The cuisine of this Far Eastern country may be more interesting to gastronomes than that of Thailand and which is generally considered superb. Chinese, French and the geography influenced this country’s culinary delights.
Vietnamese, small-built and wiry, have trounced invaders from Khubilai Khan to Lyndon Johnson, and everyone in-between. They excel in trade and entrepreneurship as their recent resurgence proves.
While some of the protein sources of Vietnamese revolt western gourmets, to one who is starved, there is really no difference between beef and dog, or for that matter field mouse, toad, bat or king cobra. African nations eat meat from animals which western gourmets would rarely think, if ever, acceptable.
Dog meat may be grisly and sinewy, but if properly cooked, can be acceptable. Mostly it is grilled, but what may look and taste somewhat unusual is a bowl of steaming liver, lungs and heart.
The main source of starch for Vietnamese is rice, but French introduced the art of baking breads, and producing croissant, that buttery, flaky crescent shaped pasty enjoyed by millions of people daily. In Saigon, you can still get excellent croissant and café au lait.
For breakfast, a guest may be regaled with chicken congee (a thick rice porridge laced with sliced scallions, shredded chicken, dried pork, chiles). Do not be surprised if a servers brings you basil-infused but beef noodle soup called pho for breakfast. But you can ask for a fluffy omelette and the kitchen will deliver an exemplary dish, properly garnished with colourful vegetables for your visual enjoyment.
Seafood reigns supreme in Vietnamese cuisine as the country is located on the Pacific. You mat be served stir-fried squid, deep-fried flying fish, jumbo shrimp in the shell, or whole steamed crab, but pork-stuffed crisp spring rolls could also surprise you. They are crisp, and rich with a right balance of meat, spice and herbs.
Pigeon may be available on restaurant menus, in different preparations, from pan-fried to roasted. While most western gourmets consider pigeon a n ornamental or even pet bird, in north African countries i.e. Egypt and Morocco is a delicacy.
In Vietnam, seafood is always fresh by necessity. Chefs shop in the morning for seafood when the boats arrive with their daily catch, and serve it for lunch and dinner. Refrigeration is available but expensive and freezing seafood is a rarity only fish exporters employ.
Much like Chinese, Vietnamese stir-fry a lot, but also pan-fry, roast, steam and use deep fry techniques influenced by a number of nations who attempted to exploit the population.
Vietnamese chefs use spices sparingly, but rely mostly on herbs, and nuac mam.
When it comes to desserts, the cuisine shows French influence with its gateaux and tortes. However, the public prefers fresh, seasonal fruit above any other dessert western gourmets consider extravagant.
Vietnamese grow significant amounts of coffee and consume some of it but tea remains the preferred beverage.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu