Vietnam, an S-shaped country of more than 80 million people, is located on the eastern part of the Indo-Chinese peninsula. China borders it to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, the East Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the east and south. Three-quarters of Vietnam’s territory is covered by mountains and hills.
Vietnamese cuisine is fresh and healthful. It is generally low in fat (simmering is preferred to frying when it comes to cooking methods) and features lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, with meat used more as a condiment than a central ingredient. Soups are a central part of the Vietnamese diet, particularly the noodle soup known as “pho” that is now known around the world. Noodles in their many forms are the cornerstone of Vietnamese cooking and are eaten as part of all three daily meals by many Vietnamese. The most important seasoning is nuoc mam, or fish sauce. Most meals include a plate of fresh vegetables, including cucumber, bean sprouts, chilies and fresh herbs such as mint and basil.
There are three main regions in Vietnam: northern, central and southern, with each area boasting unique foods and culinary specialties. In the north, you’re more likely to find beef (a legacy of the Mongols), black pepper rather than chilies, and fewer vegetables and herbs. The central region once had royal associations and retains the tradition of numerous smaller dishes, the variety depending upon the wealth of the household. The south is more favorable to growing fruits, which often find their way into meat and vegetable dishes. Here chilies are widely used, and the cuisine includes curries as well as dishes influenced by neighboring Cambodia.
There are also some typical dishes that are found throughout Vietnam, as well as special holiday foods associated with Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
Two Vietnamese specialties
- Nem ran (spring roll)
Nem ran (called cha gio in the south) is a much-appreciated specialty, and it is easy to prepare. Spring rolls have long been a familiar dish on every menu, whether for New Year’s festivities, family parties or receptions. The filling is composed of ground pork, crab, egg, minced mushrooms, dried onion, bean sprouts and spices. The mixture is then rolled up in rice paper and fried until crisp. The nems are served with a sauce that is salty, sweet, tart and aromatic with onion and pepper and which may be flavored with thinly sliced papaya or fresh vegetables.
- Gio lua (lean pork paste)
The Vietnamese name means “silky meat paste,” an allusion to the fine texture of this product. Akin to sausage, gio lua is made with lean pork that is pounded with a pestle to a paste. Fresh banana leaves are tied very tightly around the paste and then it is well cooked. Good gio lua has a light color, is firm, and has a perfumed, sweetish taste. Gio lua is available throughout Vietnam, but the best comes from Uoc Le Village in Hanoi, where the production method is a closely-guarded secret.
Festive Foods for Tet (Vietnamese New Year)
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year, calculated according to the Chinese calendar, and is the most important holiday of the year. The festivities surrounding Tet always include traditional New Year’s foods, including Banh chung and Banh tet (boiled rice and pork cakes), Canh mang (dried bamboo shoot soup), Bong (dried pork skin), Hanh muoi (pickled onions), Mien (vermicelli noodles), Moc (pork and mushroom soup), Ga ran or luoc (fried or boiled chicken), Ca chep kho rieng (carp with galangal), Bo kho que (beef with cinnamon), Xoi gac (sticky rice with bitter melon), Che kho (soft green bean cake) and Mut (preserved fruit).
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