05/28/2010

Vietnamese Cuisine – From Variations and Influences to Cultural Reflection

Along with the country’s natural beauty coupled with the friendliness and hospitality of its people, Vietnam’s cuisine strongly distinguishes itself from the rest of the countries. Known to be very diverse, even from within the country itself, Vietnamese dishes could vary greatly between the North, Central Vietnam and the country’s South. Apart from its diversity, Vietnamese cuisine has a reputation of being flavorful, well-blended, low in fat, yet packed with a wonderful mix and variations of fresh herbs and seasoning which brings out the distinctly tasty character of its every dish.

Regional Variations

Northern Cuisine. Dishes from this part of the country are mostly colorful and marked with a neutral taste. People use seasoning to add flavor according to their own preference, though most popularly used are diluted fish sauce and shrimp paste. Hanoi, where the entirety of Northern Vietnam’s culinary culture converged, is famous for certain dishes such as Pho, Bun thang, Bun cha, Bun oc, Com (green rice flakes of Vong village) and Banh cuon Thanh Tri (steamed rice rolls) among the many. Though each varies in taste, all of these dishes are savory. Belostomatid essence and Vietnamese basil of Lang Village are condiments also known unique only to Hanoi.

Cuisine of Central Vietnam. People from Central Vietnam appear to be more discern diners than those from the North and South. They prefer their dishes to have a more distinct taste to it, stronger flavors, spicier and have distinguishing red and dark brown color characteristics. Here, popular seasonings are “Mam tom chua’ (made from shrimp and green papaya) and different varieties of shrimp pastes. Imperial cuisine is recognized as signature cooking in this region. In fact, travelers who happen to visit Hue are mostly impressed upon experiencing Imperial dishes known served to royal families in the past. Its very spicy nature, the attractive blend of colors and the creative fashion of presenting the dishes into a variation of small portions, reflecting a beautiful portrait of Imperial cuisine, are things travelers never fail to notice and greatly appreciate.

Southern Cuisine. Embodying Chinese, Cambodian and Thai influences, most of the Southern Vietnamese dishes tend to be sweeter and spicier. The diverse cooking style of its local residents reflects these people’s efficient way of cleaning, drying, preserving and storing fishes as well agricultural products to allow consumption for lengthier periods since the Southern regions are deemed primary sources of the country’s agricultural work. Dried salted fishes are among the main ingredients used in their local popular dishes. Rural residents from this region commonly prepare meals from raw ingredients that are easily available on the field such as mudfish grilled on straw and mung bean porridge. Many of Vietnam’s noodle dishes today originated from Southern cuisine such as Bun mam (rice vermicelli served with shrimp paste soup), Hu tieu My Tho and Bun nuoc leo Soc Trang (rice noodle soups).

Ethnic minority cuisines. Having 54 existing ethnic groups in the country at present, Vietnam’s culture itself is truly diversified since each of these groups present their own ethnic culture identity which likewise feature culinary characters that vary from the other. While people from the Central Highlands are known for cooking raw pork mixed with herbs and seasoning, provinces in the Northwest of Vietnam also have their signature dishes such as Pho chua (sour Pho), suckling pig, roast duck, Coong phu cake, grilled sticky rice and sour meat.

Influences on Vietnamese Cuisine

In Asian culture, the five elements known as Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood has great influences on various aspects of their lives as such elements are seen to be instruments of maintaining its balance. Clearly, Vietnamese cuisine is not an exception as it greatly reflects an integration of these five elements into the nutrition, taste and colors of their dishes. The wonderful balance of nutritional elements such as liquid, protein, fat, powder and minerals; the incorporation of the five common colors in the presentation of their dishes: yellow to represent Earth, black to signify Water, red for Fire, white for Metal and green to symbolize Wood; and the skillful blend of the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy; all characterizes the influence of such belief.

The combination of a variety of fresh herbs and seasonings to enhance the flavor of the dishes reflects how they strongly embrace the Yin and Yang principle, and incorporating the belief in their day to day applications, particularly in cooking. Dishes characterized as cold or cool are accompanied with warm or hot condiments. Sour (yin) harmonizes with spicy (yang). The balance of Yin and Yang is also demonstrated through ingredient selection and the manner of serving the dishes according to the season and weather conditions. In the North, Pho is deemed as a perfect “hot” soup during winter periods, while duck meat, considered a cold dish, is traditionally served with warm ginger fish sauce. All these, center on the balance of Yin and Yang.

Culture and Spirit of Vietnamese cuisine

In Vietnam, the cuisine itself reflects the culture and spirit of its people. Their culinary culture is an important aspect for individuals to please each other during dining, a time which is also considered a wonderful opportunity for them to communicate. How individuals behave during public dining, and even family members while having meals at home, is greatly motivated by their tradition. Respect, self-esteem and caution are observed every time they dine. Families dining together are also a strong tradition in the country as they look at it as an occasion for family members to spend time together, relax and share their thoughts and feelings. The dining table is where everyone often gathers to enjoy their meals. The younger ones are expected to invite the elders and allow them to have the first try of the dishes. Such demonstration of respect shows the loving spirit of Vietnamese families and the positive aspects of its culture in entirety. In fact, many of the common Vietnamese proverbs are centered on the culinary behavior of its people. “When you eat, check the pots and pans; when you sit, check the direction” and “When eating chew well, think before speaking” are among such proverbs.

Inviting others to dine in their homes is a reflection of their social culture. Families or individuals hosting a party often prepare plenty of special dishes to express their sincerity and warm welcome to the guests. Though the food they prepare is intended to entertain the guests, the whole concept mirrors the friendliness and hospitality of the Vietnamese.