Don’t look backwards. That’s the advice for best appreciating Vietnam and its food. The retrospective view is the bad news of colonisation and destructive wars over decades (although the much longer historical view is of a tenacious culture), and, as everyone knows, truth and cuisine are casualties of war.
The current food picture, however, is much more cheerful. Vietnamese cuisine is gaining a new and wider appreciation, partly – and perhaps improbably – as a result of tourism.
Donald Berger, a Canadian-born executive chef who has settled in Hanoi, has observed some major changes since he opened his restaurant and wine bar, Vine, two years ago. “None of the hotels used to have Vietnamese food,” he says.
They do now. A few metres away from Vine is the Sheraton Hotel, which closed for some years because of a downturn in the Vietnamese economy. The last of its rooms were reopened earlier this year, and business is booming. Vietnamese chef Chi Cao, who has always worked in five-star hotels, is now cooking the food of his family in Hemispheres, the elegant Vietnamese restaurant that is now part of the hotel. The restaurant architecture relies on Vietnamese elements, too, with a timbered ceiling and fine silks.
Until recently, Vietnamese food was not thought to be glamorous. The country itself has a high level of poverty, fuel is used sparingly, and a common feature of eating is the single-dish restaurant – the eating place that prepares only one dish (usually very well) at modest prices. Many people eat on the street, sitting on their haunches in front of makeshift stores to eat bowls of rice noodles and soup.
The lack of glamour does not mean a lack of refinement. On the contrary: this is food of great subtlety, particularly in the North. As Chef Chi Cao says, the food of Hanoi is fresher tasting than that of the South, where dishes are sweeter and spicier.
In the north, China is close, and Chinese-Vietnamese Chinese cooking has its own style, little seen now, since many Chinese left after 1975 (when the American War, as they call it here, ended) and after the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. Northern Vietnamese cooking is very distinct from that of its large neighbour, since it makes generous use of fresh herbs and spices, and fish sauce.
At the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, the chefs (many of whom are women) give cooking classes to foreign tourists, beginning with a tour of the markets. I was with a group of touring Australian chefs, most of whom are familiar with Vietnamese cooking because of the numbers of Vietnamese restaurants, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney. One of the centres for Vietnamese food in Melbourne is only 2 kms from the Central Business District. But the cooking style is usually Chinese-Vietnamese.
The cooking class included banana flower salad, marinated pork grilled in bamboo, sautéed pumpkin greens with garlic, and a steamed local fish with beer and herbs. At the market tour beforehand, we gathered sweet potato leaves, lime leaves, saw-toothed coriander, Vietnamese mint, choko leaves, garlic chives, dill, chrysanthemum and shiso (perillo), cinnamon bark, and fresh galangal and turmeric roots, along with various kinds of chillies and bean shoots, and spices and herbs for which there were no known English-language names.
Such cooking classes are serious exercises, with no sense of tokenism. The women chefs are not giggling and shy, but capable and confident women who are sharing their expertise, and, in so doing, seem to be adding to its dignity and international standing. .
The Sofitel Metropole, which is known as one of the most luxurious in Vietnam, still has its share of francophilia, including a gourmet shop from which it is possible to buy Hédiard products, from the equally luxurious Paris foodstore of the same name. Its French-born chef, Didier Courlou, has won awards for the quality of the cuisine in the Beaulieu restaurant. Yet he is also a defender of the cuisine of his adopted country: thanks to him, the Spices Garden restaurant has been an entirely Vietnamese restaurant for the past six years. “At that time, it was commonplace to say that a Vietnamese restaurant would never be successful in a hotel,” he has written.
Courlou himself is the author of a number of excellent books on Vietnamese cooking, including a monograph on nuoc nam, Vietnamese fish sauce.
Berger, whose own restaurant-wine bar offers an eclectic mixtures of cuisines, says the Vietnamese constitute 30 percent of the diners at Vine, and on average spend more than the local expatriates and visiting tourists. There may be a great deal of poverty in the country, but there is increasing wealth in a communist country that shows lively signs of free market.
“Here they really appreciate the peace,” says Berger, who notes that countries like his own Canada, with a long history of peace, tend to take it for granted.
Food and restaurants are one expression of the appreciation of the peace, and the renewed pride in local cuisine. It is clear in the hotels in Hanoi, and equally evident in Ho Chi Minh City, where restaurants like An Vien and the Temple Club offer a particular graceful experience that is a combination of Vietnamese décor, architecture, food, and hospitality.
All the aspects of peace reinforce one another. All those restaurants are able to take advantage of burgeoning horticulture and farming which provides fish, vegetables, herbs, and even foie gras, emu, and raspberries. An increasingly prosperous country spends more on food in restaurants, which in turn enables greater refinement of the food, and more employment, and more opportunities for locals, expats and tourists to explore and appreciate the local food.
It is not yet industrialised – chicken still tastes like chicken, the celery is stringy and intensely flavoured, vegetables and herbs are always bought fresh at the markets. The rounds of rice paper are often made almost informally, by women crouched beside steaming stoves, and then put out to dry in the sun on bamboo mats.
Certain dishes cross socio-economic boundaries. Pho (the ‘o’ sounding like the French word oeufs) is a mixed noodle and meat soup; and the spring rolls made with rice paper and herbs have at least as many versions as there are people to make them. Fish sauce is a key seasoning. Lime, herbs, chilli and salt are indispensable.
We’d all better get used to them. Chef Chi Cao says Vietnamese food has now an international reputation and a Vietnamese restaurant has just opened up in Moscow. I wonder where the banana flowers come from in Moscow.
Rita Erlich is an Australian food and wine writer based in Melbourne