Vietnamese girls glide by on bicycles much as willowy frames saunter along the streets of Paris. French colonial architecture stands resplendent in Siem Reap and the sultry streets of Saigon are dotted with patisseries. The tree lined boulevards of Hanoi are centred around Hoan Kiem Lake while the River Seine snakes through the City of Light.
The word Indochina came about with the French colonisation of Vietnam which soon expanded into surrounding regions, and most predominantly into Cambodia and Laos. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is known as the Paris of the Orient. If it weren’t for the French, the temples of Angkor would be in disrepair and the thriving town of Siem Reap may still be a village. Although Vietnam and Cambodia have regained control of their own countries, a French essence lingers, particularly in the cuisine which includes over 500 traditional dishes.
The average domestic French kitchen is a rustic affair; just as an Asian kitchen contains little more than a wok, steamer, stockpot, and a mortar and pestle. Storage space is usually limited, so fresh produce is bought daily from markets and speciality shops. It’s fortuitous that France, Vietnam and Cambodia have agricultural economies to support the fresh seasonal ingredients integral to their cuisines. It seems that every person you meet has a family member who is an outstanding cook.
Hot, sour, salty, and sweet are the four elements of taste integral to Vietnamese cuisine and the starting point for any dish, which are then combined with rice, vegetables, poultry or seafood, and with meat used more sparingly. Although these are the basic ingredients of most Asian dishes, the French influence is evident from the use of dill, sweet marjoram, lemon balm, and pickled vegetables and limes.
The three main regions of Vietnam include the north, centre and south. Ho Chi Minh is the commercial hub which leaves the official capital of Hanoi in the north to a more languid and provincial atmosphere, and a simpler cooking style, which includes the renowned Pho. Based on stock, which is the foundation of French savoury food, Pho is a noodle soup with a distinctive star anise fragrance. The north is also known for its rather macabre sounding delicacies like dog, duck blood soup, balut (semi-incubated duck’s eggs and watch out for the bits of beak and feather), beating snake’s heart in rice wine, shrimp paste with pig uterus, roasted chicken feet, bat, and snails cooked in fish sauce. Not entirely a far cry from the elusive truffle, foie gras, or offal, both cultures spend a significant amount of their salaries on food, with the biggest splurges on these indulgences.
The slender centre of Vietnam includes the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Hue and Hoi An. The former Imperial Hue is known for its flamboyant banquets decreed by the emperor during the Nguyen Dynasty to never eat the same dish in the same year. Royal cooks were forced to be innovative and creative in their approach and hence the Hue cuisine was developed into many small dishes, much like canapés. Hoi An was a 19th century international trading port and has remained virtually untouched for the last 200 years, and after an evening of strolling its lantern-lit streets, visitors are left with a rather romantic notion of how life was back then. It’s Chinese, Japanese and colonial architecture attracts acclaim and with the influx of tourists the town offers a thriving market, many charming cafes, and cooking classes.
Dalat is in the southern central region and has the most fertile land in Vietnam and is where rocket, basil, thyme, rosemary, artichoke, pumpkin, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, and lettuce flourishes. These ingredients could be the makings of any French dish and it’s hardly surprising this region supplies its premium fresh produce to many of the country’s top restaurants. The French also introduced coffee to the central highlands of Dalat and the most common variety is Robusta. The strong, smooth and heady flavour hovers in cafes; the most European of traditions.
The spicy south is known for its heat and has an obvious French persuasion which is evident from its use of ingredients like white potatoes, asparagus and baguettes. The south is also influenced by the neighbouring Thai culture particularly with its use of spice, sugar and leafy greens. The frenetic pace translates to its curries and soups, and beef and pumpkin are more common in this region.
Starch anchors any Asian dish which is incomplete without rice or noodles. In fact the East introduced rice, noodles, and pasta into France hundreds of years ago. In Asian cuisine rice as an accompaniment plays the same role as bread does in many European dishes; however pasta and risotto are a very big part of the French diet. Rice is also used as an ingredient in drinks (choum in Vietnam), bread, vermicelli noodles, rice crackers, and rice wrappers. And enlivened with spices, herbs and aromatics the results with rice can be subtle and sophisticated.
Cambodia in particular relies heavily on its rice-growing, market gardening, fruit growth and fishing not only for its cuisine, but also for its economy. Agriculture feeds the population and lines its pockets, and although Cambodia’s per capita income is lower than most neighbouring countries, the streets of Siem Reap are lined with the wealth of food. Khmer cuisine is the term used for Cambodian food, which has a lot in common with Vietnam and as a result with French cuisine. Baguettes are often filled with pate or tinned fish, and many of the same spices also found in Vietnamese food. Another gift from the French is pate chaud, a French inspired meat-filled flaky pastry and baguettes are often dipped into stews and curries. Flans are a common dessert and often enjoyed with caramel sauce. Siem Reap hosts several authentic French restaurants reminiscent of the bistros of Montmartre in the 1950’s where imported cheese and wines, and charcuterie predominant the menu.
The French, Vietnamese and Cambodians are fearless in their approach to eating. Every part of the animal is utilised, including all the organs and the blood, and nothing is wasted. For example, undeveloped eggs are used in stir-fries, pigs’ snouts and ears are crunched on, the Cambodians deep-fry tarantulas and the heads of pig is used to make brawn.
A mini Eiffel Tower twinkles in a cafe in Ho Chi Minh, a city named after a man who among other things was a classically trained culinarian. Horns compete to be heard over each other and it’s like the city has given birth to a million horns and all the newborns are crying at once to be fed. They won’t go hungry in a country where food is as integral as its tumultuous past. In amongst the madness, much of Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s beauty is hidden and just out of reach on a fleeting visit. Seductive as huge almond eyes peering from beneath her conical hat. She lingers in the aromas and her captives are merciless under the spell of her mysterious charms.