Translucent rice paper shrimp rolls, dipped in spicy chili sauce with a strong hint of garlic, and some thick peanut sauce - Goi Cuon is among the many Vietnamese dishes that are making a global food statement. Vietnamese cuisine has a lot to offer to food lovers who love to explore new tastes. The overstuffed savoury Banh Mi sandwiches and pho (a broth-based noodle dish) are some other rising stars, which seem to be gaining popularity in the UAE too.
We take a look at how Vietnam’s cuisine that is being enjoyed across the world tells a unique story of its history while paying homage to its geographical significance.
Regional and foreign influences
If one takes a food tour starting at the top of the Asian country, finding a spicy dish in the northern areas, colder in climate and limited in its ability to produce spices, will be rare. While the central mountainous region is known for its strong flavours due to the abundance of spices. As you would travel south, the conditions are ideal for growing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and livestock resulting in a diverse and colourful cuisine, with liberal uses of garlic, shallots and fresh herbs.
However, the formation of what we know as modern Vietnamese cuisine is not only dependent on its agricultural strengths.
The ancient Vietnamese nation, which was centered on the Red River valley and nearby coastal areas, was annexed by the Han dynasty in second century BC, which subsequently made Vietnam a division of Imperial China for over a millennium.
This had a significant impact on Vietnamese cuisine and introduced the concept of noodles in the area, according to Vietnam-based travel website citypassguide.com.
“Our neighbours’ influence can be seen in our cuisine with Chinese influences particularly in the north, with noodles, dumplings, and stir-fries, and influences from Cambodia and Laos with coconut milk-based dishes for example,” Lily Hoa Nguyen, who is a chef from Vietnam, specialising in Vietnamese cuisine in Dubai, told Gulfnews.com
Is pho French?
Speaking of noodles, pho is arguably the most popular Vietnamese dish that has found praise in many parts of the world, especially places with a significant diaspora of Vietnamese expats like the US, Canada and France.
A warm broth with a generous amount of noodles, fresh vegetables and protein of your choice (or a meat substitute), what’s not to like? It’s the epitome of comfort food.
But while the dish is currently known for having a very distinct Vietnamese identity, it might have had its roots in French cuisine, according to citypassguide.com.
The fusion of Vietnamese noodles and herbs with a French beef broth is likely the basis for the original, many food historians believe. In addition, the word for the soup itself has French roots. The French word ‘pot-au-feu’ literally translates to pot in the fire. A pot-au-feu is traditionally made by boiling beef bones and vegetables in water and then adding meat to make a soup. If you pronounce pho so that it sounds like ‘fuh’, you will get pretty close to feu, the French word for fire.
However, there are theories stating that similar dishes were being made in the country prior to the French arriving there.
While, how much the dish was influenced by the French is still up for debate, there are plenty of colonial traces left in Vietnamese cuisine.
“Besides our neighbours, our cuisine was also heavily influenced by our colonial history. French influence in the form of coffee and Banh Mi, play a big role in modern Vietnamese cuisine,” said Nguyen.
According to knowyourgrinder.com, coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in 1857. Currently, it plays a big role in the country's economy as Vietnam grows vast quantities of Robusta beans.
Attention vegans – Vietnamese cuisine is a health buff’s delight
One of the reasons Vietnamese food has found popularity is because it counts for guilt-free eating. Naturally gluten free, low in fat, and rich in vitamins and minerals, it’s a good option to go for whether you are looking out for allergens or counting your calories.
According to the Huffington Post, the minimal use of wheat helps those who are sensitive to gluten as many of the dishes are made with rice noodles, rice paper and rice flour instead of wheat.
A lot of Vietnamese dishes are also naturally gluten and dairy free and many are naturally vegan, so as many people are now focusing on plant-based diets or trying to steer away from these ingredients for any reason, Vietnamese food comes as a natural choice
Moreover, Vietnamese cuisine fits perfectly in today’s world in which people are moving towards a more plant-based diet, and veganism is the hottest dietary trend.
“Our food is cooked in water rather than oil. A lot of Vietnamese dishes are also naturally gluten and dairy free and many are naturally vegan, so as many people are now focusing on plant-based diets or trying to steer away from these ingredients for any reason, Vietnamese food comes as a natural choice,” said Nguyen.
Vietnamese food in the UAE
Almost 6,000 kilometres away from Vietnam, a significant amount of Vietnamese restaurants have sprouted in the UAE, providing an authentic experience.
From pomelo and papaya salad to rice paper rolls, Vietnamese expats flock to these eateries to get a taste of home. While those who like to take a culinary trip from time to time to the Asian country also take advantage of the UAE’s food diversity and enjoy these restaurants.
Vo Nguyen Mai Anh is a Vietnamese expat living in the UAE for six years is glad that she can reminisce about home here by having her favourite traditional dishes.
“Whenever I want a taste of home, I hit the local Vietnamese restaurants. I even take my friends to it and they enjoy the food,” the finance strategist told the Food team.
The 33-year-old met her husband who is of Indian background in the UAE. “I introduced him to Vietnamese food and he has also grown to like the dishes, especially the chicken-based ones,” she said.
Whenever I want a taste of home, I hit the local Vietnamese restaurants. I even take my friends to it and they enjoy the food
Anh is not fond of cooking herself and hopping to the nearest Vietnamese restaurant is a quick way to get the authentic taste she looks for.
Whether you like a bowl of steaming hot pho or crunchy summer rolls, filled with all kinds of colourful vegetables, Vietnamese cuisine is loved by many and on its way to going global. Next time you’re browsing for new cuisines to try in the UAE, Vietnamese food might be the right choice, and it would suit any kind of fussy friend group.