Introduction to Vietnamese Cuisine

Did you know Vietnamese cuisine is regarded as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world? A wonderfully simple cuisine that celebrates food through use of fresh ingredients (fish, vegetables, rice, and a whole host of verdant herbs and spices such as Vietnamese mint, bird eye chilies, lemongrass, basil ginger and lime ) to create flavors hard to resist and relies on minimal use of oil.

When it comes to Vietnamese cuisine it is all about Ying and Yang; the sweet and the salty, the cooling and the warming, the fresh and the fermented that brings balance and the Asian principle of the five elements of spicy, sour, biter, salty and sweet. Though relatively simple at heart, food throughout the Vietnamese landscape is an expression of these 5 elements.

Let’s find out how the philosophy of Ying and Yang and how the five elements are applied to Vietnamese cooking.


Ying and Yang:


The Ying and Yang philosophy comes into play to compose dishes that provide a balance which is healthy and beneficial to the body. The principles primarily concerns the “heating” and “cooling” properties of ingredients but also considers the time of the year, season and other health considerations. (Very similar to the Sattvic diet followed in India).

Some examples:

Seafood (cold) are served with warm accent of ginger;
Spicy Food (hot) are typically balanced with sour ingredients which are considered “cool”
Duck meat which is considered cool is consumed in summers with ginger fish sauce (warm)
Chicken meat which is considered warm are served in winters.

The Five Elements:


Asian principles of Wu Xing (the five elements) and Mahābhūta (Sanskrit for "great element”) govern Traditional Vietnamese food. 

Spicy – Metal
Sour – Wood
Bitter – Fire
Salty – Water
Sweet – Earth

It means that each dish is created to balance out the five fundamental taste senses to correspond to five internal organs of the body, include five type of nutrients, contain five colors and appeal to the five senses:


These five elements are fundamental to preparing Vietnamese cuisine. A perfectly prepared dish will appeal to five senses of a gastronome – visually appealing food for the eyes, sounds of crisp ingredients, spices detected on the tongue, aromas from herbs stimulating sense of smell and eating with hands appeals to the sense of touch.

Regional Variations:

Vietnamese food can be broadly divided into 3 main types based on the region. The northern region has Chinese influence in its cooking with stir-fries and noodle based soups and the emphasis is on truly traditional Vietnamese food. As you travel south, you will notice a Cambodian and Thai influence in the preparation. The food in the south also tends to be on the sweeter side (use of sugar and coconut milk in preparations). Central Vietnamese cuisine is distinct and on the spicier side and focused on a lot of side dishes rather than a large main meal.

Influences:


French colonization beginning in the 18th century has also clearly left its mark in Vietnamese cuisine with the most evident adaptation being the banh mi, with its crusty French baguette as the foundation and the filling being replaced with grilled pork, fish patties, sardines, cilantro, chili-spiked pickled carrots and other fillings.

Pho (pronounced fuh, like "fun" without the "n") is another example of French colonization leaving its mark with a fusion of Vietnamese rice noodles and French-minded meat broths.

Staples:

Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the world and rice typically appears in breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. The salt intake in diet is in the form of fish sauce (national condiment) used in marinades, soup broths, salad dressings and dips. 



Tip: One of the best fish sauces to purchase are the ones made from anchovies (if you are traveling to Vietnam, check for a brand called Phu Quoc).

Use of herbs, aromatics and spices:

Vietnamese cuisine relies heavily on herbs, aromatics and spices to create heavenly flavors.
A quick list would include cilantro, mint, basil, lime leaf, lemongrass, scallions, dill, turmeric, ginger, galangal, Saigon cinnamon (indigenous to Vietnam), tamarind pulp, fish leaf (also called fish mint).


Some Popular Dishes:

Goi cuon

Vietnam’s popular dish: translucent spring rolls packed with greens, coriander and various combinations of minced pork, shrimp or crab.

Creative Commons: Yuichi Sakuraba


Pho

Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, linguine-shaped rice noodles called bánh phở, a few herbs, and meat, primarily served with meat.



Banh mi

This baguette sandwich filled with greens and a choice of fillings.

Creative Commons - Lucas Richarz


Bun cha

A Hanoi street food specialty. It is like a small burger with barbecued pork patties and served on a bed of cold rice noodles with greens and a slightly sweetish sauce.

Creative Commons - Jo del Corro


Banh xeo (“sizzling pancake”)

These are large Vietnamese pancakes containing shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and egg. The pancake is fried, wrapped in rice paper with greens and served with a spicy sauce.

Creative Commons -  Larry


Cultural Importance:

Cuisine has great cultural importance in Vietnam and food finds a mention in many popular proverbs such as:

Cha ăn mặn, con khát nước ("The father eats salty food, the children go thirsty.") which means Bad actions will later bring bad luck/consequences to descendants.

Nhai kĩ no lâu, cày sâu tốt lúa (Chewing carefully [makes one] feel full longer, ploughing deep is good for the rice) which means Careful execution brings better results than hasty actions.

And there is a famous saying which sums up this culinary reverence: Trời đánh tránh bữa which translates as ‘Even God dare not disturb the Vietnamese during our meal’.

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