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Light and aromatic: Take a trip into Vietnamese cuisine
(CNN) -- On a recent two-week tour of Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh City in the South to Sapa near the Chinese border, travelers and journalists were able to sample and explore the nation's diverse cuisine, from the finished dishes of restaurants and roadside stands to the raw ingredients of open air markets and floating boat markets.
Vietnamese food is coming into its own on the world's food scope. Long dwarfed in Western countries by Chinese and Thai, and often fused with French food in high-end colonial-style restaurants, the country's distinctive flavors are now gaining ground all alone.
Emphasis on fresh ingredients and the minimal use of fat in cooking preparations have given the cuisine a healthy reputation. And while Vietnamese do not shy away from meat, beef, chicken, pork and seafood are used only in small, flavorful amounts.
Organized by the Culinary Institute of America, the tour was led by Mai Pham, a successful cookbook author and chef with her own Vietnamese/Thai restaurant in Sacramento. The focus of the trip -- Vietnamese cuisine and culture -- was a first, and just one example of how tourism to the country is expanding.
The cuisine lessons included a traditional morning meal of noodle soup and sticky rice from a streetside vendor in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
"To me, it's so enlightening and inspiring to come here to this market and eat sticky rice from the woman across the street who's been here selling one dish for the last 35 years," Pham says.
Another morning, a lesson on pho bo, a beef noodle soup with a soothing broth -- a celebrated national dish for Vietnam.
"Each and every chef has his or her own way of making the broth," Pham says.
Vietnam is long and slender, following the coast from the southern delta to the mountainous northern region. This geographic variation has nursed regional variations in cuisine.
In the South, dishes reflect the Indian influence prevalent in neighboring Cambodia and Thailand. Food tends to include more chiles, herbs and spices -- a result of the year-round growing season and the region's location in the crossroads of trade.
Hearty soups and stews are common in the North, where a harsher climate means fewer herbs and less favorable growing conditions. The classic pho bo beef soup traces its origins to the northern city of Hanoi.
In the middle of the country, centered in the ancient imperial city of Hue, is a cuisine with a history of sophisticated and complex specialties including pork sausages and fancy rice cakes. Of the regional cuisines, it most reflects Western influences.
Vietnamese food is a historical blend that incorporates the foods and cooking styles of former ruling countries. From China, the use of chopsticks and stir-frys; from Mongolia, the incorporation or beef; and from nearly a century of French colonial rule, a lasting love for butter, breads and coffee.
While French and Vietnamese styles are often found combined in restaurant settings around the world, French food in Vietnam is more of a "romantic notion," Pham says. "In reality, for most practical purposes, most Vietnamese did not enjoy it."
The blend of flavors, textures
Vietnamese food, while often associated with Thai, is not nearly as spicy, but is just as aromatic due to the inclusion of fragrant herbs such as lemongrass, mint and cilantro. Bold flavors are often found in sauces, chiles, and condiments accompanying a dish. Different textures and tastes are contrasted.
A typical spring roll may seem bland -- a combination of thin rice vermicelli noodles, unseasoned shrimp, carrot, lettuce leaves and bean sprouts wrapped in rice paper. But you wouldn't dare eat it without dipping it into a salty and tangy fish sauce (Nouc Cham) to bring the flavors to life.
Such distinctive combinations may seem exotic to the Western palate. And that's why a culinary tour offers the perfect introduction to this important aspect of Vietnamese culture.CNN Travel Now Correspondent Carolyn O'Neil contributed to this story.
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