VIET NAM GASTRONOMY
The art of the subtle balance
"Balance" may be the single word that is commonly used to describe Viet Nam's gastronomy. In essence, Vietnamese cuisines usually reach the balance of ingredients and recipe: neither putting too much salt and fat, nor using fattening cooking methods such as frying that may lead to diseases.
Fresh ingredients are crucial for making Vietnamese dishes. Busy as they are, housewives always manage to have enough time to go shopping for fresh foods every day. A true Vietnamese cook usually know how to avoid misusing spices to preserve the freshness of meat as well as the taste of fresh seafoods. The main course and side dishes always well complement each other, both in terms of nutrition and flavor. For example, the spring roll - a favorite Vietnamese dish to foreigners - is often served with fresh vegetables, pickles and garlicky peppery fish sauce which help provide more vitamins as well as fiber to the meal and improve the digestion.
Vietnamese spices being added to a dish are always balanced out so well, just enough to make a dish really delicious. For example, the true northern-style Pho is often served with Lang basils, tofu with Vietnamese balm and baluts with ginger and laksa leaves. That is why a Vietnamese proverb says "a pot full of meat becomes tasteless without onion".
An indispensable ingredient in every Vietnamese kitchen is fish sauce. Fish sauce is manufactured in many localities in Viet Nam. However, the most well-known Vietnamese fish sauce is Phu Quoc (name of an island in Kien Giang province). Phu Quoc's inhabitants have manufactured fish sauce for nearly 200 years. Although several varieties of fishes can be used to make good fish sauce, only anchovies are used by the Phu Quoc people to make the sauce. The anchovies are brined shortly after capture so the product is very rich in nitrogen, which is often known of as a "panacea" to keep a diver warm after plunging into cold water without wearing professional diving gear. What about the taste? Only with a cup of Phu Quoc fish sauce with some chopped chilies, one can eat up an entire pot of rice.
In many Asian countries, chopsticks are important tools for eating. Vietnamese chopsticks have their distinctive features: they are made from natural materials such as bamboo or wood, and especially old coconut wood. They are longer than the shiny stainless steel Korean chopsticks, not so oblong or painted like Japanese chopsticks. The Vietnamese chopsticks are simple and perfectly designed.
Although sharing a lot of similarities, the dishes in different localities of the country which stretches over 1,600 km with various type of climate have their own distinctive and unique characteristics. In the North, with 4 clear-cut seasons, the taste is "moderate": not too salty, too sweet or too hot. Seasonal foods which are always available in the kitchen are meat, fish and vegetables. People in the Central and the South prefer the taste of hot and salty food. Food in these places contains somewhat more sugary flavor.
The charm of various Vietnamese dishes is one of the reasons that attract Vietnamese expatriates and foreigners to make nostalgic visits to Viet Nam.
Being a distinctive Vietnamese dish, especially to those who live in the North, Pho is available everywhere, from villages to urban cities, to be sold by street vendors or served at luxurious restaurants.
There exist various ideas as to the origin of Pho. Some researchers assume that Pho is derived from a French word pronounced as "feu" in the expression "pot au feu", which mean "casseroled beef". By this definition, Pho came into existence together with the introduction of the French casserole into Viet Nam in the early 20th century.
Along with urbanization, Pho used to be sold only in metropolitan cities like Ha Noi and Nam Dinh where it became popular among local people before spreading to other regions of Viet Nam. It is the geographic influence of different regions that has helped develop a diverse range of Pho variations such as fried Pho, red wine sauce Pho, mixed Pho, sour Pho, rolled Pho, Pho cracker (all are Pho with beef), or chicken Pho in the North, seafood Pho and dry Pho in the Central and the South.
Stock is crucial to have a delicious Pho. Stock can be made by simmering beef bones, then adding some spices like cinnamon, anise, ginger, cardamom, cloves and coriander seeds... This is the most popular recipe to which cooks process their distinctive taste and then hand down to later generations in the family.
Sharing thoughts in an interview on Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper about the subtle blend of ingredients and spices in a bowl of Pho, French Ambassador to Viet Nam Jean Poirier said: "I love Vietnamese cuisines for their creative recipes and the perfect combination of ingredients. For instance, a delicious Pho is mainly attributed to its stock; a mixed Pho of rare and well-done beef is a harmony of many flavors".
Traditional Pho noodle is made from rice which is spread thinly and cut into strips. Pho is served with seasonings and herbs like onion leaves, pepper, coriander and lime juice or chili vinegar. A cook is successful only when he is able to blend all the ingredients from broth, noodle to meat and herb, resulting in an appetizing taste which is typical of the Vietnamese Pho.
Pho was described in one of the publications of Thach Lam, a Vietnamese writer, that good Pho should be a "classic" beef Pho with broth made from beef bone; the soup should be crystal clear and sweet; Pho noodle should be glutinous, not mushy; fatty beef should be crispy, not stiff; spices such as lime juice, chilies, onion leaves, fresh herbs and black pepper could be added altogether. The adding of some lethocerus indicus essence into Pho could make the flavor a mystery.
In 2014, Vietnamese Pho leads the world's top 40 delicious dishes that deserve a trial taste as suggested by the American Business Insider magazine.
FRIED SPRING ROLL
"Nem ran" is the word spoken by the Northern people to refer to the fried spring roll while the Southern people call it "cha gio" - an entirely Vietnamese dish which originates from the North. The spring roll used to be served exclusively for Lunar New Year holidays, death anniversaries and weddings of rich people and the aristocracy. That is why the French gave the spring roll a French name that sounds quite noble "Pâté Impériale", meaning Imperial Paste.
Today, the spring roll has become a cuisine of all Vietnamese families. It is served not only in luxurious parties but also in popular meals.
One spring roll is composed of the following ingredients: minced shoulder pork, crushed soaked dried aromatic mushrooms, Jew's ear, finely chopped spring onions, bean sprouts, eggs, pepper, salt and some seasonings... Just to name a few, it is included around 10 ingredients, let alone the dipping sauce which is a blend of fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, chilies and garlic. The spring roll should be served with herbs and lettuce.
All the combined ingredients are mixed well. A moderate amount of stuffing is put in a rice sheet (called "banh trang" by the South), wrapped into rolls, dropped into pan and deep-fried in hot cook oil. The cooking heat should be set medium to keep the coat crispy and preserve the colors of the ingredients inside the spring rolls. Thin and stiff rice sheet should be used to make the spring roll tastier with a crispy coat.
The dipping sauce to be served with spring roll should be well prepared, balancing the tastes of salinity of fish sauce, the sweetness of monosodium glutamate and sugar (coconut juice can be used as a substitute for sugar), the sourness of lime juice (or vinegar), and some minced garlic and sliced chilies.
Spring rolls are served with fresh vegetables like lettuce, Lang basil, marjoram and some other herbs... "Dua Gop" is made of sliced green papay, carrot and kohlrabi pickled with vinegar and sugar.
Today, the recipe of the spring roll has been modified, using variations of ingredients like seafood, crab meat, cuttlefish, banana, raw minced pork, fish, and tofu, vegetables…, which are wrapped inside different rice sheets like "Banh Trang Re" and "Banh Trang Xop"… and served with chili sauce or sweet and sour sauce. However, these varieties are not as delicious as the traditional spring rolls.
The balanced combination of ingredients, spices and the color of spring rolls make it an amazingly tasty food. It is voted by CNN as one of the 40 best dishes in the world.
HUE BEEF RICE VERMICELLI
Hue cuisines are characterized by the depth of the essence of Hue people who are living in an ancient imperial city - delicate and elegant but not extravagant. People in Hue enjoy the dishes based on such criterias as nice-presenting, good taste and reasonable price. Diners love Hue rice vermicelli because of its "Hue style", which is though poor but still noble, stylish and sophisticated in terms of flavor and art. Enjoying the dishes, diners can feel not only the delicious taste of the food but also the heart of the cook. Hue dishes reflect the characteristics of Hue people, particularly of Hue women who are widely known as gracious, devoting, meticulous and thoughtful.
As it is called, Hue beef rice vermicelli originates from Hue. A bowl of Hue beef rice vermicelli seems simple but very refined, bringing about a full sense of the culinary art to diners.
Original Hue beef rice vermicelli must be cooked with Van Cu rice vermicelli which is produced in Van Cu village, Huong Toan commune, Huong Tra town, about 10 km from Hue to the northwest. The food's main ingredients include beef and pork leg: beef should be lean ham with sinew; pork is the lower segment of the leg. The pork is cleaned and simmered for about half an hour, then the heat is gradually reduced so that the pork is tenderly cooked. Bubbles should be completely removed in order to make the stock clear; some crushed citronella is added. While citronella gives flavors, shrimp paste gives a strong taste to the beef soup. Shrimp paste should be stirred well before separating all the residues. A sufficient amount of shrimp seasoning is needed to create light flavor and a deep taste. An insufficient amount of shrimp seasoning may make the rice vermicelli soup tasteless whereas too much will render it too strong and less flavorful.
Hue people are famous for their sophisticated culinary art. The bowl of beef rice vermicelli looks simple but truly refined with a clear broth showing off layers of white rice vermicelli dotted with red chili on the background of vegetables, onion and scum of citronella oil. Yellowish white pieces of pork are blended with reddish brown beef and light yellow sinew. A bowl of beef rice vermicelli is often served with mixed vegetables including banana slices, green cinnamon leaves and white soy-sprouts, making the dish more charming and delicate looking.
Life is changing and the ingredient for a rice vermicelli bowl is changed as well. There appear many variations of beef rice vermicelli created by different vendors in different areas. In some areas, people modify the rice vermicelli by adding crab or pork rolls while in other places, they fry the beef or have it quickly boiled... Despite the modifications, diners are still able to recognize the typical Hue taste of the beef rice vermicelli which is simple yet truly elegant.
The cuisine follows Hue people to many regions where it may be slightly changed to suit the taste of local people. Across Hai Van Pass, diners can find a range of the dish modifications. In Da Nang, the well-known "Bun Bo Hue" (Hue beef rice vermicelli) restaurant, located in Thong Nhat street, offers bigger bowls with more beef and sinew. Elsewhere in Sai Gon, Hue beef rice vermicelli has been modified into "Pho Bun" (Pho rice vermicelli).
Today, Hue gourmets often come to Mu Rot restaurant which has been famous since the 1960s-70s to enjoy the tasty flavors of original Hue beef rice vermicelli. Mu Rot is a small restaurant without any signs, located in To Hien Thanh street behind Dieu De Pagoda.
In addition, visitors to Hue may enjoy genuine Hue beef rice vermicelli at: Hue beef rice vermicelli restaurant at 14 Ly Thuong Kiet street, Hue city; Ba Tuyet rice vermicelli restaurant at 37 Nguyen Cong Tru; Ba Tam rice vermicelli restaurant at 43 Nguyen Cong Tru; and Ba Phung rice vermicelli restaurant in Nguyen Du street, Hue city.
Together with Pho and spring roll, Vietnamese sandwich has become so famous and popular in many countries that it is included as a new word in the American dictionary.
Vietnamese sandwich is a type of loaf bread made from wheat flour. The loaf is chopped vertically so that paste, meat, mayonnaise and vegetables such as onion, cucumber, carrot and coriander… can be stuffed. Chili sauce and soy sauce are then added. Special attraction of this dish comes from its ingredients which are adapted subtly to suit diners' taste; for instance, margarine is used instead of fatty butter. The sour and crispy stuffing helps balance perfectly the fatty and buttery elements. The harmonious combination of ingredients in the Vietnamese sandwich represents the characteristics of Vietnamese culinary art - harmony in diversity.
The kind of bread used to make sandwiches originates from the baguette bread imported by the French into Viet Nam in the early 19th century. During its adaptation, Sai Gon people modified the baguette bread and made it into a kind of bread characterized by Sai Gon style with more stuffing and length of 30 or 40 centimeters. From then on, the sandwich has become familiar and popular in Sai Gon. Nowadays, the sandwich stuffing is creatively modified with other ingredients being added like steak and fried fish.
With its convenience and reasonable price, Vietnamese sandwiches are available at almost every corner in Sai Gon city: from luxurious places to underprivileged residential quarters, from big restaurants to street vendors. The sandwich has become a popular breakfast for people of all social strata from officials to students and laborers...
From Sai Gon, the sandwich spreads to other regions of the country and being modified to suit the taste of local people; it is also considered as a fast food during the day.
The introduction of the Vietnamese sandwich to the outside world began relatively early. After 1975, the sandwich followed the Vietnamese community to enter the U.S., Australia and Canada and became popular in these countries. In March 2012, the tourist column of The Guardian - a famous newspaper of the United Kingdom - voted Vietnamese burgers as one of the top 10 street food that most attract tourists.
SQUARE CAKES AND ROUND CAKES
The square cake and round cake are two traditional specialties of Viet Nam, often used at festivals, Lunar New Year celebrations and important rituals. Legend of these cakes has it that, after defeating An invaders, Hung King intended to hand the throne to his children. He summoned 22 mandarins and princesses, saying "I want to hand the throne to the one who can please me by offering delicacies to my ancestors at the end of the year, showing my filial respect to ancestors". Everyone headed towards different directions looking for delicacies, except Lang Lieu, the 18th mandarin who was a motherless child since early childhood; he did not know what to do. One night, he was instructed by a God to make cake "Take glutinous rice to make two cakes: a square one and a round one that symbolize heaven and earth; the cakes are wrapped in big leaves. Inside the cakes are delicious ingredients which imply gratitude paid to parents". Lang Lieu followed what the God had instructed him and was handed the crown.
From then on, during Lunar New Year celebrations, the square cakes and round cakes are often offered as tributes to the ancestors and the universe.
The square cake is square as it is called, symbolizing the earth. It is wrapped by arrowroot leaves with the surface being turned inwards to keep the color of the cake naturally green, and then tied with bamboo strips. Ingredients for this comprise glutinous rice, mung beans, pork, pepper and onion…. The cake is square with each side of about 15-17 centimeters and thickness of 4-6 centimeters. It should be cooked for 10-15 hours continually so that the cake will have the softness of sticky rice and buttery taste of mung bean mixing with sweetness of meat...
The square cake demonstrates the culinary philosophy and the culture of Vietnamese people: carefully prepared, meticulous and well-made…, showing the gratitude of Vietnamese people to their ancestors. The square cake is a reflection of the wet rice civilization's sophistication to the culinary art of Viet Nam.
The making and enjoying square cakes during Lunar New Year celebrations manifest the cultural fineness of the Vietnamese people. After the square cake is offered to the ancestors, family members enjoy the cake together. Square cake cutting is regarded as an art: the cake is divided into equal pieces with equal outer and inner parts. Normally, people use the bamboo strings that are used to wrap the cake to devide it into eight evenly triangle pieces. The square cake, therefore, is an illustration of the Vietnamese culture: unity, sociability, consideration, equality and ritualism.
Square cakes are always accompanied by round cakes, which are made from glutinous rice and paired up to symbolize yin and yang. As it is called, the round cake is round, smoothly white, slightly aromatic of sticky rice, sweetly flavored and pure. To make the cake, cooked sticky rice is finely brayed until it turns smooth. Then it is pinched into evenly and round parts of about 5-7 centimeters in diameter and about 1 centimeter in thickness. Round cakes used for offerings are white without stuffing, served with lean pork paste or salt and sesame.
The making of round cake manifests the cohesion of the Vietnamese people which normally requires the synergy of a group: at least 3 or 4 people must work together to mix, bray and mold the cakes. Making a delicious and nice cake often requires the strength of the men and the skill of the women.
Made from glutinous rice, a simple and rustic ingredient yet valuable to farmers, the round cake represents a fine combination of good values and the meticulous work which is broadly respected.
Although simple, the square cake and round cake express the sentiments, moral principles and cultural beauty of the Vietnamese people, all together making up the value of the cakes.
In May 2014, Vietnamese square cake is listed as one of the top 10 traditional specialties in the world by the National Geographic magazine.
WEST LAKE LOTUS TEA
Lotus scented tea of the West Lake is known as an art of making and enjoying tea of Hanoians.
Made from carefully selected materials and gone through an elaborate process, West Lake lotus scented tea is commonly regarded as a treasure of Ha Noi City. Hundreds of years ago, this kind of premium tea was exclusively used as tributes to the Lord and the noble beings.
Embalming lotus tea is an extremely sophisticated and meticulous job. Lotus used for embalmment must be fragrant; each flower should have more than one hundred petals and be grown in Quang Ba area of the West Lake. Lotuses growing in the fertile mud of the lakes in this area are more beautiful than others. The lotus is multi-layered with pink petals and a gold pistil with a sweet fragrance.
West Lake lotus season lasts from mid-May to early September. At the peak of maturity, thousands of fragrant lotuses are picked to prepare for tea embalmment. The lotus must be picked before sunrise when its scent still remains. Lotus stamen seeds are taken from selected lotuses; they can be used to embalm the tea. Around 80 to 100 lotuses are needed in order to produce 100 grams of lotus stamen seeds; 200 grams of lotus stamen seeds are needed to embalm one kilogram of tea. Therefore, it requires about 1,400 lotuses to get one kilogram of lotus scented tea.
To embalm tea, each layer of tea is alternated with a layer of stamen seeds, so on; the tea then is covered with a piece of paper and put in a small chamber for incubation. The case used for tea embalmment should be like the tray used for betrothal ceremony. In order to prevent the tea from being decayed, one should stir it every 4-6 hours; the tea embalmment lasts from 36 to 48 hours depending on the moisture of tea and stamen seeds. The next step is to remove the used stamen seeds and dry the tea. It should be dried in such a way to evaporate the moisture but still retain the lotus scent. The drying cycle is carried out repeatedly until the tea is fully imbued with lotus fragrance and ready for use. Sophisticated as it is, the production of West Lake lotus scented tea often requires the experience of skillful embalming artisans who are widely honored as craftsmen.
The art of enjoying West Lake lotus scented tea is also as sophisticated as the process of production. An ideal venue for drinking traditional lotus tea is under the eaves looking over the lotus lake. Tea drinkers sit on a wooden platform, enjoying the taste of lotus scented tea and the beauty of just blossoming lotuses at a fresh and pure climate. When being prepared with water, lotus tea turns honey yellow with a pleasantly light scent. In order to deeply sense the beauty of lotus tea, tea drinkers must stay in a delicate and refined mood; they can enjoy tea while contemplating the scenery, making poems, having a quiet chat or being deep in thought. The climate for drinking tea, therefore, is very tranquil. This simple, gracious style of tea drinking is a distinctive feature of the Vietnamese Tea art.
Lotus scented tea is seen by the Vietnamese as a valuable product that represents the Vietnamese characteristics and culture. Today, many enterprises have invested in the production of lotus scented tea and introduced a variety of convenient products such as tea bags, bringing the tea to more consumers.
Lotus stamen seeds are used to embalm tea. Each layer of tea is alternated with a layer of stamen seeds, put in a small terra-cotta pot and incubated in a warm chamber for three days. After that, the used seeds are removed and the tea is dried before the new cycle begins with new seeds. This cycle is repeated around 7 times to produce a batch of lotus scented tea. No more than three kilos of tea is embalmed in one batch.
When autumn comes, Hanoians usually have a delicate pleasure to enjoy lotus scented tea with young green rice flakes or Lang Vong green rice flake cake - a distinctive product of Ha Noi. Lang Vong young green rice flakes (Vong village is located in Cau Giay district) have been famous for its smoothness and good taste in Ha Noi. The flakes are made of young glutinous rice which are green in color. Young green rice flakes are the embodiment of the skill, diligence and creativity of the paddy farmers.
To have well-cooked and tasty green rice flake cakes, a sophisticated making process is required. For making the cake, only mature green rice flakes can be used since young rice flakes can be dissolved in sugar thus cannot make up the outer coat of the cake. The green rice flakes are dried and put in pots or jars, or packed up tightly to avoid from moisture. To make cakes, 1 kilogram of green rice flakes is mixed well with 1.3 liters of water until the rice flakes become soft; sugar is added in the ratio of 1 kilogram of sugar to 1 kilogram of green rice flakes. When cooking, the green rice flakes should be stirred well; otherwise, it may become pasty if under-heated or burnt if overheated. When the cooking is about to finish, some drops of pomelo flower essence are added to create a special flavor for the product.
A well-made green rice flake cake has the color of natural green rice flakes which are yellowish green. It must look flat with observable stuffing of shining yellow green beans.
It is the perfectly matching flavor that West Lake lotus scented tea and Lang Vong green rice flake cakes - the quintessence of culinary art of Ha Noi - are often chosen as offerings in the betrothal trays of Hanoians.