Vietnam Food Recipes
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What is Vietnamese Cuisine? Vietnamese food
is lighter and more refreshing. It uses crisp, uncooked vegetables,
subtle seasonings, raw herbs, and unique flavor combinations. Often
described as textural, with fresh, sharp flavors, it is also more
tropical and fragrant than Chinese food. At the heart of Vietnamese
cuisine, with its hearty kick and unique aroma, is the salty, pale brown
fermented fish sauce known as nuoc mam. The cuisines of Cambodia,
Thailand and Burma use a similar sauce. However the Vietnamese variety
seems to have a more pungent flavor.
Mandatory in Vietnamese cooking, nuoc mam is made by layering fresh
anchovies with salt in huge wooden barrels. This process takes about six
months and involves pouring the liquid which drips from the barrel back
over the layers of anchovies. The grading of nuoc mam is as sophisticated
as the grading of fine olive oils. A bowl of steaming rice topped with
this fragrant sauce is a culinary treat in itself.
Nuoc mam in its purest form has a strong smell and incredibly salty
flavor which renders it an acquired taste for non-Vietnamese. It is
certainly stronger than Thai nam pla and is used in marinades and sauces,
for dressing salads and in cooking. Vietnamese rarely expect a foreigner
to enjoy the taste, but are delighted when one does. Easier on the
unaccustomed palate is nuoc mam cham, which is the ubiquitous dip made of
nuoc mam diluted with lime juice, vinegar, water, crushed garlic and
fresh red chilies. Nuoc mam cham is used as a dipping sauce on the table,
served with dishes like cha gio (spring rolls), or simply as a dip for
pieces of fish or meat.
What also sets the cuisine apart from that of other Southeast Asian
countries is the pervasive use of fresh leaves and herbs, which come in
as many as a dozen different varieties. The use of dill in cha ca,
Hanoi's famous fish dish and also in fish congee, is likely borrowed from
the French, however the extensive use of a variety of raw herbs
nevertheless seems uniquely Vietnamese.
While Vietnamese restaurants in other regions of the world rarely manage
to offer more than one kind of mint, basil or cilantro, markets
throughout Vietnam sell a remarkable variety of herbs. Several varieties
of the mint and basil family do not grow outside the country, and there
are also some unusual, full-flavored leaves, like the deep-red spicy
perilla leaf, tia to, and the pungent saw-leaf herb or long coriander
that are specific to the cuisine as well.
Every pho shop has a huge plate of raw herbs set on each table, and a
large plate also appears with an array of dishes, from grilled, marinated
beef to cha dum (a type of pâté). But what do you do with the herbs?
Sometimes, as in the case of pho, they are stirred into the steaming
soup; with other dishes they are used as wrappers, together with rice
papers or lettuces, and are featured in Vietnamese shrimp and chicken
salads. The herbs are also served with ban xeo, a kind of crêpe enclosing
shrimp, pork, mung beans and bean sprouts. Certainly the use of these
fresh herbs and leafy green vegetables is part of the appeal of
Vietnamese food, providing fresh flavors, beautiful aromas and many
interesting textural variations.
Other factors which contribute to the subtlety and uniqueness of
Vietnamese food are the refined cooking techniques, the often unusual
serving of varying dishes and the combination of flavors.
Modern Vietnamese cuisine is a marriage of the old and the new. Recipes
from past generations coupled with new dishes created for the
increasingly sophisticated and well-traveled local consumers. A good
example is thit kho to, pork cooked slowly in a claypot, a dish of
peasant origins which now appears on Vietnamese restaurant menus
alongside cua rang me, an innovative fried crab dish, richly flavored
with tamarind. The traditional Hanoi beef soup, pho, served with noodles,
bean sprouts and fresh herbs, has gone through many transitions, but
remains as tasty today as in the past.
The sometimes lengthy preparation times and cooking processes required by
Vietnamese cuisine can render it something of a luxury for people with
busy lives, so many chefs and teachers within Vietnam have begun
experimenting with new methods that preserve the spirit of the cuisine,
but allow it to be prepared quickly and simply at home. For example,
deep-fried squid, which is traditionally made with minced squid combined
with egg, wrapped in rice paper and then fried, is today being made with
whole pieces of squid to save time.
The cuisine is based on rice, fish and fresh vegetables. Little oil is
used in cooking, except for deep-frying and salads are lightly dressed.
Healthy, cleansing soups such as the tasty canh chua thom ca loc are
featured on menus, fresh fruit and delicious homemade yogurt are often
served for dessert, and drinks like freshly squeezed sugar cane juice are
widely available. Vietnamese food could become as popular as Chinese and
Thai. France, Australia and the United States in particular, are already
key centers for Vietnamese food. However, there is nothing like eating at
a smart new restaurant in a converted French villa in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnamese food, with its wide variety of textures and tastes, is
surprisingly easy to cook. An entire meal can easily be prepared in a
single wok or a sauté pan. While preparation has traditionally been
complex and time-consuming, modern conveniences such as the food
processor make the work faster and easier.
The fresher the ingredient, the better the food is especially true of
Vietnamese cooking. The various herbs and lettuces are almost always
served raw, and salads are never overdressed, so that the full flavors
are present. Vegetables and fish in particular, which make up a large
part of the Vietnamese diet, are gently cooked and lightly seasoned,
allowing the true flavors of the food to come through.
In addition to the ubiquitous and essential fish sauce or nuoc mam, there
are several key ingredients which appear in many of the recipes that
require considerable preparation. Ingredients such as garlic, shallots,
chili, lemongrass, roasted peanuts and ginger, that have traditionally
been prepared with a mortar and pestle, can be easily managed with a food
processor or a blender.
Asian shallots are deep-fried and used as a garnish. Alternatively,
French shallots can be sliced very thinly, sprinkled lightly with salt,
then gently pressed with a dry towel to dehydrate before frying. Nuoc mam,
salt, garlic, pepper, sugar and fried shallots are the seasonings used in
almost every Vietnamese dish.
The cooking methods most commonly used in Vietnamese kitchens are
stir-frying, deep-frying and grilling. Stir-fry recipes are cooked in a
wok, in either oil or pork fat over a very hot flame, for a short period
of time. Sautéing in a large skillet is an alternative method, although
not nearly as easy. Grilling is also an important method of Vietnamese
cooking that remains as popular and as practical as ever. Using a
barbecue is one of the easiest and most effective cooking methods, since
grilling over an open flame imparts very distinct and essential flavors
that many of the recipes depend upon.