A Taste Of Vietnam

Posted on: 25 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

If your most recent experience of Vietnam has been an orchestra seat at "Miss Saigon," you are in for a treat when you begin to explore Vietnamese culture and food.

Of all the cuisines of South east Asia, Vietnamese is probably the most accessible to Western palates, exotic but at the same time familiar. The Vietnamese people and their cuisine have a history of international influences, to say the least, and all left their mark.

Chinese dominated the upper part of the country for a thousand years, which accounts for the love of noodles and use of chopsticks. The Indians with their spices infiltrated from the south, which accounts for the fiery dishes. The French virtually took over the country for several hundred years -- now, both French bread and wine accompany many meals.

The Americans came last, but we won't dwell on Coke and McDonalds. What really distinguishes Vietnam's food from its neighbours is its use of fresh herbs. Mounds of herbs are consumed at each meal. Every mouthful becomes an aromatic package, with medleys of coriander, mints, basil and dill. But it is not just the herbs and their mixtures that give Vietnamese food its special character. It is the combination of fish sauce -- nuoc nam -- and the flavours of lemon grass, chillies, limes, garlic, ginger and shallots, and the taste of crushed, freshly roasted peanuts.

More than anything, it is the use of salty, hot and sour dipping sauces that makes Vietnamese food wonderfully unique. Spring rolls are considered the national dish of Vietnam. But they are totally different from Chinese egg rolls, from the inside filling to the outside wrapping, and even in the manner in which they are eaten.

And to complicate matters, there are two kinds of Vietnamese spring rolls, one warm and one cool. In the familiar warm version, a filling of seafood, pork and vegetables is enclosed in delicate rice paper and then deep-fried until very crispy. But then the hot-warm rolls are tucked into a cold, soft lettuce leaf wrapper along with a sprinkling of fresh mint and coriander. Not done yet. Now the salad-covered spring roll is dipped into a sweet and tangy sauce. Its the cold version that takes the Western palate by surprise. The cold spring roll is just as delightful as the hot, but in a different way, although it might take a bite or two to convince you.

Cold spring rolls are soft, cool portable salad packets stuffed with shreds of spicy barbecued pork, salty shrimp, rice noodles and fragrant herbs. And this time, the lettuce leaves are, yes, on the inside. The rolls are dipped into sweet chili and peanut sauces and served as a hearty appetizer or light entree.

If you want to build a simple dinner menu around the spring rolls, make this menu featuring Asian flavours. For the entree, grill tuna steaks that have been marinated in orange juice and zest, a few tablespoons each of honey and soy sauce, a crushed clove of garlic, a few green onions and a little sesame oil. Accompany the steaks with a bowl of fried rice and a side dish of green beans that have been tossed in peanut oil and seasoned with garlic and ginger. Drink beer or a wine that stands up to these assertive flavours,  Or, for a knock-your-socks-off, colour-of-a-Saigon-sunset beverage, whirl up a batch of Mango Slushies, either as a before dinner drink or a low-cal, refreshing dessert.

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