What makes Vietnamese food so special? After an eating tour with Intrepid Travel – traveling through Hanoi, Hoi An, Saigon, and the Mekong Delta – I can’t un-smell the fresh herbs and pungent fish sauce in just about every dish. Each dish could really have its own bottled fragrance. L’eau de Pho (care for a spritz?) would be redolent of mint, cilantro, lemongrass, long-simmered beef bones, and, of course, fish sauce.
Despite the varied landscape of Vietnam, all of the cuisine contains this brilliant balance 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.
Influenced by French
It’s hard to talk about Vietnamese food without mentioning French colonization, which began with missionaries arriving in the 18th century and not ending until 1954. Clearly it had a lasting effect on the country, the people, the architecture, the land, and the flavors. Most obvious might be the banh mi, with its crusty French baguette as the foundation. But the Vietnamese have taken this sandwich and made it entirely their own 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 colonialism leaving its mark – the soup is a blend of Vietnamese rice noodles and French-minded meat broths. One theory contends that pho is a phonetic imitation of the French word “feu” (fire), as in pot-au-feu. Some say French colonialists slaughtered a bunch of cattle in Vietnam to satisfy their appetite for steak, and the ever-resourceful Vietnamese cooks used the scraps, bones, and any other rejected bits to create pho.
Basic elements: Rice and fish sauce
Travel all over Vietnam and you’ll quickly find two universal themes. Rice and fish sauce.
Vietnam is the second-largest rice exporter in the world (after Thailand). Rice is grown all over the country, most bountifully so in the Mekong Delta down south, which can grow enough rice to feed all 87+ million people of Vietnam, with plenty of leftovers beyond that. (So much rice.)
Rice appears at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. There’s regular ol’ rice of course as well as rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, rice porridge, sticky rice, fried rice, puffed rice snacks, and rice wine. I don’t think I ever went more than a few hours in Vietnam without consuming some form of rice.
One local told us that instead of saying gesundheit in response to a sneeze, you can say “cơm muối”, meaning “rice and salt.” So, rather than blessing someone or wishing them good health, just say rice and salt, and that should cure whatever’s ailin’ them.
Most salt intake in the Vietnamese diet is delivered in the form of fish sauce. Salty, funky, fermented fish sauce, or “nước mắm” in Vietnamese, is used in marinades, soup broths, salad dressings, spring roll dips, and it’s really hard to think of any dish where it’s not used. The national condiment is “nước chấm”, made of fish sauce that’s diluted slightly with a splash of lime juice, sugar, chilies and garlic.
People say the most prized fish sauce comes from Phu Quoc, an island near the Cambodian border. The waters around Phu Quoc are rich in seaweed and plankton, keeping the local anchovy population very happy. While any kind of fish can be used to make fish sauce, anchovies supposedly produce the ultimate fish sauce and Phu Quoc sauce only uses anchovies harvested around the island.
“We like our fish sauce like you like your cheese-pungent,” said one of our Vietnamese guides.
I spent a few minutes in a fish sauce factory in the Mekong Delta (it was a challenge to breathe in there, oh boy!) and saw the huge wooden barrels where the little fishies and salt are aged for at least six months. I felt like fish sauce and I reached a new dimension in our friendship together at that moment. It was like visiting the childhood home of a friend for the first time and understanding them better – it was a powerful moment in that stinky room