Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine.

What Makes it Unique?Vietnam. For those of a certain age it still conjures up pictures of war and strife. And Hollywood has depicted the Vietnamese people in a number of different ways too, depending on the politics of the film-makers. But it is a country slowly embracing tourism and, for many travellers, discovering a new cuisine is one of the main attractions.

With a population of around 90 million, it’s the 13th most populous country in the world. And, as in many other countries, its cuisine reflects its geography and history. Vietnam consists of two giant river deltas separated by a belt of mountains. Natives will often describe their country as two great rice baskets hung on either end of a carrying pole. To the north around Hanoi is the Yuan (Red) River Delta with the Mekong Delta to the south, and the Central Highlands in the middle.

It could be said that Vietnamese food is a mix of Chinese, Thai and French cuisines, with a little influence from Portugal, plus additions, thrown in for good measure, from the Indian spice trail. It’s an old country whose people originate from Indonesia. But around 111 BC the country came under Chinese

control, which lasted for a thousand years. This accounts for many similarities with Chinese cooking methods, although Vietnamese cuisine relies much less on oil. Their use of chillies, predominately in the south, stems from a period of trade with the Portuguese in the 16th century. It was the Portuguese who first brought chillies back from the New World of the Americas.

Thailand has close historical links with Vietnam and they share similar ingredients in their food. And also in their cooking techniques which are uncomplicated, and generally quick. More time is spent in the preparation than in the actual cooking. Unlike most of Southeast Asia, Vietnam was much less influenced by the Indian spice trail, and only occasionally uses those types of spices. In the middle of the 20th century, the country’s cuisine was partially re-shaped by the colonial administration of the French. Indeed, certain Vietnamese chefs will refer to their food as ‘the nouvelle cuisine of Asia’.

But, despite centuries of domination, Vietnamese food has retained its own characteristics. Due to its shared border, North Vietnam reflects more Chinese influence than in the central areas or the south. Soy sauce rarely appears in Vietnamese dishes except in the north. It’s replaced by, what is perhaps, the most important ingredient in all of their cuisine – fish sauce or nuoc mam. Stir-frying plays a relatively minor role, and once again is seen more in the north than elsewhere. Frying in general is less important than simmering.

Northern cuisine uses fewer herbs and vegetables than the other regions because its climate is less hospitable than that of the Mekong Delta. For spicy heat, North Vietnamese cooks rely on black pepper rather than chillies. They also have a fondness for beef, picked up from invading Mongolians in the 13th century. In the south, servings tend to be larger and fewer, and the profusion of fruit in the area means that they are often added into dishes of meat and vegetables. Preparations are less complex than many of those in the centre, and the style of cooking can resemble that of neighbouring Cambodia. For a period of time, ancient Angkor in Cambodia ruled this part of Vietnam. And, because of that, it’s around these parts that you’ll find a number of curried dishes.

So what are some of the more usual meals for the majority of Vietnamese? Noodles and soups! And that can be normal for every meal. Soup is customarily served for breakfast in Vietnam. Large bowls of steaming noodle soup with meat and any number of other ingredients are to be found in small restaurants and roadside stalls. And, of course, as one of the largest producers of rice, you’ll find it accompanies just about every meat, fish and vegetable dish that is served. Whether it is boiled or grilled, it is ubiquitous. And it’s said that the very best grilled rice is found in the village of Vong, about five kilometres from Hanoi.

Other delicacies include banh cuon (rice-flour steamed rolls) which are tastiest when dipped in sweet or spicy sauces. And banh tom (crispy shrimp pastry) is to be found all around the country but is especially renowned in Hanoi, where the shrimp are taken from the local West Lake. In the Central region, around the city of Hue, several specialties have become firm favourites with natives and visitors alike. Tom chua (Hue sour shrimp) has gained a national reputation, and some cooks and merchants concentrate solely on producing it. And com hen (Hue mussel rice) is another regional dish synonymous with the area. It includes Chinese vermicelli, bamboo shoots, lean pork meat and an assortment of greens, such as banana leaves, mint and star-fruit. After boiling the mussels, the remaining broth is used to flavour the rice, often with the addition of ginger, sesame and chillies. It’s particularly spicy and likely to leave you with watery eyes and a slight sweat. Nevertheless, it’s remarkably delicious and very popular.

There are, additionally, a number of more unusual dishes that visitors may not be used to. How about a nice bit of dog? You can have dog’s brain, sausages of dog meat with beans and bitter herbs, grilled dog with ginger and shrimp sauce, boiled dog with lemongrass and steamed dog’s liver with chilli and lime. Not for you? Then why not try eel, frog or even porcupine steamed with ginger. And you can wash it all down with some medicinal wine – flavoured with silkworm, snake, crow or goat’s testicles!

Of course there are a number of westernised restaurants, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon) and in the resorts around the coastal tourist areas. And if you are going to take trip to such a far-flung country, you really should try something a little different. Oh, did I mention braised rat, barbecued bat, boiled cat…?

Johnny Paterson


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