Why Food In Vietnam Tastes Good

March 13, 2010

Vietnamese cooks are nothing if not masters of juxtaposition.  Eating their food bombards all your senses to the point where you are unable to understand anything more than the happy accident of stumbling into kitchen.  Let me try and decrypt some of the reasons why. 

1. The dead and alive, in your bowl and at your feet. Nothing makes you want to eat charcoal-grilled squab more than the harmonious squak of hens, or the joy of a feather landing on your eyelid.
You may think that I am being facetious. I'm not. It is an artform dead unto most Americans. Last fall, a trip to Medford, Oregon found me in tears when I was unable to locate an onion at a Costco sized warehouse called 'The Grocery Outlet'...or was it called 'Food For Less'?  Admittedly, I did come close, with a pack of Funyuns, a can of French's Fried Onions, and half a dozen types of EZ-Bake frozen rings.
In Vietnam, many people don't have fridges to store frozen foodstuff, let alone stoves and kitchens.  Food is cooked curbside over a heap of glowing charcoal. As a result, maintaining the integrity of the ingredients means that your food is either still alive when you order it, sitting happy for a day at 80F, or fermented.  When I sit down for a bowl of Pho Ga (Chicken Noodles Soup), I get a sense of the chicken's life as I watch its brothers and sisters free-range at my heals.  Food is fresh and you can taste it in the brightness of the greens, the clarity of the stock, the sweetness of the clams, and the hue of the beef.  
You may argue that, in the absence refrigeraters, some Vietnamese cooks just serve rotted food.  26 days I ate in Vietnam, and never once did I get sick. No throw-up, no diarrhea, no parasites.   Comparatively, 10 days prior to leaving, I suffered a shattering case of the runs at now unforgettable bistro in San Francisco.
2. Salty, Sour, Sweet, Spicy, all there in harmony. The flavors are so well balanced, that there is no need for oils to round out aggressive flavors.
The Salty is from fish sauce, nuoc mam, which probably has more umami than tomatoes in heat and stinky cheese combined.  Close your eyes and imagine an anchovy packed in salt, fermenting and weaping juices from its sides.  Now lick it. That, my friends, is a great fish sauce.   Scared?  There is also shrimp paste, which will tackle you and leave you penniless.
The Sour comes in many forms: vinegar, pineapple, tamarind, limes, green mangoes, herbs.  These are fruity, ideal for cutting any harshness wafting from the nuoc mam.
The Sweet?  Palm sugar, coconut, dates.  They are necessary in keeping those sours in line. 
The Spicy comes from fragrant thai chili peppers and tangy ginger.  Additionally, tiny cloves of garlic are eaten raw, with a bit of salt and pepper.  You can feel the kick in your nose.   
3. The Hot and the Cold, forever sharing the same plate.  This detante goes into more depth than I can manage.  Not only is there a balance in the temperatures of the food, but there is also a balance in the medicinal components of the food.
On a hot day, all I want to do is dip my head into a bowl of cool vermicelli, topped with charcoal grilled 3 layer pork (aka pork belly).  On a cold day, I want snail soup (pho oc) with cold shiso leaves, culantro, vietnamese mint, and rau ram.  I tuck my deep fried spring roll in a lettuce leaf and plunge it into chilled nuoc mam.  I eat green papaya salad with fried shallots and roasted peanuts.  I am blissed out on deep fried elephant ear fish with cold herbs.
But this contrast of hot and cold is just entry level stuff.   The balance is not just determined by thrusting two thermometers into the belly of your vietnamese crepe (banh xeo) and determining a variance, but by understanding the medicinal nature of each ingredient and how they mix.  The practice dates back to 500 BC (perhaps even 2000 BC), when the Chinese prescribed cocktails of herbs to provide remedies to the ailing.   Each ingredient would be evaluated on a scale between 'hot' and 'cold'.  People would also have their own individual 'hot' and 'cold' constitutions (if you're vivacious, thin, and have lots of sex, you're hot, if you are fat, lazy, slow, and have never been touched, you're 'cold').  The ratio of 'hot' to 'cold' food eaten would determine its impact on the body.  I cannot say more on this matter, but read this article for further commentary.
Foods that are hot include:  Chicken, mutton, beef, hotpot, fried dishes, ginger, garlic, dog, squash, carrots, potatoes, yams, rutabagas, turnips, leeks, onions, rice, oats, butter, strawberries, cherries.  
Foods that are cold include: Pork, cabbage, cauliflower, duck, frog, rabbit, steamed dishes,  tofu, milk, cheese, and liquids.
In Dalat, Vietnam I met a friend, Linh, who insisted that we eat stewed dog meat paired with rice wine.  He said that the fattiness of dog meat was very 'warming' and that we needed the to cut it with rice wine.  When we saw people drinking beer with their dog, we frowned upon them. 
4. The crunchy, soft, crispy, sticky, creamy, and chewy textures transform your mouth into a music box of break beats.
The vegetables are always crisp.  The noodles are always tender.  The fried rolls and seafood shatter in your mouth.  The 1,000 yr old egg is creamier than brie.  The dried shrimp is chewier than jerky.  The pickled shallots are crunchier than pickles.  They are all on my table.
The vegetables are always crisp.  The noodles are always tender.  The fried rolls and seafood shatter in your mouth.  The tofu is tender. 
The 1,000 yr old egg is creamier than brie.  The dried shrimp is chewier than jerky.  The sweet shallots are crisper than pickles
I tear 5 different types of pork and beef jerky with my teeth and pile a heaping mound of shredded green papaya into my mouth.

26 days I ate in Vietnam, and never once did I crave the stink of a good camembert, the sastisfaction of a Farolito burrito, the sweetness of an A16 Ragu Napoleantena, or the tenderness of Zuni roasted chicken.  Now that I am back, I indulge in all these foods in large quantities.  However, I am in capable of breaking this romance I have with Vietnamese food.  It's to a point here I have visited every store in Little Saigon and interrogated the grocery distributor as to why he does not carry netted rice paper and if he has near term plans to do so.

I have already started tinkering in my kitchen.  Catfish with galangal, taro spring rolls, imperial rolls with foraged SF trumpet mushrooms, caramel chicken claypot.  I am hoping to build a flower box soon, so I can plant my herb garden of culantro, shiso, perilla, rau ram, vietnamese mint, micro shallots.  It takes about 30-60 days for these seedlings to realize.  I am predicting a full vietnamese food conversion by May, just in time for my birthday.

4 comments:

mailman stop stupak said...
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isabel said...

Katie-

This is extraordinary food writing. Quit your day job.

katie said...

That is so nice to hear, especially coming from a great writer such as yourself. Thanks! i am writing to work on putting more thought into writing before i blog. It slows everything, but tis worth it int he end. I think.

elra said...

Your birthday is in May? I hope I'll get your invitation to celebrate, and enjoy your delicious food.

I love Vietnamese food, I love all of everything you've describe here. It's always amaze me how they balance between the sweet, salty, tangy, hot and cold. Nice write up Katie. Hope there are more authentic recipe coming.

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