Vietnamese food is one of the most varied and seductive on the planet – a delicious mix of the food of its colonial visitors and age-old native flavours and techniques. Many forces of climate, trade, history and immigration have influenced Vietnamese cuisine.
Outside cultures have had a strong influence, from the Chinese and Khmer dynasties and the Indian empire to the (short lived) Japanese occupation and, in particular, the French colonial rulers. A classic example of a Vietnamese dish that mixes historical cultural influences with the native cuisine is the ever-popular bánh mì or bánh mỳ, a crusty baguette filled with thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, chillies, pate, mayonnaise and various meat fillings or tofu. The contrasting flavours and textures of this sandwich combined with its low cost make this a popular everyday dish.
Another classic Vietnamese dish is the much-loved pho, which is found all over Vietnam and, indeed, anywhere in the world with a Vietnamese immigrant population. It is a fragrant, rich rice noodle soup typically made with beef or chicken and served with Vietnamese basil, lime, bean sprouts and chillies. Although it is a quintessentially Vietnamese dish it has Chinese and French influences in its use of spices and stock technique.
Vietnam is made up of over 50 provinces. In terms of food, there are three distinct areas – the North, the Central Highlands and the South – each of which has its own climate, culture and food traditions. Broadly speaking, the North is more influenced by neighbouring China and the food tends to reflect its colder climate; the South draws more upon Khmer and Thai influences and its hotter climate means more emphasis on salads, grilled meats and so-called “cooling foods”; whereas Central Vietnam is more of a blend of the two styles.
The key ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking (along them fish sauce, sugar and rice) are very similar to its closest neighbours, Thailand and Cambodia; yet Vietnamese cooking has a distinct style all of its own. It tends to be less spicy, lighter, fragrant and fresh. Meals are leisurely affairs, with many shared dishes served all at once. A typical meal may include a soup, rice, grilled or steamed meats, a vegetable dish, fresh fruit and salad, all placed on the table at once.