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The Food of Vietnam

One of the top five reasons for Vietnam's popularity with travelers is the food. Street food, to be exact.

You can find cheap, tasty, and flavorful food on every street, every corner, and especially every alley in every city in Vietnam. Rice and noodles are aplenty here. The most well-known ones are phở, hủ tiếu, mì, and bún. For rice, there's white rice, black rice, brown rice, purple/red rice, broken rice, sweet rice, and sticky rice. There may be more that I haven't seen, don't remember, or don't know about. Each dish has its distinct flavors, even if the ingredients are similar. One unique feature of street food is each vendor often sells only one or two special dishes. They claim to have some secret ingredients or ways to prepare their distinguished dish and are very proud of it. Today, with the help of reviews, you can easily find the most popular dishes amongst travelers. Although, while in Da Lat, I'd walked down a few alleys, unsuccessfully looking for a place that supposedly had the best dish called Bún Riêu, a vermicelli noodle soup with crab meatballs and pork knuckle slices.

Most people usually eat breakfast on the street because it's convenient and quick. Many people pull up on their motorcycles to eat a hearty meal in preparation for a long and physical work day. Many stop to take it with them. Anything can be and is sold at breakfast, although bánh mì or baguette, phở, hủ tiếu, mì, bún, and bánh ướt are some popular items. I wasn't aware of a dish called Bánh Mì Chảo (Skillet) until I arrived. It's consisted of beef, sometimes sausage, over easy eggs, and phô mai or cheese (the Laughing Cow spread cheese is very popular) made in a skillet and served with a baguette. I see it everywhere in the morning. It seems to be very popular with the younger crowd. My favorite thing to eat for breakfast is a cold cut bánh mì. Since being here, I seem to have forgotten about my gluten intolerance and have had it quite often. I haven't yet tried Bánh Mì Chảo, but it's on my list to try at some point in time.

Besides phở, the bánh mì is another worldwide recognized Vietnamese food. It's a sandwich made with a light and crispy baguette, filled with your choice of meats (shredded chicken, roast pork, cold cuts, or a combination of a few different types of meat) and layered on top of a thin spread of pâté and mayo, topped with pickled carrots and radishes, slices of cucumber, jalapeno, and cilantro. It's French-influenced and has a robust flavor and texture. Taking one bite of a bánh mì is like entering food heaven, where all your senses are awakened, and you feel like all is well in the world. If you have had a bánh mì, I apologize for inciting a hunger, which you may or may not be able to satisfy at this very moment. If you haven't, my wish is that you will be able to enjoy one someday, very soon.

My father got a job at Saigon's most extensive US military Post Exchange (PX) when I was five. His job was to help military personnel and civilians working for the American government carry American goods to their vehicles. Because of this job, our living standards improved significantly. My older siblings and I were given a school allowance. I used to get a bánh mì either at breakfast, before school, or for a hearty snack after school, just right before I walked or biked home. Therefore, bánh mì has been, is, and will always be a nostalgic food for me. Every time I eat it.

Other snack foods worth mentioning are xôi or sticky rice and bánh. It is served both ways: savory and sweet. The sweet kind is usually mixed with nuts or beans, very colorful, and usually comes with fresh shredded young coconut or coconut cream. The dishes are a feast for the eyes and delicious to eat. Bánh, loosely translated to cakes, is usually made from rice or tapioca flour. You can also have them as a meal, breakfast, or dessert. I love to bánh. There's bánh ít, bánh khoai mì, bánh tôm chiên, bánh bao, bánh ướt, bánh canh, and my two favorites are French-influenced savory pâté chaud, a yummy puff pastry filled with ground pork and bánh xèo, a crepe-like dish filled with shrimp and pork, onion, bean sprouts, and mung beans. Although it is a bánh, it is to be eaten as a wrap dish (a Lee Giacalone's made-up word:).

Because I get filled up with the bánh mì for breakfast, I have only eaten a few lunches. My favorite dish for lunch is Cơm Tấm Bì, Xường, Chả, or Broken Rice with aromatic char-grilled pork chops, shredded pork skin, and pork and egg cake. It comes with a side salad of green leaf lettuce, a few slices of cucumber and tomato, nước mấm/chấm, or a dressing made with fish sauce, vinegar or lime, sugar, garlic, and chili, and garnished with pickled carrots and daikon. As if that wasn't enough, another unique ingredient served with Cơm Tấm is the "mỡ hành," or hot oil and chives, poured on top of the pork chops and rice. This further enhances the already salivating flavor of the dish. Luckily, I can and have made cơm tấm at home.

One day, I came across a restaurant in Saigon's Landmark 81 area that serves modern Vietnamese food, so I had to try it. I only had a simple salad with two chicken skewers, but it was terrific. I enjoyed the marinade in the chicken (similar to teriyaki with garlic added), and the dressing had a blended flavor of East and West to me.

Dinner was very simple and often consisted of a main dish, usually seafood because of its abundance and availability, a vegetable side dish, and a simple soup. If the soup is a combination of protein and vegetables like Canh Chua, a sweet and sour soup with fish or shrimp, it is often accompanied by just another dish like Cá Kho Tộ, braised fish in a clay pot. This is what I remember from my experience growing up. Of course, there are no set-in-stone rules, and each family's economic condition also determines what (more costly protein-rich vs. lots of veggies, all can be grown at home) to serve and how many dishes one can have for dinner. I feel that Vietnamese food represents more about the resourcefulness and creativity of the people. Whatever they lack, due to hardship from natural disasters, war, or the inability to obtain, they make up with flavor, texture, and the use of abundant natural resources. I've heard stories of how a devastating typhoon wiped out my paternal grandfather's entire village and how he and his brother were the only two survivors. They lived on fish and produce from a farm nearby for months before passing by river merchants found them. I imagine a movie scene where they were cooking fish on a stick over a fire, made from dead leaves and broken tree branches and ignited by rocks when they heard footsteps and saw people coming towards them. Francis Ford Coppola, are you in need of a new movie project:)

My all-time favorite Vietnamese food is any dish that can be wrapped. The meat, fish, or shrimp usually come grilled. Two sides that accompany the protein are white noodles and rice paper. These dishes are served with a platter full of greens: green leaf lettuce, all kinds of herbs, cucumbers, and bean sprouts. Back home, John and I usually have this in the evening due to our low carb, high protein diet. My three go-to herbs are mint, cilantro, and Thai basil since they are easy to find. Surprisingly, the Denver area has a large Vietnamese population, and I can now find more exotic ones like Tía Tô/Perilla, Kinh Giới/Vietnamese balm, and Dấp Cá/Fish mint at most Vietnamese markets. Except for spring rolls, where the protein (shrimp and pork) is boiled, and the sauce is made of hoisin or plum sauce, the rest of the wrap dishes are usually served with Nước Mấm.

Certain dishes also etch themselves into my memories, even though we ate them because of my family's hardship. They, too, have become some of my favorites. One of them is canned sardines with thin slices of onion, vinegar, salt, and peppers. The other is scrambled eggs mixed with scallion, fish sauce, a little black pepper, and sugar. I tend to crave them on rainy days. I guess they are my comfort foods since I had them in uncertain times during the war when my parents had to work very hard to provide for us.

Similar to many other cultures, Vietnamese food is more than just sustenance. For many, it's about security and comfort. It's about connection. It brings people together. It's a love language. It says, "I love you." Many people grew up in cultures where they were not raised with PDA, nor taught to express their love verbally. They do those things in the most caring and loving way they know. They do it with food.

I'm in my 5th week in Vietnam, and this morning I arrived in a new town, Hoi An. It's a coastal city in the central region. I don't know much about food in this area, so I decided to do a walking food tour, my first, for tomorrow morning. With what I am going to learn here and the many more food categories that I haven't touched on, such as vegetarian food, đồ nhậu or beer food, and chè or dessert puddings, I see more thoughts on food in future posts.

Until then…

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