Rice and Vietnam are almost synonymous. Not only does the staple make up the country’s culinary soul, it also helps keep its people in good health.
Many things make Vietnam a special place – a rich cultural history, kind people, natural beauty and, above all, great food. While almost all types of Western food are available in the country’s major cities, Vietnam offers an abundance of delicious, low cost and healthy fare that can differ greatly by region. Thanks to their complex flavors and extremely fresh ingredients, some of the world’s top chefs, such as Anthony Bourdain, Martin Yan and Gordon Ramsay, have made a point of highlighting this country’s gastronomical delights.
Rice constitutes the backbone of Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnam is one of the top three global exporters of the staple, and the ingredient forms the foundation of almost every dish. The country is perhaps most famous for its noodle dishes, especially pho and hu tieu, both of which employ rice noodles to comprise the ‘meat’ of the soup. These soups are also highly customizable, as one can add garlic, chilis, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, lime, sprouts, and fresh herbs. I love a good hamburger, but with soup, I never feel weighed down after eating, allowing me to comfortably zip away on my motorbike with a satisfied pallet.
As with the rest of Asia, in Vietnam rice is also served in its traditional form with meat and vegetables, as a common dish called com [pronounced: gom]. When walking the streets during lunch hour, the sidewalks are lined with windowed food carts. Within each lies a plethora of choices to pair with the rice – from chicken to pork to fish – always served with veggies and soup.
Perhaps my favorite (or most romantic) aspect of food in Vietnam lies in its preparation. In western cities, there is little street life from 4am -5am (save for a few people returning home from a night on the town). But in Vietnam, as dawn breaks, one encounters elderly ladies starting their charcoal stoves, setting up huge tin pots and chopping endless quantities of garlic and vegetables. They offer not only a connection to my stomach but also to the past, as these dishes, and the ways they are prepared, have been an integral part of Vietnam’s culture for hundreds of years.
The biggest change to my diet after moving to Vietnam has been a re-framing of the “fast food” concept. While there are more KFCs and Lotterias (a Korean version of McDonald’s) popping up in the urban centers, fast food, for the most part, is comprised of soups and rice dishes. The effects of healthy food are evident in the population, as obesity hardly exists in Vietnam.
With seemingly limitless choices, it’s no wonder that Vietnam has become a popular destination for culinary adventurers the world over.