I had my first real taste of Vietnamese food in New Jersey, in 2001. I lived in New York then, and the flyer wedged in my doorjamb advertised yoga lessons a literal hop-skip-and-jump from my front porch. Doan, certified in the Iyengarschool, and her husband Frank, had just moved into the house opposite mine. We got along well. Frank was a quiet, affable English bloke; Doan, a friendly energy with a broad smile that hid her family’s eventful past. I soon learnt of their dramatic escape from their motherland at the end of the Vietnam War. Doan’s father, a high-ranking officer with the South Vietnamese army, had barely managed to get his family out of the country on the last fleeing American helicopter. Doan had made a moving documentary about her exiled father’s homecoming titled Nuoc, Vietnamese for water. Nuoc also appears often in Vietnamese cuisine, as in the ubiquitous fish sauce known as nuoc mam, and nuoccham, the collective term for a variety of dipping sauces.
They invited me over for dinner one wintry night. Doan and her sister Katherine were making a pair of specialty home broths. The deep freeze of a New York winter plus piping hot bowls of soup equalled ‘I’m there’. We began with Vietnam’s best-known dish, the beef noodle soup known as pho. Often mispronounced (not ‘foe’, but, ‘fa’ followed by a question mark), pho is simple, comforting, highly nourishing, delicious as dang and redolent of nature’s freshest treasures. Imagine a large container of piping-hot beef broth ferrying the aromas of ginger and star anise in its vapours, poured in bowls containing paper-thin slices of beef sirloin atop a springy mattress of linguine-like noodles. As the swirling beef sheets cook in the steaming liquid, the garnish is added in permutations as per your own taste and preference. Asian basil, scallions, bean sprouts, cilantro, bird chillies and lime juice add crunch, tang, heat, flavour and fragrance to the restorative elixir. This tropical concoction makes for a formidable winter killer.
Bones thawed, we moved on to canhchua, a tamarind-soured, fish-based soup stacked with ingredients. Tomato, pineapple, okra, bean sprouts, spring onions and elephant ear stem roam wild and free in the pottage. Loaded with flavours that collide and collude in a delightful clash of expectations, canhchua is more comfort food than pick-me-up.
Vietnamese food is, at its heart, all about the fresh. The floating markets of the Mekong Delta, a region made famous by all those war movies of the greatest American military debacle, are a rich distribution system of the nation’s produce — vegetables, herbs, fruit and fish abound in a dazzling palette of colour. And, few preparations say freshness more than goicuon, known in the western world as Vietnamese spring rolls. The popular finger food starts with a roundel of rice paper, or banhtrang, which is lightly moistened with water to soften the otherwise stiff crepe. The layers are then added — cooked halves of shrimp; fresh basil, lettuce and mint leaves; juliennes of carrot and cucumber; chopped cilantro; and a fistful of bean thread noodles. Rolled into a cylinder, the diaphanous wrap, its colourful contents teasing through the translucent skin, is dipped into a sauce of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce and Thai red chillies.
But, this country, whose 3500-kilometre coastline nearly matches its borders with Laos, China and Cambodia, isn’t just about soups and wraps — its gastronomical bounty is vast. The southern part, like its western neighbours, relies on rice as its main starch component. Northern Vietnam gets its carbohydrates primarily from noodles, the influence of its powerful neighbour above, China. Its favoured meats used to be pork and chicken until the French showed up and introduced them to the wonders of beef, until then, merely the flesh that covered their beasts of burden. The extensive coast inevitably provides a massive variety of fish and other seafood.
Like Thailand, Vietnam has a thriving street food culture. But, the flavours are all its own. Not for them, the coconut milk-driven curries of Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, nor Indonesia’s peanut-rich sauces. Fresh vegetables and herbs are used in at least equal quantity to meats, poultry and seafood. When I visited Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon for many) a few years ago, I was dazzled by the daily transformation of the city’s side streets. Food carts and kerbside restaurants would overflow onto the sidewalks, poaching public space with brightly coloured furniture and psychedelically patterned tablecloths. No one complained. If your path was continually interjected by the most staggering array of saliva-inducing foods, would you?
Think men and women huddling over makeshift stoves frying up a range of fish, seafood and meats. Imagine a carnal display of plump meatballs, glistening crimson sausages, golden poultry, luscious dumplings and skewers of tantalising meats waiting to be charred, braised, steamed and cast to cauldrons of smoking-hot oil. Visitors cannot but be stunned by the smorgasbord of dipping sauces and fresh greens patiently waiting on each table for ravenous passersby to partake in each day. And, if you weren’t up for rice or noodles, maybe you’d reach for some banhbao, steamed buns stuffed with pork, wood ear mushrooms and quail eggs. Or, perhaps, banhxeo, a dosa-like rice flour crepe, folded over a filling of shrimp, fatty pork, spring onions and bean sprouts. The pancake is cut into wedges, each of which is tucked into a lettuce leaf along with mint and basil, and dipped into a tangy, salty, fried, garlic-charged nuoccham.
Banh prefixes many dishes here. Mainly associated with breads and cakes, banh also denotes other preparations made of wheat flour, rice flour, glutinous rice or tapioca such as noodles, rolls and dumplings. Outside Vietnam, though, the banh that’s really catching on is the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi. Here’s where the French come in again. In the late 19th century, France had firmly pitched camp in Indochina, composed of what are now the nations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Their reign lasted over 65 years. Besides leaving behind their language and a taste for boeuf, they also introduced locals to the baguette, which has become intrinsic to Vietnamese eating. City streets are peppered with banh mi carts. A single-serving oval of crusty French bread is sliced laterally and filled with any variety of proteins. These include pork belly, sausage, grilled chicken, sardines, fried eggs and tofu. Pork liver paté is commonly slathered along with mayonnaise, cheese and hot sauce. Typically, the garden finds its way back, featuring sliced cucumber, pickled carrots, daikon radish sprouts and fresh coriander leaves. It’s almost as if the baguette’s curvaceous carapace was specifically designed to contain the luscious contents mingling within its soft doughy centre. If the Earl of Sandwich had anything to do with the culinary namesake, he would be delighted at this toothsome version.
But, if there’s one food in Vietnam that stands for ubiquity, it’s coffee. Yet another French introduction, coffee is one of Vietnam’s principal sources of income. The world’s second-largest producer, after Brazil, Vietnam also consumes most of what it grows. And, it’s available everywhere. From upscale restaurants all the way to little roadside stands, the streets of Saigon, Hanoi, Hoi An, NhaTrang and beyond, abound with purveyors of their favourite brew.
Vendors are cocked and ready to go with a seemingly infinite supply of the decoction. Also, condensed milk. Like it hot? An inch of the thick brown philtre will be layered up with an inch of the sweet, lactic syrup and filled to the brim with boiling water. That visit to the War Museum got you all agitated? The coffee lady will top up the tall tumbler with ice cubes instead. Slurp hard and swallow slowly. The viscous ooze descending down your gullet will soften all of life’s blows. And, you will likely echo food porn star Anthony Bourdain’s professed desire to find a house abutting a paddy field by a gentle rivulet and live there for a year. Just so you could keep eating the freshest food in the world.
By Uday Benegal