Like a moth to a flame, the sights and sounds of chả giò (fried spring roll) bubbling in a pot of hot oil are utterly mesmerizing. The aroma alone immediately transports me back to summers in the Florida heat when I was a child, watching my Grandma Nguyen cooking chả giò by the hundreds for my family. With a crispy exterior, the savory and hot filling cooled down perfectly when dunked into cold nước mắm (fish sauce). I remember Grandma swatting us away like flies, as we were eager to keep eating faster than she could cook.
Like many other countries, Vietnamese culture revolves around making sure you’ve eaten well before carrying on with the day. And not unlike many other Asian countries, eating rice is intrinsically part of what makes us Vietnamese. It’s not uncommon to hear ngồi xuống ăn cơm when gathered with close Vietnamese friends and family. This phrase, said before sharing a meal (similar to bon appétit or mangia in other cultures), literally translates to “sit down to eat rice.” Since I was a kid, I don’t think more than one day has passed that I haven’t eaten rice in some shape or form!
Vietnamese food has gained popularity over the years in the United States, especially after the influx of immigrants following the Vietnam War. Many people say phở (noodle soup) and bánh mì (baguette sandwich) are their favorites, but lemongrass dishes and bánh xèo (savory crepes) are quickly becoming top choices.
Phở, bánh mì and bánh xèo are three shining examples of the heavy French influence in many Vietnamese dishes. After years of French occupation in Vietnam, it’s only natural some techniques and ingredients would transfer to Vietnamese cuisine. Phở’s name is thought to be the loose French translation of “pot-au-feu,” meaning “pot on fire,” a rich and aromatic soup that simmers for hours over a fire. Bánh mì are traditionally made with baguettes incorporating fresh mayonnaise and homemade pâté. Bánh xèo draws inspiration from the way crepes are made to create a thin, crisp vessel for savory fillings.
Vietnamese immigrants aren’t alone in the evolution and adaptation of their recipes due to ingredient availability and palate preferences. Chả giò is a great example. Traditionally made with rice paper, it yields a crisp yet delicate roll once fried. However, over the years, sturdier and less brittle wheat-based wrappers were developed, making it easier to roll endless amounts of chả giò.
Almost all Vietnamese dishes are served with a large side plate filled to the brim with fresh green herbs and vegetables. The standard phở accompaniments include sliced green onions, thinly sliced white onions, chopped cilantro (or the herb culantro, if available), lime wedges, bean sprouts, Thai basil and sliced jalapeño peppers. Additional condiments include fish sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce and Sriracha sauce.
Many of the same condiments are commonly used as ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine as well. Five-spice powder (particularly cinnamon and star anise), turmeric, garlic and ginger also are used in many Vietnamese dishes. Vietnamese people enjoy fish sauce, a fermented condiment that adds umami and a slight tang to dishes; it is eaten “raw” (meaning sprinkled on food) or cooked into a dish to create a greater depth of flavor. Fish sauce newbies should use care — it is very salty, and a little goes a long way.
What amazes me and makes me fall in love with Vietnamese food over and over again is its versatility. Virtually every Vietnamese dish is customizable, depending on which herbs, spices and condiments are added. Yes, there may be ingredients that are more traditional, but you can adapt to the ingredients available in your area and accommodate flavor preferences.
Growing up in a culturally diverse household was normal to me but, at times, made me feel like an outsider among American classmates. However, I am grateful for the rich Vietnamese traditions my Grandma Nguyen and my dad instilled in my brothers and me. The food memories alone are priceless and have been passed on through many bowls of phở and chả giò shared with family and friends. The recipes in this issue of Food & Nutrition are fantastic tributes to the taste and variety of flavors of Vietnam. Enjoy and let’s Ngồi xuống ăn cơm!