Vietnamese cuisine offers brilliant blend of sweet, sour
April 12 2018 11:37 PM
SALTY: Seafood Pho has influence of French colonisation of Vietnam. Photo by the author

Being a chef and a food lover, I like to try variety of cuisines and explore newer dishes. Recently, I tried the Lobster Pho at one of the restaurants in Las Vegas and it was simply too good to miss. ‘Pho’ is a Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles called Banh pho, fresh herbs, meat and primarily made with beef and chicken. The best part about Vietnamese food is the fresh ingredients and Pungent fish sauce in just about every dish.
To really understand the flavours of Vietnam’s it is important to understand the geography of the country. It is an elongated ‘S’ shape, about the size of Italy, with Hanoi to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east. The 3,000 kilometres coastline snakes down marked by Hanoi in the north, the rigged central highlands, the sprawling Hoi Chi Minh city (aka Saigon) in the south, and the fertile Mekong Delta, the rice bowl of the country at the bottom end.
The food from the north is heavily influenced by China with its stir fries and noodle based soups. As you move towards the south there is more flavours blending with nearby Thailand and Cambodia. The tropical climate down outs also sustains more rice paddies, coconut groves, jackfruit trees and herb gardens. The food in southern Vietnam is typically sweeter, sweeter broths or pho, more palm sugar used in savoury dishes, and those popular toffee like coconut candies made with coconut cream. Despite the varied landscape of Vietnam, all of the cuisine contains this brilliant balance of aromatics, heat, sweetness, sourness and fish flavour. As with other Asian cuisines, it is all about the yin and yang, the sweet and salty, the cooling and the warming, the fresh and the fermented. 
Rice and fish are two universal themes when you travel across the length and breath of the country. Vietnam is the second largest rice exporter in the world after Thailand. Rice is grown all over the country, most bountifully in the south part enough to feed the country and to export. Rice is consumed at breakfast, lunch, dinner and even at dessert. Also there are plenty of dishes made with rice like, rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, rice porridge, sticky rice, fried rice, sticky rice, fried rice, and puffed rice snacks. One Vietnamese local told me that instead of saying God bless in response to a sneeze, they say ‘com muoi’ meaning rice and salt, so that they are ailed from whatever’s ailing them.
The best part about the Vietnamese food that I like is the use of fresh ingredients and is crucial about the food being made. Some of the common ingredients and herbs used abundantly in the cuisine are cilantro, mint, basil, chives, lime leaves, lemon grass, green onions, scallions, garlic, dill, ginger, galangal, cinnamon, tamarind pulp, turmeric.
Vietnamese food has French influence due to its colonisation from 18th century to 1954. It has a lasting effect on the country, the people, the architecture, the land and the flavours. One significant one is ‘banh mi’ sandwich with its crusty French baguette as the foundation. The filing is grilled sardines, cilantro, chili spiked pickled carrots and other filings. 
Pho is another example of French colonialism leaving its mark, the soup is a blend of Vietnamese rice noodles and fresh minded meat broths. The story relates that French colonists slaughtered a bunch of cattle in Vietnam to satisfy their appetite for steak, and the ever resourceful Vietnamese cooks used the scraps, bones and other bits and pieces to make Pho. The essence of Vietnamese cuisine is in the broth, if the broth is not good the dish is not considered complete.
Fish sauce delivers the salt in the food. Salty, fermented fish sauce is used in marinades, soup broths, salad dressings, spring roll dips and its really hard to think of a dish where its not used. The national condiment is made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, chili and garlic. Anchovy fish is used to make ultimate fish sauce. The island near the Cambodian border is rich in seaweed and plankton, which yields the best anchovies. The right fish sauce has to be ‘pungent’.

Seafood Pho

For broth
Onion 1 no
Ginger 2 inch cube
Apple 1 no
Celery stalk 2 no
Carrot 1 no
Cabbage leaves 250 gm
Star anise 2 no
Cinnamon stick 1 no
Fennel seeds 1 tsp
Coriander seeds 1 tsp
Water 2.5 lt
Sea salt 1 tsp
Dried shrimp 3 tbsp
Shrimps (16-21unpeeled) 300 gm
Fish sauce 2 tbsp
Sugar 1 tsp

For Bowls
Flat rice noodles 300 gm
Shrimps cooked from the broth
Fish fillet 300 gm
Green onion 2 stalks
Cilantro, chopped 3 tbsp
Ginger, chopped 1 tsp
Chili sauce 1 tbsp

Char the ginger and onion on a stove or outdoor barbecue grill. Remove from heat and allow to cool down.
Remove the ginger and onion skin wash and keep aside
Heat a heavy bottom stock pot and add star anise, cinnamon, fennel and coriander seeds and toast the spice to make them fragrant
Add water and add chopped ginger, onion, carrots, celery, apple, cabbage, dried shrimps and bring to boil 
Scum the froth and reduce the heat to low and simmer, add shrimp peels and keep the shrimp aside
Simmer the broth for 1 hour, but at 50 minute mark add the shrimp and fish and cook them till shrimps just curl up
Remove the shrimps  and fish and keep aside, allow the broth to rest and strain through a muslin cloth
Season the broth with fish sauce, salt and sugar and keep aside
While the stock is simmering, soak the dried noodle in warm water to make them soft and opaque 
Drain and blanch noodle in the strainer for 1-2 minutes, divide equally in 4 bowls
Add the shrimp and fish into the broth and simmer again for 2-3 minutes
Meanwhile add the cilantro, spring onion, fine sliced ginger into each soup bowl
Pour the broth with shrimp and fish and serve hot

* Chef Tarun Kapoor,  
Culinary Mastermind,  USA. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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