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2011 - Volume 2 Issue 1
¡Comidas Sabrosas!
Cuisines of Vietnam
Article: Jasmine Evaristo
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Vietnam is a long, narrow country in Southeast Asia fringed by China to the north; Cambodia, Laos and the Gulf of Thailand to the west; and the South China Sea to the east. Its geography is instrumental in making the country’s cuisine distinctive. Vietnam is formed by two great river deltas – the Red River delta in the north, and the Mekong River delta in the south – separated by a belt of mountains. The Vietnamese people say that their country bears a resemblance to the image of a bamboo pole with two rice baskets hanging on either end.

    Steeped in a rich history, Vietnamese cooking is a reflection of its Chinese, French, Thai and Cambodian influences. The cultural impact Vietnam’s neighbors have had on its gastronomy has evolved over many centuries, thus producing a cornucopia of distinctive flavors and dishes unique to Vietnamese food.
  Vietnamese cuisine manifests strikingly different culinary experiences between its northern, central and southern regions.
Rice is at the foundation of Vietnamese cooking, having a preference for long-grain white rice that is consumed at almost every meal. Rice is also transformed into other ingredients common to Vietnamese cooking such as rice wine, rice vinegar and rice paper wrappers for spring rolls. Rice is also a key ingredient in making noodles like Banh Pho – the wide white noodles used in the quintessential Vietnamese soup, Pho.

While rice is the mainstay of the Vietnamese diet, don’t presume your palate won’t be tickled. Vietnamese cuisine is anything, but bland. Cuisine in this country is an extensive, innovative blend of Chinese and other Asian herbs and spices, paired with the ingredients and traditions of classic French food. A nuance of the Vietnamese cuisine is its treatment of meat – beef, chicken, and pork – as an afterthought served as a side dish rather than a main course. The national condiment is a piquant fermented fish sauce called nuoc mam. The unique flavorings of Vietnamese cooking primarily comes from mint leaves, coriander, lemon grass, limes, star anise, ginger, black pepper, garlic, basil, sugar, chiles and green onions. Additionally, the lengthy coastline makes fish and other seafood a cuisine staple.

The Vietnamese have a strong vegetarian tradition with their prevalent use of the freshest herbs, vegetables and fruits, influenced by adopted Buddhist values. Indeed, with a heavy reliance on rice, wheat legumes and minimal use of oil, Vietnamese food is among the healthiest cuisines.

Northern - Through most of the 1st millennium AD, China was a dominant force in Vietnam, naturally having the strongest gastronomic influence in this northern region. Their degree of influence is discernible through stir-fries and noodle-based soups. This cuisine is more traditional, and exhibits less herbs and vegetables than the other two regions because its climate is less hospitable. Black pepper is used to add heat to northern dishes and oil-rich frying techniques are common.

Central - The royal chefs of the former Imperial capitol, Hue, developed the elaborate dishes that characterize this mountainous middle region. The royal tradition in this region goes back beyond the recent Vietnamese monarchy to the ancient kingdom of Champa. The royal taste reveals itself in a lavish spread of many small dishes placed on a table at once. The food of central Vietnam also has a spicier flavor and a wealth of fresh produce at its disposal.

Southern - The tropical climate of this region allows for a profusion of fruit, thus producing a sweet and sour flavor profile. Contrary to the north, southern Vietnamese cooking uses less intense cooking techniques, relying less on oil and more on grilling or water-based methods, usually serving herbs and vegetables raw. The flavors attributed to this region are chiles (for heat), limes, coconut milk, vinegars, tamarind and sugar cane. ///
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