I came away from the Vietnam trip with a new-found appreciation for the power of food. Thanks to Mahesh, our agenda included must-try dishes and food trails and I enthusiastically enrolled us for some cooking classes. So not only were we tasting, touching, smelling and eyeing our food, we were also learning about and trailing it. It was truly a multi-sensory experience.
Food and Culture in Vietnam
They say you have to taste a culture to understand it better. Exploring local food creates a special connect with a new place. I cannot stress enough how exciting it was exploring this part of Vietnamese culture.
In Vietnam, food is an essential part of life, community and spiritual practice. Food is an important part of most Asian cultures and religion. Similar to Hindu temples in India, you will see food and water as offerings in Buddhist temples in Vietnam.
Vietnamese food is constructed around a natural lifestyle and keeping ingredients fresh and nutritious. It was healthy food that did not taste bland or processed like ‘health food’. Cooking techniques like boiling, steaming or briefly stir-frying food are predominant.
Fresh calamari and squid salad. Fresh salads and fruits were a part of most meals we had. On our cruise, we tried squid fishing in the traditional Vietnamese way and came back empty-handed and bored.
Food Trails in Vietnam
Along with walking the streets as mentioned in my first article in
stepping out on your own to explore the food in a new place is a rewarding experience. Mahesh gave us a lowdown on things to sample and traditional Vietnamese food. Asking the locals for recommendations soon gave us the right leads to follow. Vietnam Sightings Part 1 – Culture and History
Food Trail – In search of Vietnam’s national dish – The crown jewel of Vietnamese cuisine is Phở, a noodle soup with meat and fresh herbs added to it. Read about our experience of visiting a local joint in Ho Chi Minh City to try authentic food: Eating Vietnam’s National Dish – Pho
Street food walk: Hanoi’s buzzing night market where locals and tourists both hang out, eat, drink and shop. We saw people setting up a music system on the street and dancing.
Street food walk: We tried street food like meat on skewers, , fresh squid salads, deserts with fresh fruits topped with custard and coconut milk. bánh mì
Night restaurants walk – In Ho Chi Minh City, where the night markets are popular too, we visited a street where around dinnertime night restaurants are set up. These served not just street food but delicacies like this thin rice vermicelli noodles with pork roast.
Night restaurants walk: Freshly rolled Vietnamese rice paper rolls with steamed sea food, meat and herbs, served with peanut dipping sauce. The rice paper is so delicate and thin, you can see the ingredients inside, making it also a visual treat. After Phở, the next best thing to eat in Vietnam.
Night restaurants walk: Barbecued fresh jumbo prawns served with herbs and peanut sauce at the night restaurant.
Vietnamese heritage food trail: Visit to a traditional rice paper unit. Making rice paper is truly an art form and it is fascinating to watch it being made. These edible rice papers can be stored for weeks together and are used to make fresh spring rolls with varied fillings.
Cooking Lessons in Vietnamese Food
Although Vietnamese food has similarities with other Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine, it has a distinct identity and refined flavors. Due to this well-deserved recognition, we enrolled for some cooking lessons. That made the food taste even better!
Cooking lesson: learning how to make fresh spring rolls with rice paper. Even a tad amount of extra moisture causes the paper to tear!
Cooking Lesson: Preparing squash (type of a pumpkin) flowers stuffed with fish. They were then dipped in rice flour batter and fried.
Cooking lesson: Learning how to prepare betel leaf with pork spring rolls. This was with a family living in a village in the Mekong Delta.
à Phê culture
Owing to its french colonial past, who got the coffee seeds here to start the plantations, Vietnam has a coffee drinking culture. We were told it is the second highest coffee producer in the world after Brazil. I have no data to back this claim though.
We saw cafes on every street in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. They have low tables and short chairs to sit on and are popular places to hangout for families and college groups both.
Though I am not a coffee lover, I enjoyed the bitter sweet Vietnamese cà p hê with condensed milk
Coffee seems to be a city phenomenon. Honey, Lotus and Jasmine tea were offered to us when we visited smaller towns and villages.
Touristy joints like this one did a good job of being coffee and tea tasting parlors and hard selling you to buy them as souvenirs.
Exotic Food in Vietnam
The strange food that we tried and the bizarre drink that we avoided.
Vietnamese weasel coffee is a specialty and one of the most expensive coffees in the world sold at around US$500 per kilogram. It is made by collecting coffee beans eaten by weasels (a small carnivorous mammal that reminded me of a mongoose).
Yes, you are seeing this right, that is weasel poop being sold in a cafe! Here’s how it landed there: Weasels are fed coffee berries, they swallow the fruit and just lightly chew the flesh. Their digestive enzymes partially ferment the coffee beans, strip their harsh flavors and then the beans are passed out through their er…poop. Now these poop beans are thoroughly washed, dried, roasted and brewed. We actually tasted this and I must say it was flavorful, bittersweet, smooth and aromatic cup of coffee.
Durian smoothie – We didn’t know much about durian but assuming that it’s a popular fruit in southeast Asia, ordered the drink with excitement. It had a strong pungent smell like rotten onions or maybe sewage! This has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia. Dhruv felt puckish after a sip, but when i decided to gulp it down without smelling, it tasted OK.
Vietnamese Egg Coffee – Cà Phê Trứng- This was supposedly invented in 1946 when because of short supply, milk was very expensive. It is made by heavily beating egg yolk, sugar, and condensed milk then pouring it on an approximately equal amount of Vietnamese coffee. It tastes delicious!
Snake Vodka! It supposedly ensures vitality and a raunchy sex life. The seller insisted “You take this, your man have great night after drinking this and (pointing at Mahesh) he make you happy!” I decided to stay very happy without trying any of it.
Gourmet Food in Vietnam
And last but not the least, we sampled the refined experience of Vietnamese gourmet food and were well rewarded.
Lotus stem salad with prawns and pork, plated with rice crackers and herbs
Fish cake wrapped in banana leaf
Flaming prawns craftily set on fire by the server.
Roasted beef served with fresh coconut and fresh green peppercorns in bamboo trunk.
Jasmine tea in ceramic tea cup with dragonflies. The entire dinner was served in this artfully designed tableware.
Prawns and lotus stem salad plated on a bamboo shoot
Fresh river fish slow roasted on a flame by a family who hosted us on the banks of the Mekong river.
Green tea cheese cake
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are. Tell me where you eat, and I will tell you who you are.
– from the book ‘How to Eat’ by Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese zen master and peace activist
Our other articles on Vietnam:
Vietnam Sightings Part 1 – Culture and History
Eating Vietnam’s National Dish – Pho