by Kate Heyhoe
Someone asked me the other day what my favorite food was..."Vietnamese!" I quickly replied, "At least for the moment."
Why am I so attracted to this particular cuisine? I adore Indian food, can't get enough Mexican, have a passion for pizza...but there is something about Vietnamese cooking that doesn't just excite me—it seduces me. And even though I always qualify my favorite foods as being "for the moment," I'm finding that my enthusiasm for Vietnamese food is waxing and not waning.
Many critics shun fusion cuisine— and yet that is exactly what Vietnamese food is. But unlike the contrived fusion cooking of some avant-garde chefs, Vietnamese cooking is characterized by an inherent balance and harmony.
Vietnamese cuisine subscribes to the same Chinese principles of yin and yang— the balance of opposites —but takes on its own distinct personality through the use of local ingredients and indigenous spices. As in China, you will find a balance of the five flavors—sweetness, sourness, saltiness, hotness, and bitterness— cooked in stir-fries, hearty soups, rice and noodle dishes. But in Vietnam, their dishes will be laced with limes and lemongrass, light and pungent fish sauce, or wrapped in delicate lettuce leaves with fresh, feathery herbs. Neighboring Southeast Asian countries also use the same indigenous flavorings, but somehow they never quite hit the unique union of technique and taste that appears in Vietnamese cuisine.
The French have also contributed to Vietnamese dishes— or perhaps more appropriately, the Vietnamese have added their own finesse to French standards, particularly to European-style sauces, meats and patés. Vietnamese cold roast pork sandwiches are a Hanoi lunch staple, stuffed with fresh herbs and raw vegetables into Vietnamese-style baguettes: French rolls made softer by a subtle mixture of rice and wheat flours. Vietnamese dishes also commonly combine indigenous flavorings with such French-introduced ingredients as asparagus and potatoes.
In the south, Vietnam adds to its cuisine the hot and fragrant curry dishes (cari) of Indian influences, introduced through the spice trade. While northern Vietnam uses black pepper, sesame, and the oil-rich frying techniques of its Chinese roots, the southern region weaves together a lighter mix. They rely less on oil and more on grilling or water-based cooking methods, usually serving herbs and vegetables raw, with such flavorings as fresh chiles, limes, coconut milk, vinegars, tamarind, sugar cane, and of course the ubiquitous fish sauce, or nuoc mam.
Sophisticated, exotic, delicate, complex, fresh and light...these are the qualities of Vietnamese cuisine that seduce me. Lately, I've been experimenting with ways to whip up a fast Vietnamese-style meal whenever I'm in the mood. It's not hard to do: Vietnamese cooking naturally lends itself to quick and easy cooking, and these two Vietnamese-inspired dishes I've created are ideal meals for a busy weeknight, casual weekend, or informal dinner.
Kate's Global Kitchen for February, 2000:
2/05/00 Asian New Year: Honoring the Kitchen God
2/12/00 Valentine Theme Dinners: Setting the Mood with Food
2/19/00 Vietnamese Meals in Minutes
2/26/00 What Food Writers Read: The Oxford Companions
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