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Southeast Asian Cuisine: Vietnam

In the third in a four part series, Penelope Walsh finds out how to eat in, Vietnamese style

Written by . Published on August 11th 2011.


Southeast Asian Cuisine: Vietnam

For a taste of authentic ethnic food, almost everyone will argue, you need an invitation to eat at someone’s home. If, of course, you don’t know a Vietnamese mother to fuss over you, then it’s back to carefully picking your way through the faux-pho and so-so on the streets of London. This is where supper clubs come into their own.

Compared to other Asian cuisines, Uyen considers Vietnamese to be the ‘lightest’, as it is mostly based on vegetables and herbs. There is a huge range of herbs and as such, they are the cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine; coriander, sweet basil and mint are commonly used.

Born in Saigon, Uyen Luu came to London with her family aged five, and is now London’s best-known Vietnamese food blogger and supper clubber. Her highly rated Vietnamese menu, served in her own home, may just be the closest the average Londoner gets to that invitation. The food she serves is “definitely home cooking”, she tells me, rather than restaurant food, and is also “very traditional.” Although, she says, “sometimes I throw in some modern twists.”

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Tricky as it might be to get that invitation; what are the etiquette pitfalls for a foreigner eating with a Vietnamese family? Uyen talks me through a classic scenario of a family dinner. “Everyone sits around the table, or on the floor, and the dishes are brought all at once. Everyone has a bowl of rice and there is a pot of rice too. Whoever sits next to the rice, gives everyone rice. All the food is in the middle: there’s always lots of vegetable dishes, and perhaps also a little bit of squid, fish or braised meat,” she says.  

Compared to other Asian cuisines, Uyen considers Vietnamese to be the ‘lightest’, as it is mostly based on vegetables and herbs. There is a huge range of herbs and as such, they are the cornerstone of Vietnamese cuisine; coriander, sweet basil and mint are commonly used. Uyen explains that herbs are not generally cooked, but eaten like salads or as garnishes. The abundance is clear not only in the variety, but also in the quantities used, because, Uyen explains, whereas European recipes might use a modest handful, Vietnamese dishes often use a whole bunch.

In contrast, protein like meat, fish and eggs are eaten very modestly, almost as an accent to the rest of the dish. “Fish and meat are quite luxurious,” Uyen says, “so you would only have a small portion. Just a small cube of pork belly would be eaten with a whole bowl of rice.”

Before eating, people say, ‘Mòi and the person’s name’ to each other. This translates, as ‘invite’, and would usually be said to the guest of honour, or the eldest present. Also, Uyen adds, “Before eating, people check who they love the most and give them food before they take some for themselves.” This is an indication of looking after someone and is relationship building.  For example, “The mother would give the youngest child something, and the women always give something to the men.”

Bahn Mi_Copyright Uyen Luu 2011                                                  Bahn mi

Expressions of respect and love out of the way, everyone starts to eat. Everyone takes only what they will eat straightaway. The biggest faux pas, Uyen says, is to pile a portion onto your plate. Other faux pas include playing drums with your chopsticks (“It’s like waking up the dead.”) Waste is also considered a major no-no.  

“There is no waste allowed.” Uyen says. For example, she comments, leaving meat or fish on the bones is considered very rude, and people suck the eyes of the fish so as not to waste anything. You ought to eat everything you are given, especially if you are a guest. This can be tricky, she jokes, if you are genuinely full. My own tricky challenge of manners in Vietnam, came when I was given a hard-boiled duck egg. As I began to eat, I felt a cartilage-like crunch in my mouth and looked down to see the recognisable head (and, I think, feathers) of a chick tucked up amid the white of the egg. Mind over matter, I did my best to eat the whole egg, and when, triumphantly, I finished, I was pressed to take another. I finished that too. Luckily, there was no third, but by that stage, I think I’d acquired a taste for it. 

Although Uyen doesn’t have a signature dish, she is quite proud of her pho. A beef noodle soup, which is often eaten for breakfast, pho (pronounced ‘fur’) is Vietnam’s national dish. It is often cited as an example of the strong influence of French cooking on Vietnamese, and the name is thought to come from the French dish ‘pot au feu’. Uyen asserts that this is highly likely, arguing that “It’s the same sort of ingredients, and it was only in the ’50s that pho began to be prepared.” Other influences include bahn mi, the stuffed Vietnamese baguettes, though Uyen points out, “The Vietnamese made the baguettes much nicer, lighter and fluffier by putting rice flour in them.”

According to Uyen, the Vietnamese “are really strict in what they eat, and how it’s supposed to be,” even down to which herbs you choose, or the size of noodle. “If you go to Vietnam, and you change a dish ever so slightly, people will say you can’t cook, because you don’t know how the dish is supposed to be.”

This does not, however, mean Vietnamese cooks are precise about quantities, but the balance of flavours must be right. “You can just throw it all in,” Uyen explains, “but you as the cook have to have the right taste for sweet, sour, salt, umami and hot. So you have to balance it.” The cook’s job, Uyen explains, is to make sure that there is “a complete taste of everything in the dish,” to “touch all the senses on your tongue.”  Then, diners will garnish their own food from an array of condiments on the table, such as chiili, chilli oil, fish sauce and lime.

And finally, Uyen reminds me, never leave the table without asking but, she says, “Of course, you shouldn’t ask.”

 

EAT MORE
Viet
A bustling and unpretentious restaurant, serving affordable and flavoursome food. 34 Greek Street,London, W1D 5DJ

 Bahn Mi 11
A favourite for authentic bahn mi in Broadway Market. www.banhmi11.com

LEARN MORE
Leluu’s Supper Club and Vietnamese Cookery Class

In addition to the supper club, Uyen also runs regular cooking courses, where you can spend the day learning to prepare, and eating, traditional Vietnamese dishes. www.leluu.com

Follow @PenelopeWalsh on Twitter

 

All images courtesy of Uyen Luu.

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AnonymousAugust 11th 2011.

What a wonderful piece - especially loved the details such as what to say at the table. Vietnamese food is one of my absolute favourites precisely because of all the fresh herbs.

AnonymousAugust 14th 2011.

Thank you very much for this interesting article! I think I never had Vietnamese food myself, but I really like to try it now! And thanks to your background information, I know all about the do's and don'ts at the table.

AnonymousAugust 16th 2011.

Mmmm... gotta get me some Vietnamese!

AnonymousAugust 17th 2011.

My tum is RUMbling! Great intro to vietnamese food, supper club looks like the way forward!

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