1 GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Vietnam is a long, narrow country in Southeast Asia. China borders it to the north; Cambodia, Laos, and the Gulf of Thailand to the west; and the South China Sea (which the Vietnamese call “the East Sea”) to the east. Covering a total of 327,500 square kilometers (126,500 square miles), Vietnam is approximately the same size as Italy and Japan.
The geography of Vietnam plays an important role in the country’s cuisine. Rice, the mainstay of the Vietnamese diet, is grown throughout the country but particularly in the Red River delta in the north and Mekong River delta in the south. In fact, the Vietnamese people say that their country resembles a bamboo pole (the narrow central region) with a basket of rice at each end.
Although three-quarters of the land in Vietnam is hilly or mountainous, the long seacoast and many inland waterways provide fish and other aquatic species that are staples in the Vietnamese diet. Vietnamese cuisine varies somewhat by region, with Chinese influences (such as stir fries, noodles, and use of chopsticks) in the north, as well as Cambodian (Khmer) and French influences in the south.
Climate affects the availability of ingredients, which in turn affects the types of dishes that dominate a particular region. During the winter months in the north, families gather around a big bowl of seasoned broth and cook vegetables and meat in it for sustenance and warmth. A fish dish called cha ca, which is cooked in a similar fashion, is also quite common. The charcoal brazier (small barbecue-like heat source) that keeps the broth boiling sits on the table and keeps the entire family warm.
In the south, where the climate is conducive to a long growing season and where more ingredients are available, the typical diet contains a w >
Vietnam is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a rapidly growing population, estimated in 2000 to be 76 million people. As the population increases, more land is cleared for agriculture. Estimates in 2001 indicated that less than 20 percent of the land remained forested and 40 percent was considered useless for growing crops. Farmers trying to clear land quickly burn the vegetation to make way for crops. They then overuse the land until it is no longer fertile or suitable for crops. This type of farming, known as shifting cultivation (or “slash and burn”), is practiced most often in the north and in other countries around the world.
Too much fishing has depleted the number of fish in the waters surrounding Vietnam, and the coastal marine environment is also threatened by oilfield development in the south.
Safe drinking water is another problem in Vietnam. According to UNICEF, only 45 percent of Vietnam’s inhabitants have access to safe drinking water and only 29 percent have access to adequate sanitation. In recent years, the government and other organizations have begun programs to slow the pace of environmental degradation by educating citizens about sanitation and sustainable agriculture practices.
2 HISTORY AND FOOD
Neighbors have influenced the Vietnamese people in regards to what they eat and how they cook. People from Mongolia who invaded Vietnam from the north in the tenth century brought beef with them. This is how beef became part of the Vietnamese diet. Common Vietnamese beef dishes are pho bo (Beef Noodle Soup) and bo bay mon (Beef Cooked Seven Ways). The Chinese who dominated Vietnam for 1,000 years taught the Vietnamese people cooking techniques such as stir frying and deep frying, as well as the use of chopsticks. In the south, neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand introduced such ingredients as flat, Cambodianstyle egg noodles, spices, chili, and coconut milk.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, explorers and traders introduced foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, and snow peas. When the French colonized Vietnam (1858–1954), they introduced foods such as baguettes (French bread), pâté, coffee with cream, milk, butter, custards, and cakes. In the 1960s and 1970s (Vietnam War era), the U.S. military introduced ice cream to Vietnam when it contracted with two U.S. dairies to build dozens of ice cream factories.
3 FOODS OF THE VIETNAMESE
Plain rice ( com trang ) is at the center of the Vietnamese diet. Steamed rice is part of almost every meal. The Vietnamese prefer long-grain white rice, as opposed to the short-grain rice more common in Chinese cooking. Rice is also transformed into other common ingredients such as rice wine, rice vinegar, rice noodles, and rice paper wrappers for spring rolls.
Rice is also used to make noodles. There are four main types of rice noodles used in Vietnamese cooking. Banh pho are the wide white noodles used in the quintessential Vietnamese soup, pho . Bun noodles (also called rice vermicelli) look like long white strings when cooked. Banh hoi are a thinner version of bun noodles. In addition, there are dried glass, or cellophane, noodles ( mien or bun tao ) made from mung bean starch.
Just as essential to Vietnamese cuisine as rice and noodles is nuoc mam , a salty fish sauce that is used in most Vietnamese recipes (just as salt is used in most Western dishes). Nuoc mam is produced in factories along the coast of Vietnam. Anchovies and salt are layered in wooden barrels and then allowed to ferment for about six months. The light-colored, first-drained sauce is the most desirable. It is also the most expensive and reserved primarily for table use. Less expensive nuoc mam is used in cooking. When shopping for nuoc mam , one should look for the words ca com on the label, which indicates the highest quality.
The most popular condiment is nuoc cham (dipping sauce), which is as common in Vietnam as ketchup is in North America. Saucers filled with nuoc cham are present at practically every meal, and diners dip everything from spring rolls to meatballs into it. The recipe that follows can be adjusted to suit individual tastes by using more or less red pepper and nuoc mam. Nuoc cham is quite simple to make and will keep in the refrigerator for up to 30 days. A few spoonfuls over a bowl of plain rice can be considered an authentic Vietnamese peasant meal.
Nuoc Cham (Dipping Sauce)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 Tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- ½ cup nuoc mam (fish sauce), available at Asian markets
- ½ cup fresh lime juice
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup sugar
- In a small bowl, soak the red pepper flakes in the vinegar for 10–15 minutes.
- In a second bowl, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and sugar.
- Stir in 1½ cups boiling water and the pepper-vinegar mixture.
- Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.
- Store in a jar in the refrigerator for up to 30 days.
Fish and other aquatic animals, such as squid and eel, are central to the Vietnamese diet. Beef, pork, and chicken are also important, but are consumed in smaller quantities. The unique flavorings in Vietnamese cooking are created with a variety of spices and seasonings, including mint leaves, parsley, coriander, lemon grass, shrimp, fish sauces ( nuoc nam and nuoc cham ), peanuts, star anise, black pepper, garlic, shallots, basil, rice vinegar, sugar, green onions, and lime juice. To provide a contrast in texture and flavor to the spicy meat components of a meal, vegetables are often left raw and cut into small pieces (usually cut at an angle, or julienne), especially in the south. Cool, crunchy foods include cucumbers and bean sprouts. The typical Vietnamese meal includes meat and vegetables, either eaten with chopsticks and rice or rolled into rice paper or (red) leaf lettuce and dipped into an accompanying sauce. Traditional preparation techniques are determined by eating habits, geography, and economics.
Pho bo (Beef Noodle Soup) is the signature dish of Vietnamese cuisine. It is often eaten for breakfast, purchased from sidewalk vendors on the way to work or school. Pho bo is also a common home-cooked meal, and it is a fun dish to prepare for a group. Seated around a table with dishes of ingredients in the center, each person is given a bowl of spicy beef broth. Then, each selects his or her vegetables and noodles to add to the broth. No two bowls of pho bo are alike.
Dessert is not as common in Vietnam as it is in North America, except perhaps for a piece of fresh fruit. One exception is sweet coconut custard, which might follow a celebratory meal.