Vietnam has been influenced by many cultures, some nearby and some from very far away. Although the country is narrow, there are delectable specialties that are unique to different regions of this small country.
Thanks to the long history of Vietnam, the country’s food has developed into a unique cuisine that is known the world over.
The country’s geography is the first element of its history which has influenced its food.
Residents proudly say that the country resembles two large rice baskets separated by a carrying pole, with the Red River Delta supplying rice to the northern ‘basket’ and the Mekong Delta supplies the narrow central strip and the southern ‘basket’ where it is located.
The Mekong Delta is famous worldwide for its fertile soil and ability to grow practically any fruit or vegetable known to man. Together, these two deltas produce more rice than any other country, making it the number one exporter of rice despite its size – between 3 and 4 million tons of rice are exported each year. This surge in rice production has occurred since 1981, when the country underwent major economic changes which included new farming practices and new laws which governed how individuals were allowed to farm rice.
It’s no wonder, then, that rice is a major part of a Vietnamese diet. It is served at all meals and is even used in desserts.
Second, the history of colonization has greatly influenced Vietnamese food.
Once, Vietnam was a Chinese colony. Besides affecting the religious and cultural aspects of Vietnam, this also influenced the food. The use of chopsticks and cooking with a wok are direct references to Chinese practices that are still practiced in Vietnam today.
Again, geography plays in here. Because northern Vietnam borders China, there are still influences from China, such as the use of soy sauce. In southern Vietnam, fish sauce and nuoc mam are more common dipping sauces.
From 1859 to 1945, Vietnam was a French colony. The presence of French colonies in Vietnam had an unquestionable effect on the food. For example, it is said that French soldiers once slaughtered cows in order to satisfy their desire for meat, and locals collected the leftover meat and bones and made a soup out of them. This soup became the country’s most famous dish: pho.
The French brought baguettes to the Vietnamese, who quickly began making their own with rice flour. Vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions are all Western products that made their way to Vietnam via the French people. They also introduced several cooking methods that are still used in Vietnamese cooking. For example, butter and wine are common cooking ingredients for Vietnamese food just as they are in French food.
Later practices – those of royalty – affected the food as well. Nobles liked to have multiple plates before them at meals, signifying a large feast. Therefore, especially in the central region near the ancient capital, you are likely to be served food in many small dishes rather than one large plate.