef, peanuts and herbs wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
There are two types of rice noodles. Long, white, flat noodles (banh pho in the North and hu tieu in the South) and clear vermicelli (banh hoi or bun). The famous Hanoi soup is named after the former. Pho bo is a tasty beef noodle soup. A “dry” version exists, pho xao, which is a mixture of fried beef and noodles. Vermicelli is served in soups (bun bo, beef soup), salads and as a side dish. Bun cha is roasted pork and fresh herbs served in an acidic broth with vermicelli.
Soya is a rich vegetable source of protein and understandably figures prominently in a whole variety of forms. Its shoots are used as a vegetable, its salty pods (tuong hot) as seasoning, while its seeds (dau xanh) are ground into a sweet paste used in cakes and the curd is made into cheese which can be either sweet or savoury.
Even though desserts are practically absent from Vietnamese menus, those with a sweet tooth will have no difficulty satisfying their cravings, from the desserts sold in the street and the candies which sweeten the bitter green tea to the countless varieties of fruit. Che, a speciality of Hue, is a creamy dessert which can be served with any variety of flavours, such as che chuoi with banana and coconut milk or che sen with lotus seeds. Tau hu is a jelly of agar-agar with soya seeds and cane sugar syrup. Banh gan is a delicious coconut flan and banh ech tran are tapioca balls filled with soya paste and coconut milk.
Tea is an institution in Vietnam. However the country prefers green tea, an infusion of the leaves roasted just after the harvest, to black fermented tea. A manifestation of hospitality, teatime is an occasion of much to-ing and fro-ing of crockery. The teapot is first stuffed with leaves and filled to the brim with boiling water. The first infusion, too bitter, is thrown away and the pot is filled with water again and this is then poured into cups the size of thimbles.
Draught beer (bia hoi) is extremely popular and is served in half-litre glasses in specialised establishments, where the beer, brewed the night before, is delivered every morning. These establishments also serve popular snacks such as peanuts (dau phong), nems, fried chicken wings (canh ga chien) or octopus (muc kho) and thin slices of cold dog meat (thit cho).
The fermentation of sticky rice produces ruou, a cloudy wine which tastes somewhat like Japanese saké. Some enthusiasts claim that there is no healthier way to start the day than a glass of rice alcohol on an empty stomach.