Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Vietnamese Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Vietnamese cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Singaporean cuisine, here to read her column about Indian cuisine, and here to read her column about Japanese cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Vietnamese Cuisine

Vietnamese cuisine is such a fragrant and wonderful taste experience created by the range of aromatics infused into dishes as well as the essential flavor profiles – sweet, salty, sour (or fermented/pickled), bitter, spicy (hot), and umami. The cuisine is influenced by that of its bordering nations. In northern Vietnam, the main influence is from China while in central and southern Vietnam, it is more influenced by the cuisines of Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, respectively. However, due to colonization, there are noticeable French influences in the cuisine. 

Despite its international influences, the cuisine is also a reflection of the fresh ingredients found in the country such as rice, jackfruit, coconut, palm, ginger, chilies, beans, and a range of herbs and spices as well as the customs and traditions of the nation. These customs and traditions include the âm du’o’ng or, in Chinese, yīn yang, the concept of opposites complementing, enhancing, and balancing each other. From a culinary point of view, this concept does not necessarily involve every opposing factor such as textures – crispy, crunchy, or hard with wilted, soggy, pliable, or soft, but rather, the temperatures associated with foods so, cold foods are complemented by hot foods and cool foods are complemented by warm foods. However, this is also not necessarily referring to the physical temperature of the food. For example, lychee, raw onions, chocolate, red peppers, and spicy foods are considered to be hot foods while celery, cauliflower, cucumbers, courgettes (zucchini), asparagus, and tofu are considered cold foods. Apples, cooked lettuce, cooked onions, peas, teas, white corn, cabbage, and mushrooms are cool foods while rice, noodles, broccoli, green peppers, yellow corn, nectarines, cooked tomatoes, bread, cinnamon, basil, rosemary, garlic, and ginger are warm foods.

When the concept of âm du’o’ng, where the opposites are complementing, enhancing, and balancing each other, is applied to vegan Vietnamese cuisine, it creates endless combinations based on the temperatures associated with foods.

Dishes within the Vietnamese cuisine are designed to appeal to the năm giác quan (the five senses). Foods are presented in ways that entice the eyes. Crispy and crunchy vegetables, such as sprouts and bamboo shoots, contribute to noticeable sounds when being eaten, and the herbs, spices, and aromatics used in cooking tantalize the nose and tastebuds as well as the tastebuds also being stimulated by the six flavor profiles.

vegan vietnamese cuisine
Image credit: @vegandelightsbyshirley. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Regional Differences

There are general practices and dishes which make up what is known as the ‘Vietnamese Cuisine.’ However, within the country, there are regions that have their variations of the general cuisine or their own unique dishes. These regions will be referred to as Northern Vietnam, Central Vietnam, and Southern Vietnam to describe their geographical locations.

The cuisine of Northern Vietnam is less spicy than that of the other regions in terms of heat level from the use of chilies and spices used to flavor, or season, the food. This is due to the colder climate making spice plants less likely to grow or survive in the region. Therefore, the flavor profiles of the foods from this region are more muted. Foods are more likely to be flavored with soy sauce, lime, and foods found from the sea, such as different kinds of seaweed.

In contrast to the cuisine of Northern Vietnam, that of Central Vietnam is known for being notably spicy, also in terms of heat level as well as the range and amount of spices used during the cooking process. This gives the food from this region more complex flavors than that of the other two regions. These meals are further highlighted by the refined presentations they are served in as well as the colorful ingredients used to make them.

vegan vietnamese cuisine
Phở. Image credit: @thevietveggiekitchen. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Central Vietnam is also known for being the most vegan and vegetarian region in the country, especially in Huê, the capital of the Thừa Thiên-Huế Province due to the more common practice of Buddhism in the region.

As for Southern Vietnam, as the land is more fertile and the weather more conducive for growing produce, the food from this region features an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs. The foods are very flavourful from the use of aromatics such as garlic, onions, ginger, and shallots. Another key feature of the food from this region is that they tend to be sweeter than that of the food from the other two regions due to the more frequent use of sugar (such as palm sugar) in the cooking process. Coconut milk is also used to impart a creamy and sweet flavor into the food from this region.

Mung bean Spring Rolls. Image credit: @thevietveggiekitchen. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Rice in All Forms

Rice is grown and used in abundance in Vietnam. It is used in the making of a wide range of breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and dessert dishes. Often, it is used in place of wheat to make dishes or ingredients similar to those found in other nations, especially in Europe and America. Therefore, Vietnam is also a culinary haven for those with a gluten-intolerance of celiac disease. Rice is used to make rice paper wrappers, flour, noodles, wine, and puffed snacks as well as dishes like cháo (rice porridge), fried rice, and the following rice-based dishes:

Bánh hỏi thịt nu’ớng chay is a bundled vermicelli (rice) noodle dish in which the noodles are held together in bundles by a starch. They are flavored with a spring onion (green onion/scallion) oil and served with a dipping sauce and a side of savory meat substitute. The use of the term ‘chay’ at the end of the name of this dish specifies that the dish is vegetarian (or vegan) and thereby will be made with a suitable meat substitute such as tofu, soy chunks, soy curls, or other substitutes that might be available.

The use of the term ‘chay’ at the end of the name of a dish specifies that the dish is vegetarian (or vegan).

Bánh cuốn chay is a dish consisting of rolled steamed rice cakes. The rice tends to contain a filling. A simple chay filling for this could be made from mushrooms, broken down tofu, or vegan mince. 

vegan vietnamese cuisine
Vegan Phở. Image credit: @goldenlotusvegan. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Phở chay is one of the more famous dishes in vegan Vietnamese cuisine. This soup dish is made by cooking a fragrant and flavourful broth containing a mixture of fruit, vegetables, aromatics, herbs, and spices over a long period of time at a simmer until the broth is infused with well-balanced flavors. The phở chay broth has flat rice noodles added to it and it is eaten with a choice of fresh raw vegetables and meat substitutes of choice.

Bún bò Huế chay is a soup dish similar to phớ chay. However, it is made with thicker, more string-like rice (vermicelli) noodles as well as a meat substitute more similar to beef such as those that are gluten-based (such as seitan). The flavor profiles of this dish are salty, sour, savory, and spicy. However, the most pronounced flavor in the soup comes from the lemongrass infused into the broth during the simmering process.

Vegan bún bò Huế chay. Image credit: @thevietvegan. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Some Other Flavoursome Vietnamese Dishes

Apart from the common rice dishes, Vietnam’s cuisine also features dishes such as Bánh Bột Lọc Tran Chay – clear dumplings filled with ground plant-based meat-substitutes and vegetables. The dumpling wrapper is made from tapioca flour which gives it its clear appearance upon cooking and notable chewy consistency.

Bánh mì (chay) is a Vietnamese bread-based meal created from the French influence on the cuisine. It consists of a short crusty baguette cut lengthwise and filled with a range of fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, and meat substitutes. It is one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes eaten internationally.

vegan vietnamese cuisine
Bánh bột lọc trần chay. Image credit: @thevietvegan. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Recipe – Bánh hỏi thịt nu’ớng chay

This bánh hỏi thịt nu’ớng chay recipe was developed by Lisa of The Viet Vegan. It is a rather easy to follow and flavorful recipe which I am sure you will enjoy if you’re interested in vegan Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnamese Vermicelli Bundles with Marinated Soy Curls (Vegan Bánh Hỏi Thịt Nướng Chay) by The Viet Vegan

Click here to see the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Vietnamese Cuisine

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