About the food of Vietnam

Trên đỉnh núi Cấm ở Tịnh Biên, An Giang, Việt Nam. Photo by Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên.

Trên đỉnh núi Cấm ở Tịnh Biên, An Giang, Việt Nam. Photo by Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên.

The first time I had Vietnamese food I was fourteen, living in Paris. Turns out, great Vietnamese restaurants can be found all over the city. I remember one thing only about those early forays into Vietnamese culture: crispy, deep-fried rolls and a platter of mint and lettuce. You wrap the rolls in a handful of mint and lettuce, then dip it into nuoc mam (a sweet and spicy fish sauce mixture).

I still dream about that flavor. Fresh, fried, crunchy, and sour.

Ngo Dong River, Way to the Tam Coc caves. Photo by Juliana Ng.

Ngo Dong River, Way to the Tam Coc caves. Photo by Juliana Ng.

Unfortunately, everywhere I look for this dish, people shrug.  Vietnamese restaurants shake their heads “sorry, we don’t do that. people don’t want that here.”

But, I do!

If I could figure out what this roll preparation is called, I would find a recipe and make it every time I get the hankering for it. But, alas, I have no idea; my time in Paris was nearly twenty years ago.

Khu cầu Đá Bạc Thủy Nguyên. Photo by Hoàng Việt.

Khu cầu Đá Bạc Thủy Nguyên. Photo by Hoàng Việt.

This mystery reveals something I’d later learn is typical of all Vietnamese food: the prevalence of fresh herbs.

Take pho, for example, a breakfast soup made with broth and flash cooked beef or chicken. There’s almost more herbs than any other ingredient in pho. Even the salads are loaded with fresh herbs. Green papaya salad is a favorite, too, though I’m learning the most popular salad is called  rau song, or table salad – simply fresh vegetables and herbs commonly served with grilled meats or with other recipes.

bãi biển Nha Trang. Photo by J Y White.

bãi biển Nha Trang. Photo by J Y White.

In general, flavors are clean and bright in Vietnam. While the soups and salads demonstrate this, so does the comfort food. Also popular is the bahn mi, a crusty sandwich layered with pickled vegetables and meats, or sometimes egg.

For sweet endings, look no further than Vietnamese coffee, sugar cane juice, and fruit smoothies. In fact, there’s a whole category of sweet drinks, soups, and puddings called che.

Chè are often prepared with one of a number of varieties of beans, tubers, and/or glutinous rice, cooked in water and sweetened with sugar. In southern Vietnam, chè are often garnished with coconut creme. (Wiki)

If, however, you have room for something more, try some mango sticky rice.

I’m in, are you?

Maps and flag of Vietnam courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

Maps and flag of Vietnam courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

 

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Comments

  1. Yum! I can’t wait to see what you’ll be cooking from Vietnam!

  2. Those rolls are called nem ran, or Vietnamese Imperial rolls. :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nem

    And yes, here in Paris, absolutely all Vietnamese restaurants have them. They’re delicious!

    • Brian Schwartz says:

      In most restaurants in the United States, I believe nem ran are called “cha gio”, because that was what they were called in the Republic of South Vietnam. Sometimes, as at Pho Da Cao restaurant in Tulsa, they are called “Vietnamese Egg Rolls”. The thing is, the authentic dish uses rice paper but because that is hard to make just about every American restaurant makes it like a Chinese egg roll.

      • Sasha Martin says:

        They were crispy in Paris, too. I don’t know why they don’t serve them with lettuce and mint (on the outside), though. It’s a small step, but an amazing one!

  3. wow, the comments come flying in fast! I found http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Vietnamese-Fried-Spring-Rolls-231177 by searching “Vietnamese spring roll mint wrap” – close?

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  5. Sasha – I’m heading to Vietnam the day after tomorrow and I can’t wait to sample all the culture has to offer. Cobra and scorpions are definitely planned, along with anything else out of the ordinary that I can get my hands on. I’m trying to arrange a street food tour for while we are in Hanoi. Do you have any recommendations?

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