Vietnam is an agriculture based country located on the eastern part of the Indochina Peninsular bordering China to the north, Laos to the northwest and Cambodia to the southwest and the South China sea to the east.
For over a millennium, the northern part of Vietnam was considered as a province of Imperial China which was reigned by several Chinese dynasties. Their long presence left substantial impressions on its culture and cuisine. The highlights of Vietnam’s food history won’t be outright without the mentioning of the French influence on their food during the colonization era from the mid 19th century onwards till their independence.
Vietnamese cuisine is based on the Asian principle of five elements. Each of their dishes has a distinctive flavor which reflects one or more of these elements. Their cuisine relies on the perfect balance between the tastes of sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty harmonizing with the fragrance and color. Their food is overall considered to be healthy and beneficial to the human anatomy.
Vietnam is well-known for its picturesque rice terraces and export of rice, making various types of rice their main staple food. Another important part of their cuisine is rice noodles, inherited from the Chinese domination.
Common bases found in their dishes include fish sauce, shrimp paste and soy sauce along with the use of lemongrass, ginger, Vietnamese mint, long coriander, Saigon cinnamon, bird’s eye chili, lime and Thai basil to enhance the fragrance and flavors. Seafood like prawns, shrimps, scallops and meat like beef, pork along with poultry can be found in their soups and food. They use a generous amount of vegetables and fruits in their cuisine. Vietnamese food became more sophisticated but remained with its own unique identity over the years.
Vietnam is famous for its fragrant soups like Pho (pronounced as Fur) and Ca Cha. Pho is generally made with beef or chicken, a broth simmered for hours. Other dishes include Bahn Mi (Baguettes), an obvious French influence, offered in various street food stalls around the country. Most of the baguettes come with a standard filling of shredded meat, sausages, carrots, cucumber slices, mayonnaise and chili. Even though they are usually served with pork, you could always request for beef or chicken according to your needs.
Vietnamese cuisine is finally finding its place in major cities. Their heartwarming broths are used as a base for several dishes. However, traditionally it was simmered with the meat and bones for about 4 hours to bring out the expected flavors.
For readers who would love to try a Vietnamese Pho, we have chosen an easy to make spicy veggie soup ideal to serve as a healthy, light dinner.
Chili & Ginger Poh
A simplified version of the classic Poh recipe, which you could serve within 20 minutes rather than simmering for hours. The broth base is flavoured with sesame, ginger, spring onions, chilli and lime and then filled with lots of veggies and buckwheat noodles before being topped with fresh coriander. A perfect cosy, supper that will warm and rejuvenate you.
Serves 4 | Prep Time: 15 Minutes | Cook Time: 20 Minutes
2 portions of buckwheat noodles, or even zucchini noodles (see Note)
25 g dried shiitake mushrooms
2 tsp toasted sesame oil
generous thumb of root ginger, finely grated
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
2 red chillies, finely sliced
2 spring onions, each chopped into 4
2 tbsp brown miso paste
2 tbsp tamari
100 g baby corn
250 g bok choy, thinly sliced
120 g bean sprouts
2 carrots, peeled and julienned
handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped
juice of 1 lime, plus lime wedges to serve
Prepare the noodles according to the packet instructions, then place in a sieve and rinse with cold water. Put the dried shiitake in a bowl, pour over 500 ml of boiling water and set aside for 20 minutes.
Heat the sesame oil in a wok, or large sauté pan, then add the ginger, garlic, chillies and spring onions, and cook for a minute or so, stirring to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn.
Splash in a little water and let it bubble for a couple of minutes, then add the miso and tamari and 500ml more boiling water. Let this broth bubble away until the mushrooms are ready, then add them too, with their soaking water (except the dregs, as they may contain grit). Return to a nice simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the corn and bok choi, and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the beansprouts and carrots.
Divide the noodles between 4 bowls, then spoon the broth on top. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and a squeeze of lime.
Words by Leesha Haneef
Illustrations by Fathmath Azleena