In their new book, Antony Suvalko and Leanne Kitchen explain the delicacies of Ho Chi Minh City's cuisine and how to make the best of it
Incredibly varied, extremely fresh, ridiculously affordable, light, healthy and endlessly delicious, food in HCMC is one of the city's enduring highlights. As the country's largest city, the urban jungle that is HCMC is considered Vietnam's food capital. You can find dishes here from all over the country and, although there are similarities and even some culinary crossover among regions, Southern Vietnamese food has a style, flavour and sense of abundance of its own.
This is influenced by the climate; the tropical south is highly fertile, producing a veritable cornucopia of fruits, greens, vegetables and rice. An expansive coastline and large river delta, both nearby, yield excellent seafood and fish. This colourful bounty is reflected in the fare, which incorporates fresh herbs, raw, cooked and pickled vegetables and tangy fruits, both ripe and green, at seemingly every turn. Nearby Da Lat, elevated high in the mountains and with a cooler climate, produces carrots, artichokes, asparagus, avocados, tomatoes, cauliflower and potatoes, and these are a part of the varied HCMC diet, as well as more tropical items.
Then, there's history. Vietnam was long ago ruled by the Chinese, who introduced concepts such as eating with chopsticks, cooking in oil, consuming noodles, using soy sauce and making bean curd. HCMC was part of the Khmer Empire while all this was going on and wasn't fully integrated into Vietnam until the 18th century. From India via Cambodia and thanks to trade too, curry came here; HCMC curry is mild and aromatic rather than chilli-hot. Indian influence can also be seen in dishes such as banh xeo, a turmeric-stained, crisp rice flour pancake that's not unlike dosa. From the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century, the country was a French colony, not gaining complete independence until 1954. The French left an indelible legacy which can best be seen in the local predilection for baguette, pate, coffee, beer and icecream. Unlike in the north of Vietnam, rich coconut milk abounds and sugar is used widely; it even seasons savoury dishes.
Rice is the staple carb and rice noodles are an important part of daily meals. Fish sauce is used liberally as an ingredient and a condiment — there's hardly a savoury dish that doesn't involve fish sauce. Chillies are appreciated but usually added to cooked dishes to taste, by the diner, either as fresh slices, in sauce or as a paste. Lemongrass, garlic, galangal, ginger and pepper are common flavourings and tamarind is also used. Fresh herbs and lettuce leaves, in generous bunches, are offered with many dishes for the diner to tear up and add to food or use as a wrapping. These include coriander, Thai basil and perilla.
The underlying tenets of Vietnamese cookery are to do with balancing hot, salty, sweet and sour flavours and a hyper-developed appreciation of textural diversity. In keeping with Chinese thinking, the philosophy of yin and yang (i.e. that some foods are "heating" and some are "cooling", among other things), is also pervasive. All this equates to an extensive repertoire of dishes marked by a riot of colour, flavour, texture and aroma — indeed, you need all your senses engaged to appreciate the food here. Yes, even your ears, or you'll miss the crunch of veges, the sizzle of meat grilling and the hissing of woks. Cooking techniques are, by and large, simple, with braising, steaming, wok-frying, deep-frying and grilling the most prevalent.
A day's dining usually starts with a bowl of pho or some other soup noodle. Rice porridge or a baguette with coffee are also popular; casual eateries serving these are everywhere. A feature of HCMC is its "hem" or peaceful laneways. Venturing down them can lead to great food discoveries as it's here that many HCMC-ers live and eat. Life is quieter and moves more slowly in the laneways too, providing a welcome circuit breaker from the constant frenzy of the streets.
Lunch is generally a simple, one-bowl or one-plate affair — look for places selling com binh dan, a generic name that means "the people's food" or "commoner's rice". They're plentiful and are popular lunch spots. Usually small and family-run, they serve home-style food from trays and bains marie (around a dozen dishes). You just point at what you want and it's served on a plate with rice, soup on the side and some greens.
More structured meals involve a selection of dishes, eaten family-style from shared plates and bowls. Ideally the line-up includes dishes of meat, fish, some vegetables and a soup; soup is a vital, and delicious, meal component. Menus at more upmarket restaurants, especially in tourist-oriented District 1, are in English and simple to navigate — you won't have problems ordering. Casual and streetside eateries often specialise in just one dish, so it will be fairly obvious what you're getting into. Anywhere that's very local will have no English but will be quite fine with you pointing at patron's plates, to indicate what you fancy. A few places close between lunch and dinner service but most places open at breakfast time and don't shut until late, seven days a week.
This is an extract, published with permission, from Ho Chi Minh City in 12 Dishes: How to Eat Like You Live There by Antony Suvalko and Leanne Kitchen (RedPorkPress, RRP $24.99), available from the end of October.
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