With the myriad of culinary choices in today’s dining scene, a typical consumer who is in the mood for Asian food must face selecting Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Thai to name a few of the top popular specialties. However, still in what I like to refer to as its “budding stages” in mainstream American dining, the cuisine of Vietnam is often overlooked, and undiscovered. The health benefits of our cuisine are many fold.
Firstly, to acquaint those of you who do not know much about Vietnamese food, I should describe it as being very balanced, non-greasy, and fresh. The national dish of Vietnam is a soup noodle dish called Pho. It can be made in 2 forms – with beef in which case it is called Pho Bo, or with chicken, which is called Pho Ga. The beef version is made by simmering marrow bones, ox tails, short rib, onions, shallots and ginger, and is flavored by a host of herbs and spices which give it its characteristic “Pho” aroma, star anise, cinnamon, coriander seeds and cloves.
After simmering the bones and meat and spices, overnight preferably, a nutritious, luscious aromatic broth is created which forms the base for the noodle soup. Pho is very well-balanced in that it starts with a helping of blanched rice noodles topped with thinly sliced fresh sirloin, and some of the short rib that has been simmering in the broth (the short rib is removed from the stock just as soon as it is sufficiently tender so it does not fall apart in the overnight cooking process). Next, steaming hot broth is poured on top just to turn the fresh sliced sirloin a shade of delicate pink, and sliced green onions, and chopped cilantro are used to garnish and give the dish yet another layer of flavor dimension. The noodle soup is accompanied by a plate of fresh bean sprouts, lime wedges, Asian basil, and chilies. Piping hot and aromatic, well-balanced nutrition in a bowl. Ahhh…
Vietnamese cuisine is also often characterized by fresh grilled meats or seafood accompanied by a platter of thin rice vermicelli noodles and a heaped mound of fresh vegetables in which to wrap each bite. Lettuce leaves, mint, basil and cilantro make the basic variation but a host of fresh herbs can be used depending on the type of protein that is being grilled. In the case of Bun Cha Hanoi, pork shoulder or belly is thinly sliced and marinated with chopped shallots, garlic, nuoc mam (fish sauce), sugar and pepper. The meat traditionally gets fanned over open charcoal flames, or nowadays gets broiled under the salamander until golden brown and fragrant. Then it is put on top of a lettuce leaf with some rice vermicelli, fresh herbs, and rolled up in a bundle and dipped with nuoc cham, a mixture of fish sauce, lemon juice, chilies, and sugar. The same accompaniments can be used for grilled shrimp skewers, or beef with lemongrass as well. The resulting meal is nutritious, light and well-balanced with starch, vegetables, protein, and very little fat which is rendered off in the grilling process.
Unlike Chinese cooking which uses a lot of oil-blanched cooking techniques in its stir-fries, Vietnamese cuisine offers a host of grilled, or simmered, dishes like Thit Kho – caramelized pork in a peppery garlicky sauce, Ga Kho Gung (chicken caramelized with ginger) or Cari Ga (chicken curry with sweet potatoes and lemongrass). In a family meal, these dishes are typically served with rice, a vegetable soup of some kind with leafy greens, and a vegetable dish such as a stir-fry of ong choy or Chinese spinach with garlic, or stuffed cabbage rolls simmered with fresh tomatoes. The meal usually ends with seasonal fresh fruits for dessert.
Most similar to Thai cuisine with its abundant use of fresh herbs and seasonings, Vietnamese cuisine also has French influence. With the French occupation of almost 90 years in Vietnam, a lot of staples like french baguettes filled with pate and cold cuts have stayed with the Vietnamese palate. Only the Vietnamese embellished this sandwich further to include fresh cucumber wedges, cilantro, and pickled carrots and daikon as well. A Vietnamese twist if you will, creating a perfectly delicious banh mi. French influence is also evident in the use of potatoes in cooking. In making Bo Xao Khoai Tay, thinly sliced potatoes are quickly browned then sauteed with beef and onions, and oyster sauce. A hint of butter is added at the end to round out this Vietnamese stir-fry.
As you can see, the interesting cultural nuances of Vietnamese cuisine, its low-fat cooking techniques and fresh ingredients will make it a cuisine to be reckoned with in the near future. So look out for it when you are next in the mood for something Asian, different, and light!