“If you want to know what the Vietnamese eat, hit the streets,” laughs Chef Dao Van Son. “It is where you will get food that is delicious, cheap and more importantly, healthy.” He should know. Chef Dao is currently the Executive Sous Chef at the
Sofitel Plaza Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and has over 20 years of work experience – all of it creating Vietnamese dishes that few other than the natives know about.
The one thing he cautions is that Vietnamese cuisine is not for those looking for a fine-dine experience. Instead, it is homely comfort food, meant to be shared amongst family and friends sitting at a large wooden table. “If you visit Vietnam, there are many places that only tourists and the very rich locals visit. Majority of the people will either cook at home or eat at the street, where everyone is welcome to share their food with strangers too. That is our culture and that is how to best describe Vietnamese cuisine,” Chef Dao adds.
A HEALTHY CUISINE
Ever since it became popular as one of healthiest cuisines, the interest in Vietnamese food has spiked. The plinth of this cuisine is the use of fresh ingredients, be it vegetables, herbs, spices or meat products. The soups and salads are laden with fresh herbs, vegetables like banana blossoms, lotus roots and lean protein like chicken or fish, while a delicate amount of spice is blended in with the help of herbs, including basil, dill and mint.
The absence of wheat is very conspicuous in this cuisine and main course dishes are usually rice-based preparations. You will find dumplings or noodles made of rice noodles or rice papers, while rice is the staple cereal for all gravies.
Vietnamese food strives for a delicate balance of five elements – salty, sweet, sour, spicy and fragrant. Irrespective whether the food is from the northern part of the country or the southern regions, its highlight will always be the focus on letting the freshness of the ingredients stand out.
The northern part of Vietnam is colder and few spices, other than black pepper, are grown in abundance there. This region’s food is easily identifiable because one will find fresh black peppercorns in the dishes rather than the tiny red chillies.
Spices are more common in central Vietnamese dishes, while fresh vegetables like garlic, shallots and herbs that grow in the warm weather and fertile soil of southern Vietnam are mainstays of this regional variant.
STRIKING A BALANCE
The most popular dish in Vietnam has to be classic Pho, a one-bowl meal of meat, noodles and vegetables in a richly seasoned broth. It is also the favorite breakfast amongst locals. “Lunch is usually Banh Xeo, a pancake stuffed with seafood, while dinner is rice with some meat curry,” adds Chef Dao.
He reveals that another standapart aspect of this cuisine is to assimilate anything found naturally into the food, including some ingredients typically thought to be taboo in some countries! Take for example, the inclusion of paddy crab and paddy snail in Bún Riêu Oc, a popular noodle dish, and in soups like Canh.
“Silkworms, sparrows, doves, fermented fish and shrimp are common sights at a dinner table. Our seasonal favorites include ragworms (also called ri), which are used in omelets, or steamed or stir-fried with radish or bamboo shoot. Some exotic meats such as dog meat, snake, so shell turtle, deer and domestic goat are sold at street-side restaurants and generally paired with alcoholic beverages,” Chef Dao reveals with a smile.
Besides the taste for exotic produce, what is the other culinary tendency that binds most Vietnamese people, we ask Chef Dao.
He is quick to say, “All Vietnamese believe their mother cooks any dish better than what is placed before them. So, we are a country where every woman is an excellent cook – at least in her family’s opinion,” he laughingly exclaims.
That could be one reason why each Vietnamese dish has so many localized interpretations, given that there are so many cooks who bring their own panache to it!
– Vinita Bhatia with inputs from Chef Dao Van Son, So tel Plaza Saigon, Vietnam