Don’t worry – Vietnam’s cuisine may be exotic but no tourist need fear that they will unwittingly be served roast dog, raw monkey brain or geckos on a skewer. The Vietnamese wouldn’t waste such delicacies on a tay, a clueless ‘long- nose’! And, compared to the explosively hot dishes found in Thai and Indian curries, the food here is very mild with fresh herbs dominating the Vietnamese menu.
Enjoy the rice
The Vietnamese equivalent of ‘bon appétit’, moi ong xoi com, actually means ‘enjoy the rice’. Any number of interesting facts and countless legends tell of the importance of rice. Rice comes in all sorts of variations, e.g. as pure white rice (com), as rice soup (com pho), rice noodles (thick banh or thin bun), transparent rice paper to wrap spring rolls in (cha gio or nem in the north), rice pancakes (banh xeo), as biscuits, cakes and puddings. It was probably more than 1,000 years ago that this type of grain was used for brewing beer and making wine. And steamed sticky rice is processed into a distilled liquor called ruou de, ruou gao or can (50 percent alcohol by volume).
Hot Dishes in the Cooler North
Due to Vietnam’s geographical extremities, regional dishes evolved differently. In the cooler north, stews, deep-fried specialities, pan dishes and rice pudding are common. The best-known export from the north is the spicy noodle soup pho that is also eaten for breakfast. It has since become a national dish and has even made its way onto T-shirts with the world-famous Apple trademark and the proud announcement ‘iPho – made in Vietnam’! A hot bouillon is poured over the rice or wheat flour noodles which is served with wafer-thin slices of beef or chicken and a few soya bean shoots. Pho’s delicious aroma comes from the spices used: pepper, coriander, ground chili and lime juice as well as herbs that are always available everywhere.
The hotpot lau is not to be missed either. Rather like a Vietnamese-style fondue, ingredients such as fish, seafood, beef and glass noodles are added to a boiling stock in a clay pot and cooked at the table in front of guests. It is served with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms, beans, soya bean and bamboo shoots, aubergines and carrots. Bun cha is a well-known grilled meat dish: balls of minced meat or slices of filet are cooked on a charcoal barbecue and served with long, thin rice noodles, raw vegetables and any amount of herbs. The sauce however is all important and the best in the country are to be found in Hanoi.
Central Region: Eat like an Emperor
200 years ago the Emperor of Hue was not going to miss out on whatever was en vogue in Europe – such as potatoes, asparagus and cauliflower. Everything was garnished in the most elaborate way for his Highness, well spiced and presented in a mouth-watering way. The pork sausages typical of Hue were not lacking either. Hue’s gastronomic hit, however, is banh khoai: crisp pancakes filled with crab, pork and soya bean shoots with a peanut and sesame dip. When eating da nang on the other hand, you could well believe you are in Japan. The Vietnamese sushi goi ca comprises a raw filet of fish marinaded in a delicious sauce and covered with breadcrumbs. In the little fishing port of Hoi An, cao lau is the hot favourite – a noodle soup with strips of pork, a whiff of mint, roast onions and crisp rice paper.
The Spicy South
More exoticism and spice can be found in the pots and pans of the south: stir quickly, sauté deftly but not for too long, add a generous number of spices and place on the grill – preferably with coriander, sweet basil, Vietnamese parsley, lemon grass, chili, pepper, star anise, ginger, saffron and tamarind paste. Curries are very much part of every housewife’s standard repertoire just as shrimp paste man tom and fish sauce nuoc mam are a must in every kitchen. Small, spicy spring rolls, served as a starter, are a speciality of the south – the deep-fried cha gio nam and the transparent ‘lucky rolls’ goi cuon and banh cuon, that are served fresh and not deep-fried – and require a certain amount of skill in the making. Fine slithers of pork, shrimps, cucumber, slices of star fruit and the usual herbs are rolled in a sheet of wafer-thin rice paper; the tight roll is then dunked in an accompanying dip.
Buy the Vietnam Marco Polo Guide.