If you know of any Vietnamese dishes you probably know of Phở which is basically a soup with a variety of ingredients which can change according to location and tastes. But there is more to food in Vietnam than soup.
The extensive coastline means that fish is a dietary essential. The main starch is rice although cassava is increasingly popular and all are complemented by regional vegetables.
Let’s Talk About Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is a basic ingredient of many Asian cuisines, but in theory, Vietnamese fish sauce is supposedly made only of anchovies and salt and water. Fish sauce can be fermented for a few months to years. Many families will make their own at home. Topping up a small barrel and removing fermented goodness from a tap at the bottom.
The Vietnamese tend to use it in everything. In his delightful and eye-opening book, Catfish and Mandala, Andrew X. Pham describes his mother adding it to Thanksgiving Turkey. Vegetarians travelling to Vietnam restaurants need to beware!
Thinking About Food
How food looks and what the ingredients represent is very important in Vietnamese cuisine. Food blends color, fragrance, and taste to create balance. The temperament of the ingredients must balance. For example, seafood which is considered cool or even cold, it is often served with ginger which is hot.
The number 5 is important in cooking. A dish contains 5 types of nutrients; powder (spices) liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat. Cooks will also make sure there are 5 colors white, green, yellow, red and black which represent metal, wood, earth, fire and water respectively.
Dishes are prepared with care and attention to make sure these elements are present and properly balanced.
Typical Family Meal
Historically, Vietnam has experienced massive change over thousands of years. It has undergone extended periods of hardship and brutality. Their dedication to the convention of the family provides a line of continuation, a link to their ancestors and it is no surprise it is so important within their traditions.
Busy lives mean dinner is the key meal in the day where a family will sit and talk and enjoy food together. Sharing a meal is a sign that whatever happens, the family is a place of help and support. All members must be present before the meal can begin. Young people ask the older ones to eat first, and often women will select food for those around the table. No one would consider taking the last piece of anything without offering it first.
The meal itself will always contain steamed rice, and each person has an individual bowl. The other dishes may change according to family tastes and time, but common dishes include fish soup, pickled vegetables, stir-fried vegetables, stewed pork, eggs and other meats and fish.
The most important element is this is a tradition of thousands of years. Children are taught from very young to respect the customs. The sense of family importance and everyone’s part in society remains.