The Rich Variety of Vietnam

The cuisine of Vietnam is built on fresh herbs. Often, it’s even wrapped in them.

| April/May 2003

  • Photography by Anybody Goes
  • The serrated edges of culantro (Eryngium foetidum) leaves soften when added to hot soup.
    Steven Foster
  • The ground root of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa) is used to add a peppery-woody taste to Vietnamese dishes.
    Jerry Pavia
  • The leaves may look unfamiliar, but the well-known flavor of gingerroot adds zest to Vietnamese dishes.
    Jerry Pavia
  • The leaves of this aromatic herb, known as fish mint (Houttuynia cordata), supply a tart, oily taste.
    Steven Foster

Often invaded but never conquered, beautiful, dignified Vietnam has mastered the fine art of synthesis. Its culture, language and, best of all, its food reflect the multiple influences that have shaped the country, incorporating the best from elsewhere without sacrificing the heart and soul that make it uniquely Vietnam.

If you’re looking for a cuisine that is light, healthy and loaded with flavor, you need look no further than the handsome, artistic taste sensation known as Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnamese Salad
Hanoi Soup (Pho Bo) 

The greatest attribute of this cuisine is in the way the flavors are layered. All the ingredients are very simple,” says Mai Pham, a Vietnamese restaurateur and author. “Nothing is over-composed or over-handled. The flavor is in the herbs.” Pham says the herbs are used in generous amounts, “Not in a chiffonade, not cut in small slivers, or sprinkled on at the last minute. They are served in the dish itself like a vegetable.”

Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced by neighboring countries such as China and Thailand as well as the Southeast Asian country’s former French rulers. Yet the food maintains its own character through a lightness and simplicity that rely on fresh herbs and nominal use of fat.

“Vietnamese cuisine is one of the healthiest in Southeast Asia,” says Toni Sakaguchi, a chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. “Very light, minimal fat and lots of raw vegetables and herbs.”

Vietnamese foods are often wrapped in fresh herbs, and a large bowl of herbs is commonly used as a salad, according to Pham, whose latest book, Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table (Harper Collins, 2001), highlights several of these “wrapping herbs.”

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