Think Vietnam and the images that pop up are of a nation ravaged by war and of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old little girl, naked and in pain, screaming and running for cover during the napalm bombings in Vietnam.
The years have rolled by, the war has ended and Vietnam is no more the impoverished, war-torn nation. It held on and overcame all that went against it… war, poverty, famine… and is one of the emerging nations going full throttle in its bid to gain its rightful place in the world.
And Vietnam is also one of the most happening places in a world of culinary delights.
Complex, yet wondrous, would perhaps be the apt choice to describe the history of the South-East Asian nation of Vietnam. It has had a history of power struggles… of emperorship, colonial rule and civil strife. Talking of cultivation, it's been reported that paddy was cultivated here right from 6000 BC. The land was fertile and lend itself to be cultivated.
Enter the dragon
In 200 BC, it had become a province of China and continued to be under Chinese tutelage with emperor after emperor calling the shots. The cheery side of the divine rule was the introduction of noodles to Vietnam. Enter the Dragon, in the form of an array of noodles, right from 'Bun Thang,' 'Har Gow,' 'Char Show' and wheat noodles. Though Vietnam welcomed all of these into its food fold, it was only after adding their traditional flavours to them. Chilli pepper and corn apparently came in during the Ming dynasty’s rule.
The French conquest
France swept into Vietnam and held it under its thumb from 1887 to 1954. The French brought with them big onions, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, potato, carrot, asparagus, coffee and chocolate.
The traditional and very popular Pho was got up with Vietnamese noodles, herbs and French beef broth.
Banh mi, another super serve is made by adding marinated meat, seafood, egg, or feta to French bread baguette along with herbs, chillies and pickles. The Ban Xeo is a crepe delicacy. In the place of French crepe, the Vietnamese use their traditional expertise to make a mix with rice flour, turmeric and water which is baked into bread with pork, shrimps, and beans sprouts for filling. These are mostly coconut milk flavoured crepes.
The French influence in crepes and use of milk is seen in almost all French Indo- China countries of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, especially in their fusion food of native and French flavours.
There are clear influences from neighbouring states like Malaysia and Cambodia in Vietnam's food flavours. Coconut milk and fish sauce were definite helpings from the Cham cultural cuisine.
Spices and curries made with them were borrowings from trade relations between Malaysia and India. Chicken curry is a must on all festive occasions. As in Cambodia, the curry goes with French baguette, rice or round rice noodles. Vietnam's ties with certain East European Communist countries have seen their food specialities seeping into Vietnam's food culture, some of them being stuffed cabbage soup, coladites, Russian salad and Czech beer.
A peek back into history reveals that while the central Vietnamese city of Hue was under emperor’s rule, it was ordered that each day had to bring forth a new dish. Hue is thus a foodie paradise where food in its pristine or fusion forms are cooked and served. The kadukka (chebulic myrobalan) rice is a speciality here. Small kadukka seeds are mixed with rice, fish sauce and special leaves.
The Bun Cha is a north Vietnam rice dish. It's a dish of vermicelli noodles with grilled pork meatballs served over salads, herbs, bean sprouts and sliced cucumbers. Bun Bo Hue is a hot and spicy beef vermicelli soup with lemongrass and pork.
Thang Co, is another north Vietnam speciality. It's prepared with horse meat, horse innards, bones, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and lemongrass. It's a stew prepared elaborately over two hours.
The Com Lam is a rice dish cooked in bamboo tubes. Rice, salt and water are mixed and stuffed inside bamboo tubes and steamed.
Shallots, spring onion, lemongrass, chilly and scallion oil are Vietnam's main cooking ingredients. While it's duck during the hot summers, it's chicken when the days and nights turn cold in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese have a fetish for colours and turn happy only when the five colours of yellow, white, green, red and black combine to make a dish a colourful serve. And all dishes are to be an equal combo of all that's sweet, spicy, tangy, salty and bitter.
The war with America saw many Vietnamese fleeing to safer shores. The country was ravaged beyond repair with fields which once grew lush grain turning landmine fields. America's deadly Agent Orange spray destroyed farming and turned the land into dark and deadly sheets of wasteland where nothing would grow. In 1980, Vietnam stood first on the list of impoverished nations. But the scenario has changed today.
Today, Vietnam is the fifth largest exporter of rice and the second in coffee exports. In its phoenix-like rise we have a lesson… of perseverance and hope and solid hard work, a lesson worth emulating.