Food Of Vietnam FOODOFVIETNAM.COM
As Health Food but
with Bigger Flavor
Vietnamese food includes a wide variety of vegetables and herbs instead of oil, and much of the cooking is done with water or broth. The most popular dish, Pho (Vietnamese soup), is low in fat and calories.
However, some dishes are loaded with fat and oil, so for health and weight
Excerpt from Southeast Asian cuisine is fresh, flavorful, and healthy.
Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
" Nestled in steamy Southeast Asia, the tiny country of Vietnam -- 1,000 miles long but just 35 miles wide -- is steeped in a culinary tradition all its own. And Vietnamese food is fast becoming one of the hottest ways to jazz up America's calorie-conscious dinner table.
"It is a naturally healthful cuisine, but also one where each dish is an explosion of flavors -- so you come away feeling as if you have eaten something truly spectacular, but you haven't consumed a lot of calories," says Mai Pham, chef and owner of Lemongrass Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., and author of The Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table.
Vietnam is bordered by China on the north, and Laos and Cambodia on the west. Its southernmost tip dips into the Gulf of Thailand, while its eastern shores border the South China Sea. As a result, the country has become a kind of catchall for the best of various types of Southeast Asian cooking. The end result is a style that is unique.
"Vietnam food borrows a little from each culture, but puts it together in a way that is uniquely its own," says Nancie McDermott, author of Quick and Easy Vietnamese. "It's a very individualized kind of cuisine where a lot of the dishes are blended at the table, so the exact combination of what is eaten is often left to the individual diner."
While Asian cooking generally uses lots of flavorful herbs and spices, in Vietnam there are fewer choices, but bigger flavors. The reason? Herbs are not just used to enhance the foods; they are part of the meal itself.
"The traditional Vietnam dinner table always contains a salad bowl into which we place several very flavorful herbs such as mint, Vietnam coriander (rau rum), red perilla, and green perilla [like lemon balm]," says Tham.
And that doesn't mean just a dash of this and a sprinkle of that. The typical Vietnamese meal is brimming with chunks of fresh herbs that are cut (not chopped) into every individual serving bowl.
"We cut a whole leaf in two so there are large chunks," says Tham. "When you bite into it, you get a real burst of flavor."
The herb/lettuce/vegetable combo is most often then covered with round rice noodles, known as banh pho.
"Like other Asian cultures, rice is a mainstay in Vietnamese cooking," says McDermott. "It gives a nice balance to the flavorful herbs and, in fact, the traditional 'noodle' bowl is present on almost every dinner table."
Indeed, Vietnam's national dish is the flavorful pho, a broth made with rice noodles and brimming with savory greens, including basil and bean sprouts. Pho bo is made with beef broth, while Pho ga is made with chicken broth.
But it's not just flavor that you'll find on a Vietnamese table. According to executive Chef Quoc Luong of Chicago's La Colonial restaurant, you'll also find foods chosen for their health-giving properties.
"Cilantro is in virtually all Vietnamese dishes, and it contains antibacterial compounds, as well as having cholesterol- lowering properties and dietary fiber and magnesium," says Luong.
Another healthful and popular herb, he says, is red chili, which in Vietnamese tradition is considered good for the blood and the cardiovascular system.
Further, says Luong, "many Vietnamese dishes are very low-calorie and high in lots of healthful nutrients."
Vietnamese cuisine is also distinguished by the generous use of dipping sauces, which help to give the food its distinctive flavor.
A typical sauce recipe combines garlic, chilies, lime juice or vinegar, sugar, and the hallmark ingredient, fish sauce. Known in Vietnam as nuoc mam, fish sauce is made from salt-cured anchovies that are placed in the barrel raw and left to marinate over time.
"Fish sauce is the quintessential Vietnamese ingredient, and you find it not only in the dipping sauces but in almost every dish except sweets," says McDermott.
Pham says each chef adds his or her own ingredients to their sauces to give them distinctive flavor.
"You can vary the type of fish sauce and how you prepare the other ingredients," says Pham. "I like to pound chilies and garlic and use freshly squeezed lime juice instead of vinegar, and then thicken it with lime pulp -- it is like a very tasty salad dressing without the oil."
Meat Is Not the Main Attraction
Another reason Vietnamese foods tends to be lower in fat and calories: In Vietnamese cooking, meat is used more like a condiment than a main course.
"In Vietnamese restaurants here in America, we serve about 3 ounces of protein for each serving, but in Vietnam it is usually 2 ounces and no more than 2.5 ounces per serving," says Pham. "Protein is not a big part of our meal."
The preparation is also simple, she says. Meats are most often cut into thin strips or slices, soaked in a simple marinade that might contain shallots, lemongrass and some fish sauce, then grilled quickly and brought to the table in warm clay pots.
"The idea then is to pick up a piece of meat, put it in the dipping sauce, pick up some herbs and rice and put the complete bite into your mouth," says Pham. The flavors blend together and explode in your mouth, she says.
Chicken and pork are frequently bathed in a caramel sauce, while salmon can be treated to either caramel or a chili-lime sauce.
Another traditionally Vietnamese way of serving all these ingredients is to wrap them in rice paper. You end up with a dish that's similar to an egg roll, but without the frying – sort of a healthful "sandwich to go."
"The rice paper is so thin you can literally see inside, and one look will tell you that everything in there is healthy and good for you," says Pham.
One thing you generally won't find much of in Vietnamese food is fat, Pham says.
"We use lots of little pots and when we fry, we use a small wok with very little oil, as compared to Chinese cooking which requires a huge fiery hot wok filled with lots of oil," says Pham.
McDermott says Vietnamese cuisine is great for dieters because so many of the dishes are served separately, allowing you to blend the foods and dip into the sauces as much or as little as you like.
"You can really customize your meal and create it to your specific taste," says McDermott.
If you're thinking these meals don't sound very filling, McDermott and Pham say that's not the case. They say you come away from a Vietnamese meal feeling extremely satisfied – something they credit to the palate-pleasing blend of ingredients and tastes.
"Nowhere is there such comparable devotion to flavor and aroma, so that there is literally pleasure in every bite," McDermott says.
If you're intrigued by this enticing cuisine, and want to give it a try, Vietnamese restaurants are springing up around the country.
Or you can try making it yourself. Because Vietnamese food doesn't use a lot of exotic ingredients and the cooking techniques are easy to master, it's a great addition to your menu, McDermott says.
Moreover, Pham adds that most of the dishes are served room temperature, which makes it easy to cook ahead of time and serve up when you're hungry.
SOURCES: Mai Pham, owner/executive chef, Lemongrass Restaurant, Sacramento, Calif.; instructor, Culinary Institute of America; author, Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. Nancie McDermott, author, Quick and Easy Vietnamese. Quoc Luong, executive chef, La Colonial, Chicago.
Asian cuisines are based on balance. This concept is symbolized by the yin-yang in Chinese philosophy. Balance includes eating in harmony with the seasons. Our bodies' nutritional needs vary if the weather is cold or hot. And balance extends to the ingredients used. There are so called "hot foods," such as ginger, garlic and hot peppers. These foods are contrasted with "cooling foods," such as seafood and salad greens.
Cooking Around the Region
It's not true that all Asian food is hot. There are a wide range of spices that produce dishes that vary in flavor from delicate to fiery.
All points on the spectrum exist in Chinese cooking. In general, Thai and Indian cuisines are bold and full-flavored. Japanese food is the most mild, and Vietnamese cooking is an authentic "fusion." It combines French technique with Asian ingredients. Most Vietnamese dishes are subtle, but definitely seasoned.
Another misconception is that Asian food is high in sodium. While soy sauce and fish sauce (see Pacific Rim Pantry) are salty, they are used sparingly in most dishes. It's possible to make many Asian dishes that are very low in sodium using flavor-boosters such as ginger and curry.
Flavor without Fat
While some Asian "restaurant cooking" may rely on deep-frying, it's possible to prepare authentic fare with very little fat. Many Asian dishes are steamed, and others are stir-fried with only a small amount of fat. Since most of Asia is near water, there are a lot of seafood recipes.
Another concept that's apropos in Asian cooking is the role of grains. Rice and noodles are the main event of the meal. Both are at the base of the Food Pyramid. Meat, poultry, fish and are used like a condiment to flavor rice and to add moisture. Try this style of eating for a more healthful diet.
The Edible Apothecary
Curing illness through diet is part of Asian eating. For detailed information on the subject, read Nina Simonds' A Spoonful of Ginger. While Western homeopathic remedies include echinacea to boost the immune system, the Chinese rely on woodsy shiitake mushrooms. Soba noodles are recommended to reduce stress. Traditional Asian and contemporary American thought unites when it concerns a few foods for healthful eating. One is tofu. Both cultures believe it can lower cholesterol. Another remedy is chicken soup. It's good for just about anything that ails you.
Like with any other cuisine, Vietnamese food is influenced by its geography and history. Vietnamese food has retained its distinct identity, despite influences from Chinese and other Asian cuisine. Noodles are popular, wet or dry or in soup. Fresh vegetables, cucumbers, hot pepper and herbs such as basil, mint and coriander also feature prominently in Vietnamese food recipes. Rice is available aplenty, thanks to the fertile Red River delta.
A typical Vietnamese meal consists of meat or seafood, rice, noodles, eggs and vegetables. Rice cakes (Banh Cuon) are a favorite dish with Vietnamese, especially at a New Year feast. They are made with sticky rice and wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed. The rice cakes are served with shrimp, meat and salad. Pho or Beef Noodles is an extremely popular Vietnamese dish. While Pho is traditionally made with beef, different variations with other meat are also available. Beef stock along with fresh bean sprouts, onions, tomatoes and fresh sprigs of mint are used to flavor the Pho noodle soup. Vermicelli or bun is available in a range of shapes and types. Mixed with grilled pork meat, fried eggs, fried rice cakes, you can make a variety of dishes with vermicelli. Cassava vermicelli made with the cassava tuber is used to make Mien Bo, Mien Luon and Mien Ga.
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Ingredients commonly found in Vietnamese dishes, which have aphrodisiac effect
Ginger - was brought to Europe in the Middle Ages by those returning from the Crusades and to Venice by Arab merchants. The British first gave it kitchen space, even inventing ginger beer. Good for the stomach, promotes secretion of saliva, aiding digestion. It is a decongestant and Ayurveda recommends ginger paste and sugar boiled in milk for the treatment of colds. Balances the stomach in cases of both diarrhoea and constipation. Unani Tibb Hakims, or healers, also recommend its use in the diets of rheumatism sufferers and list it as an aphrodisiac!Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) is native to Latin America and the Caribbean and is related to cilantro. It has tall, stiff, serrated leaves with a prominent central ridge and a more penetrating aroma than cilantro. Culantro is used extensively in Southeast Asia and parts of the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Asia, culantro is most popular in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, where it is commonly used with or instead of cilantro for soups, noodle dishes, and curries. The Vietnamese use it to wrap other foods. Candied culantro seeds were popular in eighteenth-century Britain as a tonic, a cough remedy, and an aphrodisiac.
Celery --Apium graveolenns--stimulant, fresh root eaten, it strengthen the sex organs. Celery root contains an essential oil and minerals iron, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, phosphorus.
Durian Fruit has an intriguing reputation in Southeast Asia as having aphrodisiac properties. It is not clear whether this is attributed to some substance in the fruit pulp
Pineapple --Ananas cosmosus-- diuretic, invigoration! Has a great digestive effect, a purifying effect. Use fresh fruit juice. For aphrodisiac effects to work-- eat pineapple with chili powder or mixed with honey and rum. A small glass taken daily promotes energies of love.
Pomegranate tree --Punica granatum-- Mediterranean, Asia Minor- invigorator! The fruits are eaten-- the fruit is sacred to Aphrodite. The rinds are rich in tannins.
Squash --Curcubita pepo--America - diuretic, invigorator, seeds eaten and aphrodisiac for women. In Aurvedic and Tantric systems seeds eaten during rituals of love, and belong to vajicarana. Seeds contain fatty oil, protein and vitamin E that is important for healthy sexuality.
Sweet Potato --Ipomoea batatas--Sental and South America - invigorator! Excessive consumption stimulates the woman's sex drive.
Basil --Ocimum sanctum-- South Asia, Europe - used as spices, medical uses Eat one leaf a day to: maintain health, prosperity, and fertility. Basil gives for an exciting sex life. The popular spice basil (Ocimum basilicum) also possess aphrodisiac powers. Contain essential oil, tannins and vitamins.
Cardamom - Elettaria cardamomum --Southeast Asia - It is a stimulant especially if added to coffee. Its essential oil has an erotic effect.
Cinnamon --Cinnamomum zeylanicum-- Southern Asia , evergreen -stimulant, spice used in food or massage oil into genitals for erotic stimulation.
Coriander --Coriandrum sativum-- worldwide -stimulant known since ancient Egypt and Palestine, add coriander to wine to increase the semen.
Garlic --Liliaseae - tonic, rejuvenates, used as a spice, magic element (to banish bad influences or vampires). Essential oils have antibiotic and cell-activating effects. Used as an aphrodisiac since the Egyptians, the Romans consecrated it to Ceres. the goddess of fertility.
Pepper --Piper nigrum-- South Asia - stimulant, love magic agent, contains alkaloids-- has irritating effects on mucous membranes. Cubeb pepper (Piper Cubeba) has substances that stimulate the sex drive.
Mango – High in vitamin C, vitamin A and antioxidants and are luscious to eat
Papaya --The mature (ripe) fruit treats ringworm, green fruits treat high blood pressure, and are used as an aphrodisiac.