Hugging the eastern side of the Indochina peninsula, Vietnam is a country with a diverse culinary history and culture. One must explore the traditions from across the country, travelling from its busy southern cities to the more tranquil north, in order to get a full grasp of the various countries that have moulded this nation’s cuisine choices.
Much of the Vietnamese food that we gorge on in delight today has been heavily affected by French colonialism in Indochina, with many of the food habits from this gastronomically renowned nation having stayed within Vietnamese culinary culture. With these influences come new flavours, ingredients and combinations that give an entirely new taste to traditional Vietnamese food, whilst highlighting their historical tastes as the Vietnamese people have put their own stamp onto the food introduced by the French.
The largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, was conquered by France in 1859 and under the name Saigon was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-china until 1945. Attempts to rid the city of evidence left behind from French colonial rule can be seen in the changes of street names, but affirmation of this period is still seen in some of the more elaborate architecture within the city. To stay in Ho Chi Minh city in style, whilst getting a feel for the stylistic marks left on these parts of Vietnam by the French, stay in the hotel Ma Maison. This boutique, small scale hotel will give you the authentic feel of Vietnam with its renowned phở (which has been dubbed by some as the city’s best) and no shoes policy, and at the same time will immerse you in the calm and well catered for rooms that have European influences throughout.
One of the best ways to get to grips with the history of a place is to delve into the various culinary choices that it has available and make it your mission to learn as much about the ingredients used, and the origins of these, as possible. Hanoi is one of the oldest cities in Vietnam, the country’s second largest city and the country’s capital. Home to one of the first known settlements, the city has been inhabited since 3000 BC. Its modern history is a blend of the repercussions from wars, resulting in Japanese and French occupation. Some of Vietnam’s most popular national dishes are believed to have originated here, including phở, and it has been said that the true home of Franco-Vietnamese cooking is Hanoi, which served as the capital of French Indochina from 1902 to 1954.
It is here in Hanoi where you will find La Verticale, the restaurant of Brittany born chef Didier Corlou. Having travelled the world and becoming a specialist in both French and Vietnamese cuisine, he opened his restaurant here and has been living in Hanoi for over a decade with his wife. For an incredible fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine including signature dishes from the chef such as foie gras terrine with spring rolls, take a xich lo and prepare to taste some of the most popular French-Vietnamese cooking in the area.
The French brought many ingredients and flavours to Vietnam, most popular and noticeable upon entering the country is probably the baguette, which the Vietnamese adapted and today create their own style of baguette using rice flour. Many of the vegetables introduced to the country are common in Western cooking, and their names in Vietnamese reflect their origins. Potatoes, carrots, artichokes onions and asparagus are just some of the most obvious vegetables that are included here, with the Vietnamese word for potato (khoai tây) literally meaning ‘Western yam’. Influences are not limited to simple ingredients, but stretch to methods of cooking too, with the use of butter and wine in the preparation of meals as a nod towards the French. The increase of beef into the cuisine is also apparent, as seen in dining experiences such as bò 7 món, which is a multi-course meal of beef created by the French to celebrate the rise in the availability of the meat, which followed their arrival in the French colonial era.
The French introduced coffee to Vietnam in the 1800s, and since then it has become one of the most integral parts of modern Vietnamese social culture. Consumed morning, noon and night, coffee shops are a hub of social interaction for everyone from businesspeople to young socialites. Vietnam grows an incredible amount of coffee beans, and it is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee, predominantly growing the coffea canephora species which gives the robusta coffee bean and rewards the drinker with a chocolatey, bitter delicious finish.
Bánh mì, or Vietnamese baguettes as they are known to those outside of the country, are bursting with Asian food and flavours. A delicacy found from street vendors and Vietnamese bakeries, its availability makes it a regular chew for both locals and tourists. Usually containing grilled meat, coriander and pickled carrots, the use of rice flour for the baguette makes it a lighter option to the heavier French loaf, and gives the crust a thinner, crunchier texture. Vegetarians do not despair, for there are commonly found options containing either tofu or seitan.
A noodle soup dish containing vermicelli and sea snails, this is nowhere near as popular as its phở counterpart but is nevertheless worth mentioning for its use of the sea snail, which is probably one of the most renowned ingredients in traditional French cooking, and the use of which makes a delicate and carefully seasoned noodle soup.
Bò lúc lắc
Meaning ‘shaking beef’, this dish uses beef that has been cubed, marinated and then cooked in a skillet or wok. A hearty meal, the thick steak makes it popular with meat lovers. It is not usually included in most Vietnamese home cooking, but has become a regular at times of celebration. The name of the dish comes from the method used during cooking of shaking the skillet back and forth thus searing the cubes of beef evenly. It is generally eaten with greens, rice and onions.
Bánh patê sô
Hailing from Brittany, this hot pastry pie is made from savoury puff pastry which surrounds its juicy meat based filling. During its initiation into Vietnamese society, the pie only contained pork, but today can be found containing both beef and chicken. For the best and most original savoury Franco-Vietnamese nibble however, find a mini pork bánh patê sô from a bakery and enjoy the lightly textured treat, which is rich in flavour. The pie often contains mushrooms, onions and sometimes even noodles to give extra flavour and depth.
Quite simply, crème caramel. This dessert is served chilled with a coffee or caramel sauce poured over the soft caramel top, and the Vietnamese make it even tastier by adding some coconut milk to the mixture when creating the custard base. Since its arrival here, it has become incredibly popular throughout the country and is known by different names, bánh caramel or kem caramel in northern parts of Vietnam, and bánh flan or kem flan in southern regions of the country. In addition to adding coconut milk, the adaptation of caramel sauce to black coffee means that the dessert bears new and more distinctive flavours, a far more interesting end to a meal than the slightly over sweet pudding that we are all accustomed to. A nice variation of this dessert can be found at the Green Tangerine in Hanoi, which serves bánh flan with lemongrass.
By Melissa Pearce