food in the arts

VIETNAMESE FOOD/ Film Main/ Literature Main  
  Vietnamese village market

art and food
film and food
music and food
photography and food



More and more people are discovering places in the world where the food is not only of high quality, but also experience a cookery class with a difference.

If you’re not sure where to go on a gourmet holiday, let me tempt you with the atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City. Imagine sitting on a little plastic chair at a sidewalk cafe eating pho and drinking iced coffee. Or eating fresh papaya and dragon fruit, watching families of four on a single scooter or people heading to market on bikes loaded down with their ‘wares’ to sell. Imagine the incredible traffic, the interminably honking horns and the fear that you will crash any minute, every time the cab driver appears to be playing ‘chicken’ with an oncoming truck or car!  Perhaps you’ve already been there. Or perhaps parts of it remind you of that last trip to the West End? If so, how about a visit by train or local flight to the tranquil historic port of Hoi An, half-way between Hanoi, the capital, in the north and Ho-Ch-Minh City, increasingly referred to again as Saigon, in the South?

In the seventeenth century, Hoi An was the gateway through which Buddhism and Christianity were introduced into Vietnam. In the process, the seaport acquired a unique and enduring cultural landscape of pagodas, temples and tube-shaped houses, wells and a Japanese tile-roofed bridge. Due to the extraordinary richness of its history, UNESCO has recognised Hoi An as a world cultural heritage site.

Leading upstream to the sacred Cham cities of My Son and Tra Kieu, the estuary Hoi An was founded once consisted of many lakes, rivers, and sandy islands.  Along the central coast of what is now Vietnam, there were more than sixty trading harbours within one hundred miles of each other. Among these ports were the present-day cities of central  Vietnam, including Phan Rang Nha Trang and Hoi An. Hoi An and its Cu Lao Island were one of the busiest fresh-water and re-supply stops where traders could also buy Chinese goods without sailing all the way to China.

The first Europeans to trade with Vietnam were the Portuguese, then the Western World’s best navigators. In 1509, a heavily armed Portuguese fleet appearing in South East Asia acted quickly to beat their Spanish rivals. The Portuguese language, the Lingua Franca, later became the language of trade and negotiations in many South East Asian seaports. However, in Hoi An, a Malay dialect continued to be spoken.

In 1535, Antonio De Faria anchored in Da Nang and visited Hoi An. He was one of the first Westerners to write about this land. Portuguese ships under his guidance began to visit Hoi An regularly.

A wide range of Vietnamese goods attracted foreign merchants to Hoi An. Silk, ceramics, ivory, cinnamon, eaglewood, sugar, gold, sea-swallow nests, sandalwood, pepper, dried areca nuts, ceramics, timber, tortoise shells, and fish were eagerly bartered by traders from numerous western and eastern nations, their trade missions prohibited infrequently by political directives imposed by faraway governments.

As always, import and export was created by need. Muslims and Buddhists in India and Southeast Asia used sandalwood to cremate their dead. Trading in these products in the centre of Vietnam led to farming areas specialising in these export crops. Mulberry farms and silk production developed. Craft villages flourished, including Kim Bong carpentry village, Thanh Ha ceramics village, and Thanh Chau village, which processed sea-swallow nests. In return, foreign ships brought defence-related items, such as saltpetre, sulphur, and guns. In 1742, the French sent Pierre Poive to survey the prospects of business in Hoi. Poive was granted permission to set up a warehouse and returned in 1746 to establish a firm to monopolise the trade in aromatics. However, French influence did not take hold in Hoi An until a century later.

In the violent Vietnamese diaspora of the mid-20th century, a thousand years of Chinese and French-influenced culinary tradition vanished as austerity set in and restaurants came to be regarded as a bourgeois indulgence. Some of the best chefs fled the country and scattered throughout the west, adding Indian, French-nouveau, Russian and American influences to their gastronomic tradition. Vietnamese food was once again absorbed, adapted and refined to become the ultimate ‘fusion’ food.  Londoners encountered their first experience of it in local, family-run, restaurants that popped up as refugees settled here. Back in Vietnam and in particular in Hoi An, a growing confidence in the international achievement of Vietnamese cuisine and the growing numbers of tourists who arrive curious about the authentic methods, has led to the growth of cookery schools.

Before French colonisation, Vietnamese food had no great international esteem, despite long permeation by Chinese influence. The Vietnamese cookery which reached France in the post-colonial era was already influenced by French gastronomy. Baguettes and crepes remain part of the repertoire. Essentially, it is a typical Southeast Asian cuisine, based on a kind of fish sauce stronger even than that of Thailand and alive with the flavours of tamarind and lemongrass. But soigné preparation gives it an edge. The food has obvious potential for the fast-food industry, for its highlights include ‘finger foods’ – little parcels of savoury stuffings coddled in lettuce leaves and spring rolls wrapped in translucent rice noodles. But Vietnamese gourmands tend to share the French population’s solemnity about food and to believe that it should be prepared with care and enjoyed at leisure.

Vietnamese cuisine differs according to its three regions of origin: southern, central, or northern. Food from the centre tends to have more chilli heat and shrimp paste is also used extensively. Moving north, the food has more of a Chinese feel, with preserved tree fungus and dried mushrooms used more extensively. Fresh herbs and greens appear less frequently. There are more stir-fries and black pepper is used instead of chillis. People from the north will tell you southern food is flamboyant and unsubtle, while those from the south say northern food lacks taste and freshness. We find it all delicious.

The final tastes in almost any Vietnamese meal are determined by choices made by you – the person eating. A table salad (xalach dia) of assorted fresh herbs, salad greens, sprouts and vinegared vegetables, invariably comes as an accompaniment, and there are always condiments on hand. One of the most pleasurable aspects of eating Vietnamese food is the act of sampling, altering and enhancing your food as you eat.

Vietnamese soups exemplify the freshness, complex flavours, and flexible do-it-yourself aspect of Vietnamese cuisine. Large bowls of pho (hot soup) are a favourite breakfast in Vietnam – filled with noodles, bean sprouts, sprigs of fresh herbs, and lean pieces of chicken, pork, or beef. You can garnish your soup with more fresh herbs or sprouts from the table salad, or with any of the many little sauces and condiments that may be set out.

Vietnamese dipping and flavouring sauces are varied and wonderful. The most common of these is known as nuoc mam or nuoc cham. It’s a pale blend of salty, pungent fish sauce diluted with fresh lime juice and sometimes vinegar, spiced with garlic and chopped chillies, and sweetened with a touch of sugar. You can drizzle it over your rice, use it as a dip for spring rolls or grilled meats, or add a spoonful to your soup. Other dipping sauces include nuoc leo, a peanut sauce; tuong ot, a red hot chilli sauce similar to the Tai Sriracha; and Mama Tom, a pungent shrimp sauce. A favourite condiment is a simple combination: a pile of black pepper and salt placed side-by-side on a small dish and served with a wedge of lime. You squeeze a little lime juice into the dish into which you blend some salt and pepper and then dip bits of meat onto it from your soup.

The other do-it-yourself element in many Vietnamese meals comes with roll-your-own rice-paper rolls. Grilled chunks of lemongrass beef (thit bo nuong (Für die Sinne) grilled meatballs (nem nuong), or freshly steamed shrimp (tom), for example, all come served with a salad plate together with a stack of moist rice papers (banh trang) or fresh rice wrappers (banh uot). You lay a wrapper on your open palm, put in a piece or two of meat, several strips of pickled radish, perhaps some herbs, sprouts, or rice vermicelli, then tuck over the ends and roll it up. You now have your own unique fresh spring roll that can be dipped in nuoc cham or nuoc leo, or eaten simply on its own.

Although you will be lucky to find freshly pressed sugar cane juice of the sort sold in Vietnam by street vendors, Vietnamese beer is available in the UK and is good. Try Saigon Beer or 333. Vietnam grows its own tea in the region around Dalat and is consumed before or after, but never during, a meal. For another caffeine hit, try Vietnamese coffee black, either hot or iced with condensed milk, gafe suda. The coffee is made in individual slow-drip filters and can be very strong.

The staple food in Vietnam is dry, flaky rice supplemented with vegetables, eggs, and small amounts of meat and fish. Although similar to Chinese cooking, Vietnamese recipes use little fat or oil for frying. Nuoc Mam  fish sauce is a principle ingredient in almost every national dish. Vietnamese people are fond of fruits – bananas, mangos, papayas, oranges, coconuts and pineapple. They eat little dairy produce, so many are unable to produce the enzymes needed to properly digest it (lactose intolerance). They drink copious amounts of hot green tea and coffee without adding sugar, milk, or lemon.

In their home country, people either grow their own food or purchase it daily. There are few refrigerators. In London, things are different, but good habits remain and fresh ingredients are crucial, as is individuality.

Unlike fast-food eateries, ‘experience’ restaurants do not seem able to thrive when they develop into chains or franchises. There are more than 20 Vietnamese restaurants in London, all owned by different people, yet all will profit because people enjoy varying their gastronomic experiences. To survive. ‘Experience’ restaurants must serve dishes that are always fresh, never boring and extremely well prepared. London’s most successful Vietnamese restaurants present excellent, frequently gourmet quality food at modest prices.

Three times representatives of The British India Company in Canton negotiated with Emperor Ming Mang about a base on the Cham Island three times but their attempts ended in failure. In 1847, after the French army attacked a Vietnamese warship, Hong Kong envoy John David brought letters from Queen Victoria to the Emperor, asking to build a fort at the entrance of Da Nang Bay and to form a British-Vietnamese alliance against the French. The British failed in the long run to establish a commercial, diplomatic, or colonial foothold in Indochina, leaving it clear for French conquest. After that the charming old town of Hoi An reverted to a traditional village economy, with its lovely wooden shop-homes, although it certainly had it ups and downs.

Chuc an ngon! (Good appetite!)

Timothy Foster