An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

a primer on vietnamese food

                                                                 By Ken Schechet

This is the last in a series of dispatches from our correspondent, who has been eating his way through Asia

I have been to Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, France, and several Asian countries.  I recently spent two weeks eating my way from one end of Vietnam to the other and quickly realized that before I got here I had absolutely no clue what Vietnamese food was all about.

The cuisine of this country has to be among the healthiest in the world.  In general, there is minimal use of oils and dairy products.  Everywhere food is fresh, local and seasonal.  Everything is light.  Processed food is rare, as are freezers.  That’s just not part of the mindset here.  Deep frying, when it is done (for example, spring rolls), is done quickly and correctly.  Nothing comes out tasting oily.  If you talk to people about the food you hear a lot about the balance of ying and yang in a recipe.  This refers to the proper mix of textures and flavors in a dish, as well as serving the right foods in each season.  All I can tell you is that the dishes, while not on the level of the great French or Chinese cuisines, are surprisingly complex, especially given that they are often served on the street in a plastic bowl.

The overwhelming signature of Vietnamese food is the liberal use of fresh vegetables and especially fresh herbs.  Cilantro, basil, lemongrass, mint, coriander, and many other herbs that I did not recognize were always present and played a starring role in almost every meal.  When you go to a market and see the variety of fresh herbs on offer, it is stunning.  I would imagine that when someone who has grown up here leaves the country the taste they would miss the most is that of fresh herbs. 

Vietnam is a thin country but is over 1,000 miles long.  When I was in Hanoi the temperature was in the low 60’s.  In the Mekong Delta south of Saigon it was over 100 degrees.  The terrain also varies from mountains in the north to flat jungle-like country in the south.  Much of Vietnam is near water, either rivers or the sea, but some is not.  Because of these geographical differences and the insistence on using locally sourced products whenever possible, the cuisine varies as you go north to south.

The north is somewhat limited by the cool climate.  Food here is less spicy than other parts of the country.  It gets spicier as you go south, but nowhere is it hot spicy.  This isn’t Thailand.  Pepper is used in the north instead of chilis.  However, the food has very light and balanced flavors.  It has clearly been influenced by the Chinese.  The north is the older, traditional part of the country and it is interesting to note that many Vietnamese dishes originated here and then spread to other parts of the country.  But as they spread, they changed to accommodate the local spices, vegetables, and fruits that were more available elsewhere.  The Hanoi Street food crawl reported in a previous article gives you a feel for the food of the north. 

The central part of the country (Hue, Denang, Hoi An) was the seat of emperors and Hue was the national capitol all through the 1800’s to the mid 1900’s.  The Imperial City of Hue is full of palaces and shrines and contains a Forbidden City where the emperor lived.  As befits its history, the food here is more decorative, more sophisticated and very colorful with bolder, spicier flavors. 

Central Vietnam to my mind has the best food in the country.  The culinary queen here is Vy Trinh Diem, but known everywhere as Ms Vy.  She has four restaurants in Hoi An as well as a popular cooking school.  I made it to two of her restaurants (Morning Glory and the Cargo Club) as well as the school.  I particularly liked a dish at Morning Glory called Grilled Chicken with Lime Leaves and wound up making it when I went to her cooking school.  The recipe is at the end of this article.  A meal from another restaurant in Hoi An gives an idea of a typical lunch in a sit-down restaurant.

Banh Beo is a steamed rice cake filled with savory ingredients including chopped fresh shrimp served with sweet fish sauce and chili.  It is very popular in central Vietnam.

Banh Khoai is a savory pancake made with rice flour and filled with pork, shrimp, diced green onion, carrot and bean sprouts served with vegetables and peanut sauce. 

Nem Lui is made of grilled pork rolls served on lemongrass sticks served with vegetables, rice paper and a different peanut sauce.  This is a specialty of Hoi An.

Fried Spring Rolls are made from pork, mushroom, diced carrot, and seasoning rolled up in moist rice paper and fried until the rice paper becomes crispy, served with a sweet and sour fish sauce. 

The meal also included BBQ pork which I neglected to take a picture of.  By the way, this entire spread cost about $5.30.  I had an excellent local beer that added a dollar to the check.

We next flew to the south which is Saigon and the Mekong River Delta.  It may say Ho Chi Minh City on your plane ticket but everyone calls it Saigon.  It is the business capital of the country and Saigon, while definitely Vietnamese, is a pretty modern city.  Here it is much hotter than the other parts of the country we visited, so you will find an abundance of fruits and vegetables, many of which are not common in the US.  While the Pho in Hanoi was very tasty but unadorned, here there were many vegetables available to add to the bowl.  The food here is very flavorful and a bit sweet.  Coconut milk, sugar cane and fruits make their way into the cuisine in this part of Vietnam.  This is also the part of the country that historically had the most contact with the rest of the world, so there are Indian and Malay influences here.  Curries can be found and Singapore-like noodle shops are also present. 

South of Saigon people are still living on the Mekong River and there is a floating market south of Can Tho.  The fruits available here are a sight to behold.

A lunch we had in the Mekong Delta country illustrates the different flavors you will find here

To begin, Young Coconut Salad with Shrimp and Pork

Mekong Pancake with Shrimp and Pork

Sticky rice which came in a large ball and opened to reveal small packets of sweet rice

Fried Elephant Ear Fish which was wrapped in rice paper with Fruit Sauce for dipping

Grilled Shrimp

Vegetable Spring Rolls

Sautéed Yellow Noodles with Vegetables

Mixed Tropical Fruit always ended a meal.

After two weeks in the country I do not claim to be an expert in Vietnamese food, but I will say my eyes were opened to the variety, freshness, and many taste sensations the country has to offer.  After I left I missed the freshness and the herbs.  Everything tasted like cardboard for a week.  In addition to the food, the countryside is beautiful and picturesque beyond belief, but that’s a whole other story.  The people are friendly and wonderful.  And it’s one of the least expensive places in the world once you get yourself there. 

I believe in bucket lists and I think Vietnam should be on everyone’s, and near the top.  As for me, I think I just scratched the surface of this country.  I’d love to go back.

Ms Vy’s Grilled Chicken with Lime Leaf

800 grams (about 1.75 lbs.) boneless chicken thighs, skin off

1/3 cup fresh turmeric or 1 tbs. ground turmeric

1/3 cup lemongrass, pounded

1 tsp sea salt

1 tbs. sugar

1/2 tsp coarse black pepper

1/2 tsp five spice

4 lime leaves, sliced finely

2 tbs. garlic, pounded

2 tbs. shallots, pounded

1 tsp dried chili flakes

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tbs. fish sauce

8 wooden skewers soaked in water 1 hour

Cut thighs into 16 pieces.  Place in a bowl.  Add salt, sugar, black pepper and five spice.  Mix well.  Pound turmeric, add to chicken with garlic, shallot, lemongrass, chili, lime leaves, sesame oil and fish sauce.  Mix well.  You may want to wear plastic gloves to stop your hands turning yellow if using fresh turmeric.

Marinate 30 minutes.  Thread 2 pieces onto each skewer.  Grill 4-5 minutes on each side on a low heat. 

Serves 4 accompanied by a Mango Salad at the restaurant.

Have you been to Vietnam?

If so, what were the memorable dishes you encountered on your trip? Share your comments and insights with the community!

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