Over the course of history Vietnam has absorbed many culinary influences but has still managed to preserve its own distinct cuisine. The long period of Chinese domination left its mark on Vietnamese cooking, not least in the use of chopsticks, soy sauce, and bean curd. Western tastes were also imported during French colonial rule, notably coffee, bread, and dairy products. In the south, Indian, Khmer, and Thai influences are apparent in a cuisine that features coconut and aromatic curries.
The fertile deltas of the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south guarantee Vietnam’s supply of rice. The country’s long coastline, rivers, ponds, and lakes provide a plentiful stock of fish and seafood, while the tropical climate means that fruit and vege tables grow in abundance.
Vietnamese cuisine relies on herbs and spices – especially coriander, mint, ginger, lemon- grass, and spring onions – and fish sauce. Rice, however, is Vietnam’s staple. Its significance is even reflected in the language; for example, the most common greeting (Ban an com chua?) literally translates as “Have you eaten rice yet?” There is a vast vocabulary referring to various types of rice, the individual stages of the process of planting, growing and harvesting, as well as a plethora of expressions for meals prepared from rice. It accompanies every meal: for everyday consumption the Vietnamese use gao te (ordinary, non-sticky rice), while special occasions such as anniversaries, festivals, and votive offerings call for gao nep (glutinous sticky rice). Ground rice is the basis of a wide range of products including noodles, cakes, and rice paper, while distilled rice is used to make rice wine and liquors. Vietnam’s long Buddhist tradition has been responsi ble for the popularity of a vegetar- ian cuisine perfected over centuries. Especially renown ed is the vegetarian cooking of Hue, which is the country’s traditional center of Buddhism. Here, Vietnamese women are skilled in offer ing sumptuous feasts that include vegetarian versions of famous dishes with meat replaced by beancurd or mushrooms. Among the more unusual aspects of Vietnamese cuisine is the consumption of exotic meats such as frogs, snakes, sparrows, snails, and turtles. Some restaurants even serve wild species, such as porcupine, despite these being officially banned.
Com binh dan (popular food) or com bui (dusty food) refers to street food. Almost everywhere you go in Vietnam, you will be only a few paces away from a stall serving mouthwatering meals and snacks. Stalls that are packed with people sitting around on plastic seats are likely to serve the tastiest dishes. Pho (noodle soup), banh xeo (pancake), and filled ba guettes are favorite snacks. A typical sight on the streets of Vietnam is a woman carry ing a long pole with a basket on each side. These are filled not only with ingredients, such as noodles, herbs, meat, and vegetables, but also with bowls, chopsticks, and a char- coal stove, making them portable kitchens that can produce remarkable feasts.