Ask your average North American, "Have you ever eaten Vietamese food?" Inevitably, the answer is, "Yes, pho." But while pho, chicken or beef noodle soup, is the Vietnamese national dish, it is merely one of hundreds of delectable creations – most of them unknown outside Vietnam.
That’s a great pity. Vietnamese food is one of the world’s great, if largely undiscovered, cuisines – a mouth-watering fusion of local and foreign influences and ingredients, each dish so beautifully presented it’s a work of art.
Or as one food writer put it, "If cooking were painting, Vietnam would have one of the world's most colourful palettes. The great diversity of its climate and terrain can produce almost anything that can be eaten. The Vietnamese themselves have no culinary inhibitions and are always willing to try something new. When you combine the two, nothing is ruled out."
For example, they prepare simple, yet wonderfully tasty, vegetable dishes from pumpkin stems and morning glory vines and delicious salads from banana flowers, lotus roots and bamboo shoots.
There must be 50 ways to cook tofu – one tastes like a peppery deep-fried brie cheese - and 50 ways to cook eggplant. And there are at least 50 different kinds of fresh and fried spring rolls.
With a coastline that stretches some 2400 kilometres, fish – saltwater and freshwater – abounds. Pork and chicken taste as they did before the advent of agribusiness and antibiotics. That is, you know the meat you eat had a life.
As you travel around the country, you taste the legacy of the 1,000 years that Vietnam was occupied by China, its huge northern neighbour, as well as the influences of Indian, Thai and Cambodian spices and curries introduced by legions of traders and invaders, monks and migrants.
Like its culture, Vietnamese food assimilated the best from these al intruders. The result is distinctively Vietnamese: complex, yet subtle; full of unexpected tastes. Vietnamese delight in combining sour and sweet, salty and spicy, chewy and crunchy – and it could be all in one dish.
Because the country is long and S-shaped with fertile river deltas anchoring its northern and southern boundaries, there are three distinct parts, each with its own climate, which, in turn, led to the development of different regional cuisines.
In the north, you find the greatest Chinese influence, particularly the various hot pots and stir-fries. The frog hot pot is an acquired taste. In the tropical south, where fruit and fresh vegetables are abundant, the food is sweeter and spicier, borrowing coconut milk from the neighbouring Thais and curries from India. The middle – particularly in the former Imperial capital of Hue – spawned a more sophisticated, cuisine. Tu Duc, the longest serving Emperor, was picky-picky, demanding 50 different dishes at every meal prepared by 50 cooks and served by 50 servants. The resulting royal cuisine is Vietnamese version of tapas, tiny parcels of steamed rice or manioc flour filled with pork, shrimp and spices.
And there are idiosyncratic local dishes that are found in just one place such as Hoi An, the charming former seaport that's close to the geographic centre of the country. There locals and tourists alike love cao lau, a dish of doughy flat noodles made only with water drawn from a particular local well that are topped with pork slices, bean sprouts, fresh greens, peanuts and crunchy roasted rice paper strips and served in a tasty broth.
Finally, there is the indelible influence of nearly 100 years of French colonization. The French introduced asparagus, baguettes, pate, crème caramel made with coconut milk, and rich, dark coffee. They left behind a thriving café culture where young and old sip "ca phe" dripped through individual filters into tiny cups. Try it den (black) or sua (with sweetened condensed milk). Add ice (da) on a hot day. To die for!
Common to all Vietnamese cooking is nuoc mam, which is their kind of fish sauce, pungent yet less salty than its Thai cousin. Rice, the proverbial staff of life, and noodles of various shapes and thickness, both wet and dry, are staples. Fresh herbs, leaves and vegetables are also essential.
As visitors quickly discover, Vietnamese love to eat and socialize. Markets bustle. The smell of street food is ubiquitous. And as the country modernizes, fancier restaurants continue to improvise on traditional styles, experimenting to create dishes that seduce travellers’ palates regardless of their country of origin. It’s no exaggeration to say that Vietnamese cuisine is the original fusion food.
With its emphasis on freshness and its profusion of vegetables and fruit, it's also very healthy – food that delights the taste buds without expanding the waistline.
If, as they say, food is the spiritual glue of a culture, then Vietnam will stick to your imagination. Forever.