Making Sense of Vietnamese Cuisine

During two decades of leading tourists in East and Southeast Asia, I have learned that eating the local food is one of the most powerful ways to overcome the gap between tourists and the culture they visit.

Food as Nature and Culture

Food is the most perfect cultural artifact, the outcome of a detailed differentiation process whereby wheat grains are transformed into French baguettes, Chinese dumplings, or Italian pasta.

Humans are the only living beings that cook, and virtually all human cultures process their food to some extent. Cooking, however, is what also sets people and cultures apart from each other.

It isinsulting to refer to the food of others by saying that “they eat everything,” implying a lack of moral, cultural, and esthetic standards. They probably find our food as strange as we find theirs. Research shows, however, that no human group eats everything. Members of most cultures consume roughly 20 percent of the edibles available in their environment, while rejecting other edible foodstuffs due to moral, religious, or esthetic considerations.

The Basic ingredients of the Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese cuisine evolved within a tropical ecology of warm weather, plenty of rainfall, and rivers that allowed for intensive agriculture. The sea provides fish and seafood.

Rice provides most of Việt Nam’s carbohydrates and energy. Fish and seafood provide protein. Aromatics and leafy greens supply vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Ground nuts and coconuts supply fats.

The most common spices—chili, lime, ginger, garlic, shallot, and pepper—supply vitamins and minerals. Vietnamese food is not as spicy as Thai food.

Cooking Techniques

The most important kitchen utensil is a large oval iron pan (wok), which distributes heat evenly for fast cooking, saves expensive fuel, and maintains crispiness.

The kitchen is usually located at the back of the house. Women do most of the cooking, squatting on the floor.

Foreign influence

Like all cuisines, Vietnamese cuisine was shaped by contact with external cultures, mainly China and France.

Vietnamese cuisine had an impact on Chinese food as well. Rice was probably domesticated in Việt Nam and incorporated into the Chinese cuisine only after their conquest of north Việt Nam during the first century BCE. Seafood sauces from the southern part of Việt Nam were adopted by southern Chinese cuisines.

Western merchants introduced staples such as maize and sweet potatoes. Lagu or ragu is the Vietnamese version of French beef-onion-carrot-potato ragout. It is cooked in a wok and seasoned with fish sauce, coconut milk, turmeric, and coriander, which create a distinct taste very different from the French original.

Source: Making Sense of Vietnamese Cuisine
© 2011 The Association for Asian Studies. All rights reserved.

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