Is Vietnam 'The Foodies Paradise'?
Dean and I have enjoyed Vietnamese food for a very long time. When we lived in Australia and would take weekly pilgrimages out to Springvale, affectionately known as 'Little Vietnam'. There we found the joys of Ca phe sua da, Phở and Bún Bò Huế. It was the freshness of flavour and the textural contrasts that kept us coming back for more. So when we finally got to explore the food in country we spent a great deal of time eating.
One of the defining features of Vietnamese foods is the textures. Most Vietnamese dishes will incorporate the five essential elements (Wu Xing); wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each meal is constructed in a manner that assists in balancing beneficial elements for the eater with each ingredient falling into one of the five elements as well as being either heating or cooling in nature. Lots of Vietnamese dishes consist of vegetables or salad which are crunchy and only, if cooked at all, slightly blanched, soft noodles, barely cooked red meat, and a complexly flavoured dressing or soup.
It would be a gross generalisation to state that there is a ‘typical’ Vietnamese dish, in fact Vietnam is incredibly regional and is heavily influenced history and environment. So let’s tuck in.
The far north is, unsurprisingly, imbued with Chinese flavours and cooking techniques. Many of this region's dishes are hearty, peasant style dishes such as simple soups, large amounts of rice in various incarnations overflowing with flavours easily obtainable from the mountains. Unlike wealthier cities you will find very little meat in dishes, and what meat is eaten is either pork or dog - both of which are widely farmed in the area.
Moving south to Vietnam’s wealthiest city, Hanoi , we found dishes overflowing with meat - both the fresh and cured variety and an abundance of fresh salads and herbs. Punchy flavours abound in this region and it is full of dishes the world would identify as stereotypically Vietnamese such as Bird Salad, and Banh Mi. Here, just as in many other cities in Vietnam such as Dalat and Saigon, the influences of previous colonial powers are in full view. France has left it’s mark on Vietnam in many ways both good and bad, the culmination of French and Vietnamese flavours are incredibly complimentary - for one, there would be no Banh Mi without the baguette.
In the centre of the country, Huế bears the stamp of the once imperial capital (between 1802 and 1945). In small cheap eateries all around the city you will find samplings of the once Royal cuisine and it was here that I found possibly the only food that my palate did not find delicious. Perhaps it was the combination of fermented prawn and dried pork contained within chewy tapioca flour dough called Banh loc tran, that put me off. Another delicacy of Huế, Banh Nam, rice cake steamed inside a banana leaf filled with minced pork shrimp and a sauce that tasted reminiscent of spaghetti bolognaise. Apparently the peculiar and very different cuisine in Huế came about due to the Emperor's fussy food tastes, I sure am glad I was not one of his courtiers - I would have gone to bed hungry.
Heading further down towards the south there was a delicious mix of flavours and we discovered in many seaside cities, such as Danang, which have large Indian communities and visa vi, curries. But be warned, the servings are large - much larger than either one of us could tackle alone.
It would be a sin if we didn’t address the food capital of Vietnam, Hoi An. We ate some of the best meals from our trip here including;
1. Nu Eatery - located up a small alley way just before the Japanese Bridge, it is a small place but packed full of flavour. Do yourself a favour and eat the steamed pork belly buns, they are out of this world. Check them out here.
2.Blue Bird Cafe - actually located at the end of the same alley way as Nu Eatery, we stumbled upon this place when we found Nu closed for the night. The owner makes amazing pierogies, with a Vietnamese influence. He learned to make them from a Polish friend. The Cafe is unassuming, with plastic stools situated on the sidewalk and nothing to visually recommend it. Eat the pierogies they are jam packed with peppery meat - we went back twice.
3.A little place off Hai Ba Trung, where we had crunchy, fresh, crispy wontons - a mix of Japanese, Italian and Chinese influences. And, of course, the famous Cao Lau - a delectable combination of pork broth, pork pieces, veggies and thick textural noodles, all for less than $2 USD.
As you can imagine we came home a little rounder than we had departed but will very happy tummies. We learned a lot from the food of Vietnam; in the north people ate less frequently than their southern counterparts and so their food was more fortifying for it had to sustain them for a longer time. In the south, where more frequent meals are taken, and people actually earn a wage, meals contain more fresh ingredients and are often a smaller portion size. We also learned a lot about the cultures that had influenced the food of the regions; from the French in Hanoi, Japanese in Hoi An and Chinese in Sapa - it was all there on our plate to see.
So if you like to eat your history get yourself to Vietnam toot sweet - your stomach will thank you for it.