There are a few more Vietnamese restaurants around these days. The UK had an influx of Vietnamese refugees a couple of decades ago but those folks who chose to work in the food industry seemed mostly to open fish and chip shops rather than restaurants. Now, we do have some restaurants with a focus on Vietnam and many more cafés that offer the traditional Vietnamese sandwich bánh mì and the substantial national Pho soup.
This is an ancient country with a history dating back some 4000 years. Its closest international influence has been, unsurprisingly, China, its largest and most powerful neighbour. Successive Chinese dynasties ruled Vietnam directly for most of the period from 207 BC until 938 when Vietnam gained its freedom. The independent period ended in the middle to late 19th century when Vietnam was colonised by France; and after WWII there was a bloody conflict, during which time China and the Soviet Union supported the North while the United States aided the South. The Vietnam War ended with the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
Times have been tough for Vietnam but in 1986 the Communist Party of Vietnam changed its economic policy and started reforms to allow private enterprise. Since that time Vietnam has achieved substantial economic growth and is slowly becoming a destination for culinary and cultural diversion.
Vietnamese food is considered some of the healthiest in the world, although that aforementioned sandwich (a legacy from the French occupation and stuffed with fatty paté) redresses the balance. There are different styles of cuisine reflecting availability of ingredients across the country. Northern Vietnam has a cooler climate which limits the range of local spices; the food is therefore less vibrant than that in other regions. Central Vietnam’s mountains allow for the production of many more spices and the cuisine is marked by their use. The warmer weather of the South make this the ideal region for growing fruit and vegetables as well as raising animals; this area has also had more culinary influences from China, India, France and Thailand.
Such is the love of food in this land that even its celebrated leader Ho Chi Min was a cook, in both Paris and London. Authentic Recipes from Vietnam offers an accessible overview of the dishes of that country. All the ingredients can be found in Asian food stores so there is no excuse for not trying these simple and delicious recipes. Yes, there is Pho soup but much more that will likely be new to the novice Vietnamese diner.
The classic Vietnamese Deep-fried Spring Rolls are great as a make-ahead starter for any kind of Asian meal, but also to go with drinks. The filling can be changed to suit your taste or budget but a little of the more costly ingredients goes a long way. A must-try from this book.
Vietnamese Beef Hotpot will be the dish of choice for a no-cook (for you) dinner party. There will be no complaints as your guests will be doing the cooking for themselves. This is an Asian fondue, with the meat being quickly poached in an aromatic stock. The beef is then enclosed with a variety of garnishes in a rice-paper wrapper.
There are a few interesting desserts here and a favourite is Bananas and Sago Pearls in Coconut Cream. No, it’s not like the sago pudding of old school days – this recipe uses those large beads that have a unique texture. Cooked bananas develop a flavour that is, well, more banana-y than the fresh article. A mild and striking dessert.
Authentic Recipes from Vietnam is a marvellous introduction to the remarkable food of this region of South East Asia. The dishes have hints of other cultures combining to achieve something unique and delightful. Those sandwiches might be fine in an emergency, but next time you have a chance to eat Vietnamese try some cooked delights or, even better, make an authentic meal at home.
Authentic Recipes from Vietnam
Authors: Trieu Thi Choi and Marcel Isaak
Published by: Periplus
Cookbook review by Chrissie Walker © 2018